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What’s the Best Way to Wash Your Car?

Washing your car uses a lot of water—water that you’re paying for in some way or another. So is it better to take your car to the car wash or to do it at home?

At home

On average, washing your car at home uses between 30 and 100 gallons of water. At a nationwide average of $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, that might not seem like a lot—only fifteen cents on average.

To get all the chemicals, the soap, wheel cleaner, wax, and sealant, you’re looking at another $50 to $100 to wash your car at home. Although you will be able to stretch that cost over multiple washes.

You’re also going to need tools like a bucket, a sponge, a pole to reach hard to get to spots, maybe a foam gun, and a power washer. Then towels and shammies to dry. All of that can add up too.

Add on to that the time you’re taking to wash the car. It’s going to have to be a warm day to help with drying. Set-up and clean-up also take time.

Self-service

They’re becoming harder to find, but self-service car washes used to be the way to wash your car outside the home. Quarter-operated bays let you pull in, fill up the machine with quarters, and turn the dial on the power washer to the step of the wash you needed.

The plus side of these old-school washes is that you can hit the parts that need more attention a bit harder, just like at home. The downside is you’re on the clock: spend too much time on one spot and you’ll have to add more quarters to finish cleaning the rest of the car.

The huge plus for these relics is that they are environmentally friendly. They use the least amount of water out of basically any car washing method at a mere 15 gallons of water per use.

If you can get your pacing down, you can save a lot of money using a self-service car wash—especially if your vehicle is really dirty. Just remember to bring your own towels and shammies.

Automatic car washes

There are two types of automatic car washes: the conveyor and the in-bay. Conveyors are the tunnels that you drive in one side, it pulls the car along, and then you drive out the other side. In-bay is usually seen at gas station: you pull in, park, and the machine moves around you.

In-bay systems use a ton of water: 35 to 100 gallons per wash. That’s because most don’t have the spinning and swinging cloths like a conveyor; they use water alone to loosen and wash away the dirt. These systems are often marketed as “touchless”—nothing but water ends up touching your vehicle. That’s not really a benefit, it’s simply the mechanics of the system.

Conveyor systems use about 60 to 85 gallons per vehicle and, in general, do a decent job. Unless your vehicle is oversized or fragile, they’re fast, cheap, and environmentally friendly for the most part. Much of the water they use is recycled. Water used at the end of the wash to rinse your vehicle can be pumped back into the system to help make the foamy soap used to clean the next vehicle. Also, the wastewater is filtered before it makes its way into the sewer system.

So although an automatic car wash is using more water than a home car wash, much of that water is reused, unlike a home car wash.

So which is the best?

That depends on you, your car, and your budget. A bucket, sponge, and some basic car wash soap will be the cheapest in the long run. Often you can get a free in-bay wash by buying enough gas. A mud-covered truck might need a self-service. If the environment is a concern, then an automatic wash is your friend. Choose wisely.

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