There are some people who just do not care. A little dirt, a little grime, meh… What’s the big deal? Well, with the cost of a new car approaching forty thousand dollars, you might care to protect your vehicle. New or not-so-new, your car, truck, or SUV serves an important function in your routine and represents a sizable investment. If you want to get the most from that investment – to keep it working and looking like new for as long as possible – you need to keep it clean.
Of course, you would recognize the importance of routine vehicle maintenance, like getting your oil changed or your brake pads replaced. It is also essential to have your car washed regularly. And, just as you might choose the advanced engine protection of synthetic oil over conventional motor oil, or ceramic brake pads over less-expensive organics, you have a choice between several different car wash options.
For instance, you could choose to wash your car yourself in the driveway. Unfortunately, DIY car washing is pretty tough in the middle of winter, right when all of that slop and salt is clinging to your car. Washing your car in direct sunlight in summer is not a good idea either. Besides, improper (and common) wash techniques can actually cause more harm than good to your paint.
You could also opt for professional hand washing or detailing. This might be considered your premium option. But your vehicle really needs to be washed at least a couple of times a month to remain in tip-top shape. Scheduling professional services so frequently is prohibitive for most drivers in terms of the cost and time involved. No, you need to clean your car often. That means the service needs to be convenient and cost-effective.
Automatic Car Washes
So, that leaves you with two more possibilities, both of which are quick and convenient. Both of which will cost you less than an arm and a leg. Each is an automated – or automatic – process. Where handwashing (either DIY or professional) is quite time-consuming, an automatic car wash takes only a few minutes and is convenient enough that you can drive through as often as necessary with little impact on your already-busy schedule.
You may have heard that an automatic drive-through car wash is bad for your car. Does it scratch your paint? Does it damage your accessories? Can you take your truck through the wash tunnel? In fact, there are a lot of questions surrounding automatic car washes. The truth is, every car wash option has the potential to impact your vehicle both positively and negatively. But each seeks to do as little damage as possible while cleaning your car as thoroughly as possible.
For instance, tiny micro-scratches can result from dirt that is already on your car being wiped across the finish. Scratches can also occur if dirty sponges or cloths are used. Even certain types of towels can alter the finish.
Today, professional treatment and techniques, both manual and automatic, can mitigate the negative effects and protect your paint. Automatic car washes accomplish this in a couple of different ways and fall into two categories, two different approaches. One is called a soft-touch (or soft-cloth) car wash; the other is known as a touch-free car wash.
What is the difference? What are the pluses and minuses of a soft-touch and touch-free car wash?
Soft-Touch (Soft-Cloth) Pros
Automatic car washes have been around since the early days of the automobile and for many years employed stiff nylon bristle brushes that were hard on the paint. Soft-touch car washes feature soft closed-foam and felt cloths that gently apply friction to remove contaminants from the surface of your car. These soft-touch washes are sometimes called “brush-less” washes so as to differentiate them from the old technology.
The benefits of a soft-touch automatic car wash?
- Applies mild friction or scrubbing action to loosen contaminants that want to adhere to the surface of your car
- Lifts organic matter – bird droppings, bugs, pollen, dirt, etc. off the surface
- Removes inorganic matter such as salt, hard water spots, and road film
- Treats hard-to-reach spots around a front license plate, rocker panels, and rear of the vehicle most effectively
- Results in a more thorough cleaning of a vehicle
Of course, any friction applied to the surface of your vehicle, especially the outer clearcoat layer of your paint, has the potential to dull the shine. And any physical contact can exacerbate already-present conditions such as loose trim or severe corrosion. A reputable soft-cloth car wash works tirelessly to minimize any negative effects of friction on your paint. The downside of some soft-touch automatic car washes include the following:
- The soft cloth strips can damage loose parts or other pre-existing problems on a vehicle that is not properly maintained
- If the dirt and debris on the surface is not adequately rinsed and emulsified before the cloth strips make contact, scratches can result from the abrasive contaminants wiped across the surface
- Some types of vehicles (those with extremely oversized tires, dual wheeled trucks, and some with certain aftermarket accessories, for example) are not compatible with some drive-through soft-touch washes
- A soft-touch wash must be maintained diligently to keep the soft cloths clean. If a subpar business does not adequately maintain their equipment, the dirty cloths will have a hard time removing contaminants and can cause tiny scratches on a vehicle
In most soft-touch automatic car washes, a driver approaches the wash tunnel, selects from an array of wash service options and a la carte extras (such as Armor All ® Extreme Shine Wax), and pays an attendant before the vehicle is automatically escorted through the tunnel on a conveyor. There, the swirling brushes, dangling curtains, and rotating water jets do their thing as your car passes by. In some soft-touch washes, though, your car remains stationary while an array of automatic apparati move around your vehicle.
(Read more about how an automatic car wash works
The same goes for a touch-free automatic car wash. Your car stays in one place as a series of laser-guided devices move around your car. The biggest difference between a soft-touch and a touch-free car wash is that nothing actually comes in contact with your car in a touch-free wash other than the wash products and the water. No brushes, no cloths. The idea is that specially-formulated chemicals can emulsify contaminants on the car and the water jets can blast them off without the harmful effects of friction and abrasion.
- Your vehicle is not physically touched at all in the process, save for the cleaning agents and the water, thereby reducing the risk of damage
- Computer controlled laser sensors detect the location and shape of your vehicle in order to maximize coverage of the water jets for more effective cleaning
- Because lasers sense the specific shape of your vehicle, water volume can be targeted and reduced, resulting in minimal waste and less negative environmental impact
- Touch-free car washes may be able to wash some vehicles that are not compatible in a traditional wash tunnel – trucks with dual wheels, oversized tires, etc.
While the idea of a touch-free wash seems sound (and indeed, it certainly does eliminate direct physical contact with your vehicle), the method does have its downside:
- Without any physical scrubbing action, it is extremely difficult to emulsify and remove dirt, grease, and a host of other contaminants
- Organic and inorganic compounds on your car might not be thoroughly removed, especially if they are considerable. Touch-free washes have a reputation for failing to get a vehicle very clean
- Hard-to-reach areas – cracks and crevices – may not be treated adequately
- The computer system that controls the operation of a touch-free car wash must be maintained in order to keep the equipment functioning accurately and satisfactorily
- The chemical cleaning products must also be carefully monitored and adjusted for changes in the weather and other environmental variables
- The use of harsh chemicals in place of physical contact can damage some paint finishes and will strip away many protective coatings like wax and paint sealant, minimizing the effects these protective products should otherwise offer
When it comes to keeping your car clean, protecting your investment, and making it last for the long haul, you have a choice to make. Do you wash it yourself, take it to a pro, or drive through an automatic car wash? Time often dictates that an automatic wash is your best option. Now, armed with the pros and cons of a soft-touch vs. a touch-free automatic car wash, you can choose for yourself with confidence.
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