Columbia, MD Auto Repair & Car Wash


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Car Wash Frequently Asked Questions

December 26, 2019

Car Wash Frequently Asked Questions

Anyone who drives a car knows that it takes effort to keep it spick and span. After all, dirt happens all by itself; clean does not. And while some drivers certainly pay more attention to keeping their vehicles clean than do others, nevertheless, it is easy to neglect having your car washed as often as you should.

But washing your car should be a regular occurrence, like replacing your brake pads or changing your oil, only more frequent. So, in an effort to make car washing simpler, here is a list of frequently-asked car wash questions.

How often should I wash my car?

How often you wash your car could depend on where you live and where you drive. Dirt roads and salted streets might make it necessary to wash your vehicle more frequently than driving on dry ones. In general, you should aim at washing your car once a week – every other week at least – to adequately maintain the body and protect the paint.

How should I wash my car?

Professional hand washing is the best bet to keep your car in tip-top shape. But that service might not be available or convenient every week. A quality drive-through car wash can be a suitable alternative for those weeks (or locations) where professional hand washing is not feasible. Every so often, you might also consider professional auto detailing for more advanced care.

What types of vehicles can go through a car wash?
Most cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs up to 84 inches high and with 4 inches of ground clearance can go through an automatic car wash. Any factory-installed equipment in working order is guaranteed against damage by most car washes.

Can I take my pickup truck through the car wash?

Yes. Your pickup truck is fine to go through the car wash if the bed is empty. It is worth noting, however, that some side mirrors are not compatible with some car washes, nor are dual-wheeled vehicles. Some modified trucks, or those with oversized tires, might not work either.

Is a car wash safe for a convertible?

Yes. Just not with the top down! Make sure the top is properly latched.

What happened to my front license plate?

If your vehicle dons a front license plate, make sure that it is supported by the manufacturer’s license plate frame. In states where front plates are required, manufacturers and dealers are also required to provide you with a license plate frame. Without that support, the spinning equipment in many automatic car washes will damage the plate. If you do not have a frame, simply remove the license plate before going through the car wash.

What about other accessories?

Aftermarket accessories, such as bug shields, may go through an automatic wash unharmed. But they are not guaranteed. Damage could occur, especially if the component was previously damaged or compromised by stress cracks around the mounting points or rock chips. A car wash will not damage a trailer hitch, but the hitch could prevent the wash equipment from working as effectively as it should around that area. Any hitch plug left in place could be damaged or come loose in the wash.

Will my antenna get damaged?

That depends on the type of antenna. Many vehicles today have no external antenna, but some (especially older) models do. When that is the case, a solid flexible antenna is fine for the wash. But hollow, telescoping antennas – whether powered or manual – are not. Make sure those are lowered before entering the car wash.

Will a car wash harm my alloy wheels?

Your alloy wheels will be just fine in an automatic car wash – as long as the business does not use acids that can stain or certain tire brushes that can scratch. Ask in advance if you are concerned about your wheels. Generally speaking though, aluminum rims are okay in a car wash.

Does it matter if my windshield is cracked?

It is always best to have a chipped windshield repaired or replaced as soon as possible. But a vehicle with a chipped or cracked windshield can go through an automatic car wash. Understand, however, that while it might be okay to drive through, changes in temperature can cause a chip or crack to expand. Your windshield might not look the same on the way out as when it went in.

What is the difference between a soft-cloth and a touchless wash?

Automatic car washes employ different types of technology to clean your car, and there are debates about the pluses and minuses of each type. Soft-cloth car washes use spinning cloth bristles and gentle friction to remove dirt and debris from the surface of your car. These cloths are far better than the abrasive brushes of older car washes that tended to scratch the paint. Touch-free car washes do not come in contact with your car at all, but rather rely on high-pressure blasts of water and strong chemicals. Some argue that touch-free washes take longer and are not as effective as a soft-cloth wash, especially on extremely dirty vehicles.

As a general rule of thumb, you should consider washing your car at least once every other week. More frequently if road conditions make for a mess. At least that is true if you are interested in protecting the investment you make in your vehicle. Dirt and other debris – not to mention caustic elements like salt, calcium chloride, and acid rain – can harm your car’s body and paint finish. Damage in the form of chips, scratches, dull paint, and rust. Keep it clean and you can expect it to look sharp and help it to last for many more miles.

As with automotive service operations, such as replacing your brake pads, changing out the brake rotors, or choosing between conventional and synthetic motor oil the next time you have your oil changed, you have choices when it comes to getting your car washed. A range of car wash options are available to you, anything from professional hand washing and detailing to doing it yourself in the driveway. But, if you are like most folks, an automatic drive-through car wash is probably the simplest option, especially when you are on the go.

So far we’ve reviewed what kinds of vehicles can go through an automatic car wash, whether your aftermarket accessories might be damaged in the wash, and differences between types of automatic car washes. For answers to other car wash concerns, read on.

Can I take my car through the wash if I just had it painted?

Maybe. Soft-cloth car washes using mild cleaning materials are safe for newly painted surfaces. But if you just had your car painted yesterday, then no. It is okay to have your car hand washed the next day, but your new paint needs to cure before you can safely take it through an automatic wash. Most body shops will recommend 30 days to allow it to cure enough for the car wash. And that paint needs to breathe a good 60 days before you can apply a coat of wax. Otherwise, it will not fully cure – a condition that can lead to paint failure in the future.

Do eggs and other contaminants come off in the wash?

When it comes to certain substances that soil your car, an automatic car wash may or may not clean up the mess. For instance, egg on your vehicle will wash off if you take care of it straight away. But egg quickly becomes corrosive and damage begins almost immediately. If you let the egg sit on the surface for any length of time, it will eat into the paint.

What about bug splatter on the front of your car? If you catch it quickly, it can be cleaned off in the car wash. There is no guarantee, however, that it will disappear completely. Many automatic car washes offer a special cleaner formulated to address bug splatter (usually at an additional cost), but it needs to be done prior to driving through. Some premium services include pretreatment, and a professional hand washing (or detailing) should include treatment as well.

With road tar and sap – two very different contaminants requiring two different cleaning methods – you should probably not count on an automatic car wash to automatically remove them. Each needs a special cleaner to be applied by hand. Most car washes will charge extra for this service. Otherwise, you can purchase products to take care of it yourself. Just remember to never use abrasive materials on your car’s paint finish!

Why does my finish look dull?

The paint finish on your car, truck, or SUV can appear dull for a number of reasons. But the main culprits when your paint lacks luster are oxidation and scratches.

Oxidation is a condition that occurs over time with exposure to the sun’s rays (and some contaminants). It creates a chalky or milky appearance that does not reflect light particularly well. That is why the paint looks dull. Minor oxidation can often be corrected by the use of rubbing compound, or a combination of sanding and compounding, to machine the finish back to a glossy surface, followed up with a sealant or wax.

Scratches are the result of a hard, sharp object that scrapes against your car’s paint surface. When auto owners think of paint scratches, they often imagine someone with a vendetta and a car key, or a child riding a tricycle too close for comfort. But those scratches, damaging as they may be, do not cause a loss of gloss.

Over time, your paint is subject to far more abuse from sand, dirt, acid rain, and other contaminants – or even poor washing techniques and equipment – that coat or pelt the finish and create microscopic scratches. Often called swirl marks, these tiny abrasions may be too small to see directly, but because they diffuse the light (rather than reflecting it evenly), they lend to a dull appearance. The only way to remove them is, again, through machine polishing.

Oxidation that is severe, or scratches that are too deep, could disqualify your paint as a candidate for machine polishing. In any case, oxidation and scratches will not come out in an automatic car wash no matter how many times you drive through.

(Note: Machine compounding should be left to a professional. Significant damage can happen to your paint if the tools and materials are used by untrained hands).

How can I protect the clearcoat?

Nearly all passenger vehicles today feature a two-stage paint finish. An opaque-colored basecoat is topped off with a hard, transparent urethane or polyurethane. So, the outer layer of the paint finish is the clear coat.

The most effective way to care for your car’s clear coat is to keep it clean and coated. That translates to frequent (and proper) washes, and regular application of a polymer sealant or quality car wax, such as Carnauba. Washing, of course, removes the contaminants that could damage the clearcoat. A polymer sealant or wax creates a clear waterproof barrier that serves to filter out UV rays and shields the paint from contaminants. It also makes water bead up and run off so that contaminants rinse easier.

Are the “extras” available at a car wash worth the price?

Whether or not additional services at an automatic car wash are “worth it” might depend on who you ask. Check with the car wash and you will probably hear that, sure, the extras are worth it. Others might say that they are simply gimmicks. So, which is it?

If you want to have the brake dust – that black soot-like coating on your wheels – removed in the car wash, the wheel cleaning service will help by applying a chemical specially formulated to dissolve brake dust. It will not hurt if you skip the service, but your wheels might not come clean without it.

Likewise, an undercarriage wash might be your only option to give the bottom of your car a bath. But you might not need the service every time you drive through.

If you are looking for a quick and cheap way to wax your car, paying extra at the automatic car wash for the “wax” or “sealant” is not the way to go about it. The products that rain down on your ride are no substitute for quality polymer sealants and waxes. On the other hand, if you are simply seeking a temporary coating to augment the wax already in place, one that will last (maybe) until your next washing, feel free to opt for the spray sealant. Again, it will not hurt if you use it, and it will not hurt if you don’t.

Can I get my interior cleaned?

Again, the answer is maybe. Okay, you can get your interior cleaned by using the coin-operated vacuum units available at many automatic car washes. Some businesses offer interior cleaning as an extra “a la carte” service that might include vacuuming and cleaning of the dashboard and glass. And naturally, a professional detailer (some car washes offer detailing services) will thoroughly clean the inside of your vehicle, including leather care, carpet shampoo, stain treatment, and more.

Why would I spend extra for professional detailing?

Far beyond a simple car washing, a professional detailer with specialized training will treat your car inside and out in ways that an automatic wash (or self-service) will not. A sample of the types of tasks a professional detailer will perform on your vehicle include:

  • Pretreatment and removal of contaminants from exterior surfaces
  • Removal of contaminants with clay bar
  • Machine buffing with compound to correct paint defects
  • Machine glazing
  • Machine and/or hand waxing
  • Wheel cleaning and polishing
  • Tire clean and shine
  • Complete exterior wash
  • Engine compartment wash and treatment
  • Interior vacuuming
  • Spot cleaning and/or carpet shampooing
  • Cleaning of dashboard and other hard surfaces
  • Leather and vinyl cleaning and conditioning
  • Cleaning of vents, under seats, etc.
  • Cleaning of door jambs
  • And more…

Can’t I just wash my car at home?

What about just washing your car yourself in the driveway? Isn’t that an inexpensive option for cleaning your car? Wouldn’t it even be possible to amass all of the tools, equipment, and specialty products used by a professional detailer and do it yourself?

Sure. But inexpensive does not mean satisfactory, thorough, or even safe for your car. Common do-it-yourself tactics like washing with dish soap, using too little water, working in direct sunlight, or other poor approaches can each cause more harm than good. So can trying to use a buffer or polisher without experience. The truth is, unless you have been properly trained, you can do damage to your paint. Same thing if you use the wrong products. And the right products (not to mention tools and equipment) can be quite costly. If you combine the lack of suitable materials with a lack of experience, the result can be far less than fulfilling.

Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright December 2019

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs, and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.


This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

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