How To Wash Your Car At A Self Service Car Wash

People wash their car wrong all the time, and it's began frustrating me. So I thought I'd set the record straight.

2y ago

The 21st century brought about a bunch of things which we weren't expecting. Things like the iPhone, the 300mph hyper car, quinoa, a healthy McDonalds menu and self service car washes. Here's the thing about the last point of evolution. Self service car washes without proper instruction are a gimmick. They ruin your paintwork and they have even more potential to ruin your car. But you're lucky, because today? I'm here to help. I'm going to step you through what my detailing department believes is the best and safest way to use a self service car wash.

What sort of self service should I use?

Good question, most car washes have two ways you can wash your car. Either with an automated laser wash or a manual high pressure hose system. Ironically the manual way is much cheaper and more thorough. But, and here's a big but, if your car is within the first six months of its lifetime? A thorough wash may be doing more damage to its clear coat than good.

So car owners, who are in that first 6 months of ownership, should grab some simple wheel cleaning product and spray it on the wheels prior to driving through an automatic laser wash. Next, use a moist chamois or micro fiber cloth to dry once completed. I think you'll find this is more than sufficient enough for a new car. If your car is older? Take it through the manual wash. See tips below.

The pre-soaping feature exists for a reason

I see so many people skipping different features depending on what sort of self service car wash they're using. Serial offenders will always skip the engine/wheel wash feature and the pre-soap feature. I tend to believe this is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in a self serve car wash. You cannot always blast dirt or grime off your car with a high pressure hose.

This is because if you've had your car for a fair amount of time it's highly likely that the clear coat is slowly starting to become more textured then totally smooth. Because of this dry dirt has more of an opportunity to cling on to your paint work. As such you should always first spray the wheel wash solution on your wheels, and then pre-soap the entire car. You won't have to wait for the soap to sink in, it doesn't need a massive amount of time to lubricate all of that grime.

If you really want to be pedantic (like I am) spray a wheel cleaning solution on your wheels prior to driving the car into the wash, this gives a much much better end effect.

Never ever use a foaming brush on the entire car

The foaming brush is my worst enemy in a self service car wash. I found this out the hard way with the first car I ever owned. It was a beautifully kept 90s BMW 5 series. When I started washing that car in self service I found scratches began to appear on the paintwork. After talking to a mobile detailer about this, he was quick to let me know that the foaming brush actually impacts on the clear coat.

Now just in case none of you know what a clear coat is, essentially your car is painted in 4 steps. There's an under coat, two top coats and a clear coat to finish. The clear coat protects your car from water, grime, sand, salt and all other environmental factors it may encounter. When you scratch that clear coat there is a high chance you can damage those top coats and under coat which sits as the main paint coats on your car.

With that in mind though, the foaming brush is still there for a reason. It is used much more effectively to scrub wheels, windows, mirrors and lights. Wheels especially tend to be ridiculously dirty, so the brush is good to scrub that grime out.

Always rinse before moving onto wax and clear coat

Soap doesn't chemically react well with the solutions used to maintain your clear coat or the high pressure wax most car washes use. You need to rinse it off first, that's why the car wash puts the rinse feature after the foaming brush in the order of their features. You should always rinse between your wash and paint maintenance.

The clear coat

A brand new clear coat when you look at it under a microscope looks almost totally smooth. After a couple of months it starts to develop bumps and texture (which is what I was referring to above). Bare with me on this point, because every self service car wash calls clear coat maintenance something different. But there should be a separate little device in each car wash that spits out a coloured foam. For some this foam is rainbow coloured, some it's blue, some it's green. This is an absolute must when washing your car. What that foam does is provide filling points for your clear coat. It makes your clear coat smoother. This is why once you've rinsed the foam off your car you'll notice that water starts running off the car quite easily.

Wax also helps the clear coat

The high pressure wax feature most car washes have acts as a very rough but still effective manual wax. It's as if you yourself was bit by bit waxing and polishing the car with dry wax. You should always do this as once again it helps maintain the clear coat on your car. Once you've rinsed the wax and clear coat foam off your car should have a bit of a sparkle about it. Something it didn't have before.

The jury is out on the spot-free rinse

It's hard, some detailers claim this helps you identify trouble spots on the car that may need more work. Others recommend you don't use it at all because you want the car to dry with as little water marks as possible. I personally have been using this low pressure water rinse only because of the next point I'm going to make (and I'm really pedantic).

Don't think it ends once you drive out of the car wash

If you leave your car to dry on it's own you'll notice it's still shiny, but normally you can see dirt marks here and there.

It is both mine and my detailers solid opinions that you should always, always chamois or wipe your car dry with a micro fiber cloth. It's almost like your last line of defense. It may take a bit of extra effort but it's going to help make your car look better than a show car. Trust me, the chamois is king.

One more thing

You ever walk away from your car and think "why doesn't it look quite as good as when I drove it out of the showroom?". Well my friend, I'm going to share with you a super secret tip which you will be shocked by. Two words - wheel oil. If you pick up a bottle of this stuff from your local auto parts store it will be the best investment you've ever made. Use a brush and paint it on like you would paint a wall. It will make your car look perfect in every way. You'll have all your mates totally surprised at how your car looks that good.

So there you have it. Keeping your car looking as good as possible while spending the minimal amount of money. Bar everything else I do recommend you get a professional detailer to clay bar and wax your car 2 years after purchase and then once every year and a half after that. They aren't all that expensive. If you really want to keep your car in condition? After about 8 years you should consider getting the clear coat re-sprayed. That clear coat is integral to fighting rust later in the car's life. But in the meantime, keeping it clean with the tips above should actually prolong the cars paint life overall. Keep it clean kids.

Join In

Comments (28)

  • I clear coated my car, cleaning is so much easier now. I dont use the foam brush either, i just use a sponge

      2 years ago
  • I've been rinsing with the wax for 20+ years. Never, ever had paint issues or any other problems. Saves money, too.

      2 years ago
    • Don’t know if I understand totally correctly Biff? But i mean whatever works for you.

        2 years ago
    • What I mean is, at the coin-op car washes, I always just go from soap straight to the high pressure spray wax. I don't bother with the "rinse" setting. It's redundant if you're going to spray wax on the car anyway. It has never posed a problem,...

      Read more
        2 years ago
  • Great read Marcus! Right, there's quite a few handy tips here that I could use on my next trip to the wash.

      2 years ago
    • Thanks Matthew. It can sometimes be the case of trial and error without someone who knows what their doing! Hope your ride has a little sparkle about it on your next trip home!

        2 years ago
    • My biggest issue was using the foaming brush wrong but since my car is white, you can't see the marks in the paint all that much. Thanks mate!

        2 years ago
  • I'm looking for a Hygiene station, Deed anyone help me, please?

      7 months ago
  • My question is are you suggesting that I rub the wheel oil on the body of my car?

      8 months ago