There is no doubt that if you keep your car looking new, you will preserve its value and lengthen its lifespan. Cars are capable of lasting longer than ever before. In fact, the average age for a vehicle on the road today is nearly twelve years. That means there are a lot of cars, trucks, and SUVs on the street with a hundred and fifty thousand miles or more.
Of course, if you do not treat it right, your ride might not make it nearly so far. Attention to routine maintenance services, such as oil and filter changes, tire rotation, and brake pad replacement, is essential to getting the most miles from your car. But so is a wash and wax.
There is also no doubt that having your car hand-washed by a professional is the surest way to keep it clean. But sometimes you need a quicker solution. That is where a drive-through, automatic car wash comes in handy.
But is an automatic car wash good for your car? Does an automatic car wash do a good job of cleaning my car? And how often should you get your car washed?
Let’s take a look at the answers to these and other frequently-asked car wash questions.
How often should I get my car washed?
Sometimes it is obvious when it is time for a car wash. “Wash me” scrawled in the mud is a good sign. And if you cannot tell what color your car is supposed to be anymore, it is probably time for a wash.
But waiting until your car really needs a bath is not a recipe for extended vehicle life. It is better to look at the service as a routine rather than a “when it looks like it needs it” afterthought. For most, a car wash every two weeks or so throughout the year is a good baseline. More frequently in harsh conditions where a lot of mud or salt contaminate the vehicle. An underbody wash is not necessary every time you drive through, but an occasional blast of the underside of your car is a good idea to loosen up material that would trap corrosive compounds and clog drain holes.
Is an automatic car wash safe for my car?
Naturally, the reason for getting your car washed in the first place is to remove dirt, debris, and other contaminants that can harm your vehicle. If left untreated, those contaminants can cause corrosion to the metal (rust) and damage to your paint. So it is vital to have those contaminants removed. In a perfect world, a professional using specialized products would clean your car for you – by hand. But an imperfect world makes it necessary to have an alternative.
The truth is, dirt is abrasive and will scratch the clear coat on your car. Some argue that an automatic car wash will do the same. But damage can be far worse if that dirt is left on your car and gets smeared around. Especially if it is dry. Mud and road tar can also trap moisture that leads to corrosion. And, of course, salt and other corrosive compounds can cause rust. Bird droppings, bug splatter, and acid rain can eat into your paint finish if not removed quickly. It is far better to have your car washed regularly than to simply leave it alone and let it deteriorate.
In a busy world, professional hand-washing is not always an option. So, a quality automatic car wash is your best bet for keeping your car clean and corrosion-free on a regular basis.
Will an automatic car wash remove contaminants like egg, bugs, tar, and sap?
If you clean your car regularly, the likelihood of any of these contaminants causing damage to your paint is decreased. An automatic car wash might not remove all of the tar and sap – those compounds usually require special materials to be removed. But you can often have them addressed for an additional charge. The sooner you clean messes like egg and bug splatter, the less likely they will dig in and harm the finish. An automatic car wash will attend to the majority of the impurities on your car.
What vehicles can go through an automatic car wash?
Most cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs up to eighty-four inches tall and with at least four inches of ground clearance can go through an automatic car wash. All factory-installed equipment is usually guaranteed against damage, although some aftermarket accessories may not be. Pickup trucks can go through an automatic wash, but the bed should be emptied first. Some large side mirrors are not compatible. Same goes for dual-wheeled trucks, and some with oversized tires and lifted suspensions. Still, most passenger vehicles can go through an automatic car wash – even convertibles (if the top is up and secured).
Can I drive a freshly-painted car through the car wash?
Suppose you recently received your car back from the body shop after repairs. Is it okay to go through the car wash with new paint? Well, yes and no. Yes, an aftermarket paint job or repair can stand up to an automatic car wash just like the original OEM paint job can. But no, not right away. The clearcoat paint finish requires time to fully cure – usually thirty days or more. During that time, it is unwise to drive through an automatic car wash or to apply any type of wax coating that would prevent the paint from “breathing” while it cures.
Check with your body shop for the specific amount of time recommended before washing or waxing. Note: this does not apply to brand new cars painted by the manufacturer. That paint is “cured” before it leaves the factory.
Is a touchless wash better than soft-cloth wash?
Some people argue that an automatic car wash might be bad for your car because it can brush dirt against the paint. They suggest that a “touchless” automatic wash would be better. But is it?
Not necessarily. Soft-cloth car washes employ softer, lighter materials than the drive-through washes of old that tended to abrade painted surfaces. And a quality soft-cloth wash cleans without all of the harsh chemicals used in a “touchless” car wash. The gentle cleaning action of a soft-cloth wash loosens and removes contaminants that strong chemicals and high-pressure spray will not.
Isn’t it better if I wash my car myself?
If hand-washing is the best option for your car, wouldn’t it stand to reason that washing your car yourself in the driveway would be better than a drive-through automatic car wash? Well, maybe not.
Hand-washing can be the most thorough and gentle process to clean your car, but not if it is done improperly. Unfortunately, DIY car washing can do more harm than good since most car owners do not have the proper cleaning materials or know-how to protect the paint from damage during a wash. Poor practices – like washing in sunlight, using dish soap, or too little water – are more of a concern than an automatic wash designed to do as little damage as possible.
Coin-operated, do-it-yourself power washes are no better. The use of a pressure washer increases the likelihood of damaging your paint or even dinging the body panels. Get too close with the wand and you could even peel the paint off your car. Never mind the mud and grime left behind in the foam brush by the last user.
Should I pay for additional services, like wax sealant and underbody washes?
The goal of routine car washing is to make sure contaminants do not build up or remain on your car. Washing every two weeks is a good goal. And an automatic car wash is a sound option to make that goal happen in today’s busy world. But what about the “extra” services at an automatic car wash? Are they really of any value?
Well, sure. It is not necessary to have your car’s undercarriage cleaned each time you drive through, but it is wise to have it done occasionally. And while underbody “rust inhibitors” in a car wash are not nearly the same as what is applied by the manufacturer, there is some benefit to repelling contaminants. Certainly, the spray-on wax sealant used in the automatic car wash is no replacement for careful wax application by hand. But it does provide short-term protection and added gloss for your paint as a supplement.
In general, the added services offered at an automatic car wash are not meant as a be-all, end-all. When used occasionally, they are a supplement to a comprehensive car care plan.
What about professional detailing?
In addition to frequent car washes, an occasional appointment with a professional detailer can help to add years of life to your car’s paint finish. Whereas washing a car serves to take away the dirt and grime that can cause damage, detailing goes a step (several steps) further.
Professional detailing presents a full complement of car care services that include anything from clay bar treatment to remove contaminants already embedded in the paint finish, machine buffing to restore luster, to a careful application of wax or sealant. Professional detailers employ many different custom-tailored products and techniques to restore your car’s paint finish to nearly like-new condition. Sometimes even better.
Of course, professional detailing is not a bi-weekly event. But in combination with regular washes, it is a (vehicle) lifesaver.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright December 2019
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