Like most things automotive, car paint has gotten better and more effective over the past 20-30 years. However, even modern car paint can be damaged.
As the most visible and immediately noticeable aspect of a car, the paint is a big part of your investment and most definitely worth protecting.
The good news is there are simple steps that can be taken to prevent damage. Do car covers work? While they cannot offer 100% protection, even budget car covers are immensely helpful in mitigating any potential damage.
Types of Damage
From bird bombers to door dings to sand storms, the world is conspiring to take the shine off your beautiful car. Let us count the ways.
- Tree Leaves – Dry leaves are not much of a problem. Wet leaves can leave brown spots and stains on your paint, especially if left for a long time. Leaves contain pollen and tannic acids (an astringent) which softens and “leeches into” the paint. The result is a stain that even a trip to the car wash might not remove. Watch out for trees with high levels of tannic acids, including beeches, chestnuts and oaks.
- Tree sap – Many people park in the shade to keep their cars cool and to prevent paint damage. It’s a good idea except for one thing – trees drizzle sap. When heated it actually transforms into a resin which seeps into the paint. The clear coat around the sap will form little webs that have a “cracked glass” look.
- Bird Poop – Bird poop makes your car look terrible and can be a major pain to remove. However, it can also damage your car’s paint. Specifically, the combination of acidic bird poop and heat from the sun causes the damage. As a car gets hot, the car paint and sealant expands while the bird poop hardens. As the temperature cools, the paint molds itself around parts of the bird poop, permanently damaging the paint.
- Sunlight/Ultraviolet Radiation – Out of all the items on this list, Sunlight is the one thing that is almost certainly guaranteed to hit your car. Ultraviolet light is low intensity radiation, and it harms your car’s paint in two primary ways. The first is fading. UV radiation actually causes paint molecules to break down. This breakage causes paint to fade. The second issue is oxidation. We won’t get bogged down in the chemistry of paint oxidation, but the effects are clear. First the surface becomes dull and chalky, then the outer clear coat dissolves, and ultimately rust starts to form.
- Pranksters – Henry Ford made the first mass-produced car. Rumor is someone egged it two days later. Whether it’s shoe polish, shaving cream, mustard, silly string, eggs or writing “please wash me” on a dirty windshield, cars have always been a target for pranks. Even the most benign pranks can damage car paint. The most common issue is that the chemicals in these substances interact with the paint to leave permanent stains. For the “wash me” folks, the dirt acts as a grit and effectively “sands” the paint.
- Furry Pranksters – Our four-legged friends never want to miss out on the fun either. Cats in particular use cars for their personal playgrounds. Squirrels tend to gnaw on plastic engine parts but can also damage paint. Dogs are forever jumping up and putting their front paws on the sides of cars. While these won’t cause major damage, they often scratch the outer clear coating.
- Malicious Actors – As immortalized by Carrie Underwood’s famous song, “keying” car paint has long been a preferred way to damage a car. All the ways people purposefully inflict damage is too long to list, but common offenses include throwing rocks, dousing with solvents and purposefully causing door dings. While a car cover cannot prevent these malicious acts, they do make it harder for perpetrators, thus lowering the risk of incidents occurring.
Earth, Wind and Fire
- Sand Storms – Sand storms are most frequently seen in a belt stretching from West Texas to Southern California and Utah. Recent studies indicate that these storms are becoming more frequent and more severe as this part of the country is in a long-term drying trend. With wind speeds ranging from 25-60 miles per hour, these storms can literally “sandblast” car paint.
- Snow Storms – While a gentle snow is not really bad for your car, the real problem is the ice that usually follows. People tend to chip it away with a scraper tool or use coarse snow brushes. As the ice melts little crystals remain that can scratch paint as they are swept away. The best way to avoid ice damage is to prevent ice from touching the paint in the first place.
- Rain Storms – Rain drops collect contaminants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, as they fall to the ground. At high enough levels, these pollutants make rain acidic. Acid “etches” into the outer coating of car paint and can only be removed with expensive, professional polishing and buffing.
- Hail Storms – In terms of damaging a car, hail storms need little elaboration. These storms can occur anywhere there are thunderstorms. However, “Hail Alley,” which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, sees the most frequent damage. Conventional car covers offer minimal protection at best. If you cannot shelter your car with a permanent structure, specialized inflatable covers exist that effectively create a “blow-up tent” around your car.
- Ocean Living – That soothing ocean air we all love to breathe is actually bad for car paint. Once again, heat is the guilty co-conspirator. As car paint heats up, the pores in the paint expand and capture the salt in the ocean air. As the paint cools the salt is effectively “locked in.” Long-term exposure will lead to corrosion.
- Forest Fires – The ash in the air is the primary issue. When ash is mixed with water it creates potassium hydroxide which will “etch” paint similar to acid rain and bird poop discussed above. Cars need to be cleaned with special cleaning solutions, and absolutely all of the ash must be removed. A gentle hand washing will not suffice. Fitted car covers offer the best protection outside of a garage.
Home Sweet Home
- Accidents – The list of things that can cause accidental damage to car paint at home is infinite. Rowdy children, sharp objects laying around, distracted adults, misplaced hot cups of coffee…these scenarios are all too recognizable to parents. Car covers provide a barrier of protection and at least as far as your car goes, some peace of mind.
- Dust – Dust is a fact of life especially in more arid parts of the country. It even finds its way into the most secure garages. While dust is not a huge risk to car paint, it is abrasive. Anytime dust is pushed against car paint (e.g., wiping with a rag, someone sitting on a car) it acts just like a fine-grade sandpaper.
Unlucky Parking Spots
- Sprinkler Systems – People often park their cars in a seemingly great spot, only to find out later that an automatic sprinkler system has doused their car. How damaging this is to your car’s paint depends on how “hard” the water is. Hard water contains high levels of trace minerals. These minerals bond with car paint (especially on hot days) and create spots that cannot be wiped off. A trip to a professional car cleaner is often required.
- Construction Debris – Between digging and building, construction sites create a lot of aerial debris. Much of this debris, like concrete dust or just actual “dirt” dust, is highly abrasive. If you are required to park near a construction site for any period of time, a filtered car cover will save a lot effort cleaning your car.
- Flying Gravel – Many people park their cars on the street or side of the road. This exposes your car to the same road hazards (e.g., a flying rock that hits the windshield) as when you’re driving. Older paved and gravel roads, have loose rocks that can cause damage when “kicked up” from the wheels of passing cars.
- Flying Mud – Similar to gravel, mud often finds its way onto parked cars. Mud is generally not overly harmful to paint. However, mud retains moisture which as we know can be acidic. Left on too long, etching can occur. Also, like dust and sand discussed earlier, mud is an abrasive so care must be taken in how it’s removed.
- Door Dings and Scratches – Much like our paychecks, parking spots seem to get smaller and smaller every year. Even well-intentioned people can open their door too wide and ding your car. Car covers provide an extra layer of protection and should mitigate all but the most forceful of hits.
Knowing, as they say, is half the battle. We’ve just walked through the most comprehensive list on the internet of ways to dent, ding, etch, sand, spot, scratch, oxidize, chip and blast the paint on your parked car.
Do car covers work? Absolutely. Great choices exist ranging from budget car covers to hail-proof tents.