They're everywhere. Every busy intersection. Every gas station. Every city in America. They're drive-through car washes and they're destroying your car.
Many utilize a drive-through car wash as part of their weekly routine. It's a chance to scroll through Facebook for a couple of minutes, maybe grab some gas and snacks at the same time. They really can't be matched for time and convenience.
Unfortunately they're causing damage that will ultimately cost your more time and money than you're ever going to save by using them. The biggest negative issue with most drive through car washes is the abrasive nature of those brushes that are slapping and being dragged over your car. They're filled with grit and dirt from the cars ahead of you, and then they're using that as a weapon to scratch and mar your vehicle's clear coat. Some car washes do a better job of "rinsing" these brushes between cars, some don't. The other enemy is the chemicals used. Even though they may be very foamy and full of fun colors, they're usually the least expensive possible, overly aggressive, full of salt, and other chemicals harmful to your vehicle's surface.
Whenever you see a before-and-after of one of our Paint Correction services (see below), most of the time the "before" side is the damage caused by improper wash techniques. All of the marring and damage you see is millions of little micro scratches in the clear coat. This leaves the surface of the clear coat open and exposed to accelerated UV damage, bird-dropping etching, etc.
To repair this a Paint Correction has to be performed. This is where a technician has to actually level, or polish through the clear coat to get to the bottom of each of those scratches. This leaves your clear coat thinner than it was before (which is why we recommend installing a Paint Coating after having a Paint Correction performed).
Needless to say it's safest to avoid this damage in the first place.
"BUT WHAT ABOUT TOUCHLESS-WASHES!?"
I thought you'd never ask. Touchless drive-through car washes do avoid the damage caused by the abrasive brushes of traditional drive-through wash, but adds another element to consider. Because they don't have the agitating action of the brushes, they use SUPER aggressive chemicals to help loosen and encapsulate the dirt and grime on your vehicle. Because of this, they strip waxes and sealants MUCH faster and severely shorten the life of your exterior clear coat protection. I've also seen a lot of aluminum trim "etched" or permanently stained from these chemicals (especially window trim on older VW's).
A good alternative is to install a high-quality, thick and durable Paint Coating. Because Paint Coatings are chemical resistant, they won't be stripped by the use of a touchless car wash chemical assault. Keep in mind that if your rubber trim, glass, or other surfaces aren't coated they will still be subject to this damage.
I recommend this option especially for customers in very cold climates as their cars are subject to road salts and a severe amount of dirt and grime during the winters. A Paint Coating will allow you to run the car through a Touchless Wash without installing extensive damage, and it knocks off the majority of the dirt and grim from etching into your vehicle's surface. If you really want to make your car look great during the winter, you can then drive home and perform a rinseless wash inside your warm garage to get the last bit of much off the exterior, but more on that in another article.
"So you're saying Drive-Through Car Washes are the enemy, then, correct?"
No. And this is where I'm going to say something that is very unpopular and make me a lot of enemies in the detail industry, but drive through car washes absolutely have their place in the market. They're fast, convenient, and offer a lot of auxilary conveniences (snacks, gas, drinks, etc) that make them a really useful part of many people's lives.
If you're a busy mother with a minivan with six screaming kids in it, I don't expect you want to learn how to be automotive exterior care specialists. Instead you want to knock off the layer of dirt from the exterior of the van so you're not embarrassed to park it out front of your house. You probably want to buy some Animal Crackers in the attached convenience store to shove in the kids' mouths to stop the screaming and bonus points if you can top off the gas at the same time. Your paintwork may have lots of micro-marring, swirl marks, and etching, and I bet you don't know what any of those words are and don't care anyway.
AND THAT'S FINE :)
Drive through car washes provide a very useful service for the majority of the public and that LAST thing I would want is to start some giant movement that leads to some kind of financial strain on our existing local car wash businesses. Instead, I want this to be an interesting educational resource for the small percentage of auto enthusiasts who are looking to maximize their vehicle's appearance.
So stay tuned to this resource as I'll update it with general practices on how to wash your car without using a drive through. There are easy, fast, safe, and effective practices that I look forward to posting here in the future!