Preserving the environment is a major concern these days, especially when it comes to automobiles. This even applies to something as seemingly mundane as preserving your vehicle's appearance. How and where you wash your car does make a difference. The matter is never more critical than in spring, when most proud car owners are busy washing off the effects of winter's unrelenting assault before it takes a toll on their pride and joy's looks, integrity and mechanical well-being.
Making a habit of keeping your vehicle as clean as possible, inside and out, will reap great benefits. A sparkling-clean car will not only flatter the eye and the owner's ego, it will also help the vehicle last longer and stay in better shape, thus improving resale value.
The question here is: What is the best and most eco-friendly way to achieve and sustain vehicular cleanliness?
Dirt, road salt, tar and various other forms of gunk, goo and residue are your car's worst enemies. Keeping them off your vehicle's bodywork, year-round, is the basic challenge. Hand-washing a car remains the best and most effective way to do this, but it must be done the right way, and even then it is not the most environmentally friendly way to go.
These days the "greenest" way to wash your car is to run it through an automatic car wash. Studies show that a session in the car wash uses roughly half the water the average owner would use while washing it at home with the traditional bucket and hose. Commercial car-wash systems are also required, by law, to contain and collect the water used during the wash. So are professional detailers. The waste water is then cleaned and, in most cases, used again.
Automatic car-wash systems even get the nod from car-care professionals, especially when it comes to routine cleanings. David Lee, owner and operator of L.A. Detail, based in Toronto, offers thorough detailing services, but he freely admits to using commercial car-wash systems for his personal vehicle and says he finds them both useful and practical.
However, Lee is also quick to point out that not all systems are equally safe and effective. He favors the high-pressure, no-contact systems and warns against using systems with rotating brushes or moplike, moving felt mats. It's hard to assess how well-maintained these systems are, and your car's paint finish might be at the mercy of the grit that was scrubbed off the crusty old jalopy that passed through the wash just before your car. And paint could be at risk even in the best-maintained systems because of the friction generated by the brushes and mats.
High-pressure systems also are useful in performing the most difficult of tasks: cleaning off as much dirt and salt as possible from your vehicle's undercarriage, fender liners and rocker panels. The operation is entirely worth the extra couple of dollars, Lee says. "The best approach is to run your vehicle through a car wash regularly to keep the dirt from building up and digging into the surface," he says.
Lee adds that brush-free systems are at their best when only a light wash is needed. Frequency then becomes the key. Their weak point is glass, "so I always use the squeegee on glass surfaces before running my vehicle through," he says.
The golden rule for hand-washing is to be gentle to avoid scratching or etching the car's finish.
The Dirty Job
For really dirty jobs, the best and most effective way to wash a vehicle still involves elbow grease. That's how pro detailers do it to this day. It's the only way some dirt and residue can be removed. Clay, for instance, can leave a hazy, brownish film that will resist a high-pressure brushless car wash.
While hand-washing might get your vehicle the cleanest, it can be far from environmentally friendly. The main culprits are the excessive use of water and the release of harmful substances such as soap residue, oil, acid and metal particles into the sewer system while washing and rinsing. Some cities and states have banned home car washing for these reasons. Others do so indirectly by forbidding all use of tap water outdoors to preserve dwindling supplies during hot spells.
If you plan to wash at home, your first move is to get automotive soap and cleaners that are biodegradable and nontoxic. Even then, you should avoid washing over pavement, which would let the wash water drain into a sewer, storm drain or ditch that would then let it seep into the water system. Make sure to wash over grass or gravel that will absorb the water into the ground to reduce or eliminate the environmental impact.
Hand-Wash the Right Way
The golden rule for hand-washing, Lee says, is to be "as gentle as possible" to avoid scratching or etching the finish. Make sure your car is cool and parked in the shade. You should also wash in the shade to keep the surface from drying out instantly and leaving soap streaks and scratches.
Fill two buckets with tap water. The first gets the soap, with the right dilution ratio, and the second is for rinsing dirt and particles off thoroughly as you go over the car, section by section, moving from top to bottom. Leave the rocker panels and wheels, always the dirtiest bits, for last. Otherwise, the grit from these areas will get stuck in the cleaning rags and scratch the finish off your car as you rub it clean.
Your first step it to give your car the best possible rinse to remove as much of the dirt, dust and grime as possible. Pressure washers do a good job. Lee's team uses and recommends them. "They get dirt out of the nooks and crannies and save a lot of water, too, since pressure does most of the job," he says.
You should use two soft mittens or natural sponges for washing. The first only touches the painted surfaces and the second only the wheels, tires and other dirtiest bits. Rinse them in the second bucket as much as needed to get rid of the slightest grain of sand or dirt. Work in sections that you rinse with the hose as you go. Turn the water off between rinses to avoid waste.
Lee gives the nod to the traditional chamois, be it natural or synthetic, to dry the car afterward. Let the chamois soak thoroughly before use and rinse it frequently. Another pro tip is to use the moist chamois to wipe hazy deposits from the instrument panel and the inside of the windshield once the exterior is done.
A good spring cleaning should also include the floors, where a lot of grit, grime, salt and water has accumulated, often leaving a nasty crust where it dries. An excellent tool for this operation is a wet/dry vacuum cleaner. First, vacuum up as much of the dry stuff as you can. If deposits remain, scrub them with a brush, hot water and some vinegar, but do so sparingly. Then vacuum again quickly. Do not use too much water; it will dissolve the salt, and the resulting mixture will seep under the carpet and never dry. The result might be a rusted floor pan. The door jambs and sills should also be cleaned, this time with lukewarm water and soap.
Once your car shines after that spring cleaning, you will want to wax it for protection against the elements, including the scorching summer sun. Lee says that the two-stage approach of applying a pre-cleaner compound first and then a protective wax is worth the extra effort.
You can also use "dressing" products on your tires. "Use the clear, petroleum-based type that seems to 'nourish' the rubber," Lee says. It is best to apply it with a cloth instead of spraying it on to avoid getting the stuff on your alloy wheels, where it becomes "a dust magnet." And you should wipe off the excess after a few minutes. Indeed, if the oily liquid mixes with brake dust and spins off onto rocker panels and fenders, it can permanently damage the paint.
These additional steps will help preserve the long-term appearance and value of your prized possession. And a clean car always runs nicer, doesn't it?