Car washes have changed a lot since the days when your only choice was feeding quarters into a drive through car wash. Now, automated commercial car washes are all the rage.
However, knowing how to wash a car at home has many benefits. Namely you can save money AND do a world class job.
If you’re a car lover or an outdoors person, it can be really fun as well.
There are two main ways to wash your car – take it to a car wash or do it yourself (DIY) at home. Industry news sources report drivers are 3x more likely to use car washes than to wash at home. That statistic is consistent with our personal experience.
The fact is that commercial car washes can and do scratch their customers cars. Worn out brushes, poorly trained employees, and dirt and grime on hand held rags are just a few of the leading culprits.
If you wash your car at home, you don’t have to worry about any of that.
How to Wash a Car at Home
The good news about washing your car at home is that you have complete visibility into what is happening to your car. There are no surprises. Doing a professional quality job at home is easy if you use the following key steps.
Step 1: Find a Shady Location
High-end professional detailers always work in the shade, and you should too. Working in the sun causes car paint to get hot, which in turn can cause soap to dry before it can be washed off. The result is visible splotches that almost always require rewashing.
This “quick drying” also makes the person washing the car to have to work much harder. Everything must be washed and wiped down before it dries. On the plus side, it’s good exercise if you been lax on going to the gym.
If you cannot find any shade, consider washing your car early in the morning when temperatures are cooler.
Step 2: Gather and Prepare All Materials
The good news is that the materials needed to do a professional quality job are pretty straightforward and easy to obtain:
- Soap made for cars (no dishwashing soap)
- 1-2 non-scratch microfiber mitts
- A few non-scratch microfiber towels
- A brush for tires and bumpers
- Two buckets
- A garden hose.
Those are the basic “necessities.” Optional equipment includes pressure washers and garden hose attachments, such as foam cannons.
Step 3: Do a Quick Interior Clean
There is nothing more annoying than having a pristinely clean car that is filthy on the inside. At a minimum, you should wipe all the dust of the dashboard, remove and wash the floor mats, and vacuum the vents, floor and seats.
Generally, a microfiber cloth and a good, dash cleaner is sufficient. Modern cleaners are excellent. No water is required, and they don’t leave any greasy residue.
Also, having a good car vacuum is important. A home vacuum will work, but car vacuums have special attachments to clean hard to reach places like vents and under seats.
Step 4: Rinse Off Car to Remove Dust
Most debris or contaminants on your car, e.g., dust, grime, insects, are abrasive and can scratch paint. You want to remove as much of these as you can before washing with a mitt, otherwise you run the risk of “grinding” the contaminants into the car and scratching the paint.
Using a hose, gently spray the car while keeping the nozzle pointed downward as much as possible. Cover the entire car. Make a second pass using more pressure until there is no visible debris left on the car after the initial rinse.
Step 5: Wash the Bumpers, Grill and Tires
Bumpers, grills and tires are almost always the dirtiest exterior parts of any car. They usually have insect splatter, road oils and / or grime that is difficult to remove. Washing these areas first prevents splashing upward onto a clean car.
For the tires, use a brush and NOT your washing mitts. They will get so dirty that cleaning them with a hose is a futile exercise.
Step 6: Wash the Car
First, use the “two bucket system.” Mix the soap with water in one of the buckets following the instructions on the label to get the right mixture. Fill the second bucket up with water. The idea with the two bucket system is that only a clean wash mitt should ever touch your car.
Dip the mitt into the bucket with clean soapy water. As you wash the car, the mitt will get dirty. Rinse it out in the other bucket that just has water in it. Once it’s clean, then it can be dipped back into the soap bucket.
Start at the top of the car and move downward as you wash. Keep the whole of the car continuously wet to prevent drying and spotting.
Step 7: Use Non-Scratch Towels for Drying
Microfiber towels will not scratch car paint, and it may take a handful of towels to get your car completely dry. Wipe the car down and squeeze out the towels as necessary. Then go back over the car with fresh dry towels to absorb any moisture and prevent spotting.
After washing, microfiber towels can be put into a washing machine and dryer. Be careful not to use fabric softener as it will leaves streaks on your paint the next time you wash your car.
Step 8: Apply Tire Shine
Nothing completes a car detailing, like shiny, showroom looking tires. In terms of the best tire shine products, we prefer a water based spray that provides a satin matte look.
If the tire is not clean already, clean with a rubber safe soap and let dry. Using an applicator, apply tire shine so that it coats the outer side.
Let it soak according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Finally, wipe off any excess with a clean microfiber cloth.
Do this and you will have perfect looking tires for 2-3 weeks.
Protecting Your Car Once It’s Clean
Once your car is spotless, consider using a car cover to keep it looking like it’s right off the showroom floor. This is true even if you park indoors in a garage!
Dust is a problem even in the best built garages, and indoor covers are designed specifically to prevent dust buildup.
Car covers are mostly used by owners of hobbyist and lifestyle cars. However, every car will benefit from regular car cover use.
There is an inherent trade-off in washing at home versus going to a car wash. Car washes are much more convenient and much less hassle.
However, washing your car at home is the only way to have 100% confidence that you are doing everything you can to keep from scratching your paint and clear coat.
Ultimately, it’s a personal decision. Personally, I do it in lieu of a trip to the gym once every 4-6 weeks. It’s a pretty good workout, and your car will thank you for it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How frequently should I wash my car?
At the risk of sounding flip, whenever it is visibly dirty. The longer debris or contaminants are on your car’s paint, the more risk of scratches. Most people we talk to seem to wash their cars every 3-4 weeks.
Can I use Windex to clean the windshield?
It would be better if you didn’t. Windex contains ammonia which can damage dashboard and upholstery. It also smells. Non-ammonia based cleaners are easy to find.
Why can’t I use dish soap to wash my car?
Many people believe that if it’s good enough for dishes that you eat off of, it should be okay for your car. Dish soap is actually too strong. It is made to dissolve grease and kill germs and can actually damage clear coat. This is definitely NOT the area to cut corners just to save a few dollars.
Can I use regular towels versus microfiber cloths?
Using whatever home scraps of cloth are handy probably causes more damage to paint than anything else during the cleaning process. Even some cloths that feel very soft are partially made of polyester and can leave light scratches in the paint. Cotton is generally okay, but used cloths are rarely truly clean. Our advice is stick to microfiber cloths, and ONLY use them for washing your car – nothing else. The good news is they are cheap and easy to find.
Is it okay to wash tires last?
No, although this used to be common advice. The grime on tires is more likely to splatter up on paint. Wash tires first and then do a final rinse off once the whole car is finished.
Can I just use one cleaner on plastic dash parts?
Soft and hard plastics have different characteristics and require different cleaners. The former needs a more penetrating cleaner and the latter a more gentle polish. Honestly, using one cleaner isn’t the end of the world, but it’s not ideal.