If you take pride in the car you drive, then naturally you keep it clean. That likely means that you frequent an automatic car wash, especially if you also value your time. Ever since its invention, the automatic car wash has saved drivers time and money. And given the sophistication of today’s drive-through washes, your vehicle can be thoroughly cleaned and dressed in in short order for little more than the cost of a cup of cappuccino.
Origins of the Automatic Car Wash
You might be surprised to know that the first “automatic” car wash was developed all the way back in the early twentieth century. The “Automated Laundry” was a business started by a couple of guys in Detroit in 1914. While it was not exactly automated (a car was still washed by hand), it did feature an assembly line of attendants lined up inside a tunnel, each with a different responsibility – soap, rinse, dry, and so on – as a car was pushed through manually.
By the time the fifties rolled around, automated processes were popping up in car washes. In 1951, the first fully-automated “hands-free” wash was born. Since that time, car washes have seen many advances and have become quite elaborate.
If you are new to car ownership, or you have questions about an automatic car wash, you might wonder, “How does an automatic car wash work?” Let’s take a look.
Types of Automatic Car Washes
There are basically two styles of automated washes: roll-over and conveyor washes. With the roll-over style, you drive into a bay and remain stationary while the wash equipment moves past your vehicle. These washes are common at gas stations and are usually self-serve. The other style, the one most drivers are familiar with, is a long tunnel where your car is moved along on a conveyor past a series of synchronized machines.
There are also two different methods of cleaning a car in an automatic car wash. When you think of a car wash, you might envision spinning soapy hula skirts and dangling tentacles brushing past you. That method of cleaning relies on soft materials to gently wipe away dirt and grime from your car. This soft-cloth car wash is extremely popular and effective. Old-school “brushes” found in car washes of the past have been replaced by softer materials, making the process far less aggressive and abrasive than it once was.
The other method employed in some car washes is the “touchless” wash that relies on high-pressure water jets and strong detergents to blast the dirt off of the car. This method avoids physical contact with the vehicle but may leave some areas unclean because it does not wipe any surfaces. And the chemicals can be a bit harsh.
Whether you drive through or drive in, and whether the car wash uses high-pressure jets or soft-cloth friction, the overall process is similar. For sake of discussion, let’s take a look through the tunnel of a soft-cloth automatic car wash. Not all systems are the same, but you will get the main idea.
Operation of an Automatic Car Wash
Once you pay the outside attendant for the specific features you want in your wash (a basic wash or one with extra services like underbody treatment, wheel cleaning, and paint sealant application) you drive into the car wash and line up your tires with the conveyor track. Once inside the door, you shift your transmission to neutral and let go of the wheel and the conveyor engages either your left front or left rear wheel. Once your car is in motion, it will pass through an infrared beam that, when interrupted, signals a computer control panel to turn on the system. It also measures the length of your vehicle and adjusts accordingly.
The first step in the wash cycle is the pre-soak. You travel through a metal arch fitted with several small nozzles that spray a cleaning solution on your car to pre-wet the surface and begin loosening up the dirt.
Tire solution and wheel cleaner such as Armor All Wheel Cleaner ® may also be applied at this point in order to clean the rubber on your tires and remove the black soot-like brake dust from your wheels. These are often optional features.
Your car then travels through a series of long strips of soft cloth hanging from a metal frame moving back and forth. This is the mitter curtain and it is designed to gently wipe away contaminants from the horizontal surfaces of your car: the hood, roof, and decklid (trunk lid).
Next, you pass through the foam applicator. This is where a chemical cleaner is sprayed on your car through a series of nozzles. The aerated cleaner is often colored to make it more visually appealing and apparent. For an additional charge, you can have sealants such as Rain-X Complete Surface Protectant to your vehicle’s paint.
Next up, the scrubbers. These large, vertical cylinders covered with hundreds of small cloth strips rotate rapidly at ninety revolutions per minute or more. Two to four scrubbers are used to clean the sides of your car once the pre-soak has loosened up the dirt. Additional wrap-around models might also be present to clean the front and rear vertical surfaces.
Once the mitter curtain and scrubbers have wiped away the loose dirt, high-pressure nozzles – rotating water jets – rinse your car off with as much as 1000 pounds per square inch of pressure. In order to accommodate the hundreds of gallons necessary for this process, a high-pressure tank stores water. The water is usually recaptured and recycled back to the tank after use.
While the outside of your car is being washed, the underside might also be treated. Another optional service in many car washes is the undercarriage wash applicator. These jets are positioned on the ground and blast water upward to wash mud and salt from the bottom of your car.
With the car washed and scrubbed, the next step is the rinse arch. Nozzles in this metal frame spray clean water to remove any residue that remains after the high-pressure stage. Actually, there are up to three rinse arches: one after the pre-soak and mitter curtain, one after the high-pressure washer and undercarriage wash applicator, and one (the final rinse) just before the dryer.
Somewhere between the first set of mitter curtains and scrubbers, there is another set of each. These work in tandem with specialty products delivered by a wax arch that delivers either liquid wax through a set of nozzles, or triple foam wax through a foam applicator. The wax (different than the wax you might apply to the paint yourself and compatible with glass, plastic, and other surfaces) bonds with the outside of your car and helps to provide a waterproof barrier for several days.
Finally, once your car has been pre-soaked, scrubbed, washed, waxed, and scrubbed some more – and final rinsed – it travels through the dryer. The giant nozzles of the dryer force warm air across the surface of the vehicle to remove most of the water. Attendants with hand towels might also finish the job.
How long does an automatic car wash take for all these tasks? About three minutes – much faster than any other wash method. And, because of modern soft-cloth materials (or, alternately, “touchless” equipment), an automatic car wash works without damaging your vehicle.
If you want to keep your car in tip-top shape, you will need to clean it regularly – frequently. The simplest and best way to accomplish such a feat as often as necessary is to drive on through an automatic car wash.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright January 2020
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