Automatic Car Washes: Bad For your Vehicle?

February 28th, 2022 by

The convenience of going to the drive-through car wash can’t be denied. Just pull up, pay, and let a robot do the rest: boom-presto, your car’s exterior is clean.

Or is it? There’s some compelling evidence out there that points to these “convenient” washes actually being more damaging in the long run than other methods. First, let’s look at the different kinds (and a video of some real, big idiots going through car washes).

Types of Car Wash

Car Wash Advisory has some significant light to shed on this subject: like many industries, the car wash business sometimes uses obtuse wording and industry-specific jargon to keep their cards close to the vest.

Manual vs. Automatic Car Washes

This refers to the actual machinery used.

Manual washes are usually solely operated by the driver, using a wand and selecting the chemical solution they want for their car’s specific needs, or even just a simple bucket of cleaning solution and a hand-scrubber. This allows for more control of the overall experience, but, of course, can take quite a bit more time, and is more dependent on other factors like weather.

Automatic… well, it automates the system. Drivers pay ahead of time, and either drive onto a conveyor belt track (tunnel), or they pull into a garage-like structure (in-bay). It’s quite convenient, but depending on the facility, this type is notorious for inflicting damage to the exterior. This damage can range from small scrapes and scratches to bent antennas and knocked-loose side mirrors.

Friction vs. Touchless Car Washes

This is in reference to the specific method of washing, of which there are generally two kinds.

Friction is the most common—it refers to cleaning using a combination of soap and scrubbing equipment making contact with the car. The manual method of scrubbing it down in your driveway fits into this category. Usually, though, when people think of these, what pops to mind is the aforementioned automatic tunnel-and-conveyer-belt setup, filled with a gauntlet of various kinds of scrubbing mechanisms and chemical cleaners. These are undeniably popular, and it’s easy to see why, because, well, they’re easy. Be forewarned, though, because if not properly maintained by the business, those big spinning things rubbing up against your vehicle might be doing more harm than good.

Touchless washes usually rely on high-pressure water and chemical soap solution, to clean the car. This could mean simply pressure washing in your driveway, but more often than not, when people talk about this method, it’s automatic, where you pull into a tunnel or bay. These are considered far less likely to cause damage to the car because of the lack of brushes and bristles making physical contact, but it’s generally agreed that they don’t do as thorough a job as friction washes, and methods of automatic drying often leave a lot to be desired.

Why Automatic Washes Can be Bad

You can see this all gets a little bit confusing, especially when you get into talking about express vs. full service, flex vs. self-serve, and all that mumbo jumbo. Each has its pros and cons, including time commitment, price, and, yes, the potential to damage your vehicle’s paint from the car wash.

Automatic washes can get pretty pricey, especially when it comes to upselling. Most automatic washes have a least a few different levels of wash, or “packages.” Patrons are often enticed to buck up for premium packages that include special services like tire and wheel shine, undercarriage cleaning, clear coat, or a manual hand-dry performed by a wash worker—some of which may not be necessary. And that’s before they ask if you want the interior vacuumed out!

But, of course, the potential for damage from the wash is the most pressing concern. As we’ve already covered, you can go the touchless option to mitigate the risk, but these washes often leave streaks, spots, and dirt, especially if the method of drying isn’t up to par, so you’ll be racking up a fortune because you’ll have to go every other day if you want your car looking clean. Go the friction-based method, and your risk is even greater. Especially in older facilities, dirt and debris from previous vehicles get stuck to the brushes and rollers over time, and now, all that debris is rubbing up against your ride. Most experts agree that modern paint finishes can withstand this for a time without suffering too, but if you have yours washed frequently, or you have a slightly older model, you could be in for some car wash damage to the paint.

The Gold Standard: Wash your Car at Home

It may be the most time-consuming, but it’s actually very easy, and dare we say it, maybe a little fun, if you throw some Skynyrd on the radio and crack a cold drink. Nothing beats a good hand wash for keeping your car looking good, and keeping the resale value up while you’re at it—undisputedly, it’s the best way to wash without scratching your car.

It’s also by far the cheapest, especially in the long run, after you’ve bought all the necessary materials, all of which can be found at most local stores. All you need is:

  • Hose (any garden hose will do, preferably with a nozzle attachment that allows you to focus pressure and stop the flow when necessary)
  • Automotive-grade soap (this is important, don’t use regular household cleaners)
  • Two buckets
  • Sponge or scrubbing mitt
  • Chamois cloth (Pronounced “sha-mee,” a special, non-abrasive type of fabric used for drying)

Now, for the process:


Try to find a spot that isn’t under a tree or something else that can drop rubble, but also somewhere that isn’t getting too much directs sunlight because you don’t want the soap drying up faster than you can rinse it (morning or early evening are usually the best times of the day).

Using the ratio instructions on the soap bottle, fill one bucket with a soapy water solution and one bucket with regular water. It’s important to rinse your sponge off every few passes, because, otherwise, you’re just moving the dirt around, and potentially causing scratches. Empty and refill rinse bucket as needed.

Washing Method

The wheels and tires are the dirtiest part of the car, so start there. One by one, lather them up, then give them a decent rinsing, being sure to pay attention to the wheel wells, where tons of rocks and dirt tend to get stuck.

Spray the entire car thoroughly to remove excess dirt.

After that, work from top to bottom—start with the roof, then the windows, then the hood and trunk (or bed), and finally the doors, fenders, and quarter panels. Soak the sponge in soap, and scrub firmly but gently, moving the sponge lengthwise, as opposed to using circles, to avoid swirl marks.

Don’t try to soap up huge chunks—work in smaller, manageable sections, remembering to rinse the sponge after each section.

After a solid scrub, hose off any excess soap.


This is where the chamois comes in. Simply, give the car another quick all-around rinse, then, in the same top-to-bottom fashion, remove any excess water, being sure to wring the cloth out regularly. The special cloth will give the paint a much smoother shine than a regular household towel.

And that’s that!

Thirty or forty minutes enjoying the weather, and you’ve got yourself a shiny ride and saved a few bucks while you did it. And, most importantly, you didn’t have to worry about any unsightly nicks or scrapes.

But, hey, at the end of the day, stuff happens, and you may not always have time to dedicate to an at-home hand car wash. Be it a fender bender or a case of severely scuffed paint from the drive-through wash, we’re happy to help.

Check out our Birmingham body shop to inquire about paint repair services in Birmingham, or just hit us up at (205) 502-2792 for other tips and tricks to keep your ride looking fresh as the day it rolled off the lot.

Posted in Service