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Best Types of Car Washes

Tunnel washes or bay washes? Full service or do it yourself? We’re exploring all types of car washes. Find out which is best for every situation. 

All Car Washes Are Not Made Equal

Car wash building
Car wash building

Touchless? Spotless? Even waterless? There are all kinds of car wash choices to make these days and even more questions. Which car wash is the most expensive? Which wash takes the most time? Which ones will help maintain the finish of your brand-new 2022 Kia Soul?

A sponge and microfiber towels are always the best tools to use in a car wash. Brushes, whether used in the form of an automatic wash, or in your own driveway, are safe to use as well, but can scratch the car’s surface if the bristles aren’t soft enough. The soft-cloth automatic car washes are safer to go through than those that use the spinning brushes. It’s really up to you though.

Cleaning a car with microfiber cloth
Cleaning a car with microfiber cloth

If you don’t own a classic like a 1965 Ford Mustang or a 1963 Porsche 911 then automatic car washes won’t do that much damage to a vehicle’s finish. I’ve used all of these washes at one point or another. I’ll usually opt for one or another depending on how dirty my car is, what I’ve put my car through, and how much time I have. Take a look at the different options below to figure out which one you want to use when cleaning your car.

Automated Car Washes

Automated car wash
Automated car wash

Pull into the bay, put your car in neutral, and let the machinery do the rest of the work! Automated tunnel or in-bay car washes let the machines do the work. Tunnel washes pull the vehicle along a conveyor belt while soap, water, hot wax, and even tire shine chemicals are sprayed on and under the vehicle. An in-bay car wash does the same thing, but the machines move around your stationary car instead.

These washes cost anywhere between $7 and $15. The tire shine and undercarriage cleaning cost extra. Still, it’s one of the cheapest options there is. The effectiveness isn’t 100%, but it gets most of the grime off. A few spots of dried dirt, or other things, may need a little bit of extra elbow grease once you get home. At the end of the wash, an overhead dryer, or series of dryers blow hot air on the vehicle for 30 to 45 seconds, making it a complete wash. Just like the cleaning process itself, the dryers don’t get every inch of the vehicle clean. It does the job well enough though. This is the quickest wash you’ll find.

The Full-Service Car Wash

Car wash employee scrubbing windshield
Car wash employee scrubbing windshield

These car washes can be the most expensive of the bunch, ranging between $25 and $45, depending on where you go. It’s not a full-on car detailing, but it is very thorough. Sometimes the full-service wash uses a conveyor belt, but there are usually workers who start the cleaning by using a couple of brushes on the windshield, windows, and top of the car.

After the wash, the car is dried by hand and the interior is cleaned as well. With this kind of service, car wash employees shake the floor mats, vacuum the floor, wipe down the hard plastics, and spritz the cabin with a scent. It’s the ideal option for anyone who has dragged mud and dirt into their vehicle after a hike, a trip to the beach, or a serious off-roading trip.

Self-Service Car Washes

Man washing his car
Man washing his car

The self-service car wash involves pulling your car into a bay, parking it, getting out, and using the hose attached to the wall. There is one sprayer gun with various options including soap, water, and wax. Sometimes a soft-bristled foaming brush is also available to use. The soaping options aren’t as extensive here, but it has everything needed for a basic wash.

Self-service car washes are good choices after a long car ride when bugs have been splattered across the windshield and have been baked on after hours in the intense afternoon sun. Usually, this kind of wash involves adding quarters to add more time before the wash expires. You can spend as much time as you want on this wash so long as you keep feeding it coins. Overhead dryers typically aren’t included in this type of wash, so be sure to bring the towels for drying.

Waterless Car Wash

Waterless car wash
Waterless car wash

In areas where there are water restrictions, a waterless wash is another option. This involves a chemical that takes the place of an actual wash and wax. It’s as simple as spraying the chemical onto a vehicle and wiping it away with a microfiber towel. The chemicals used will loosen and remove the dirt.

After it’s wiped down, the car is glossy, as though it had just been waxed. If the car is in need of some extra TLC, a bit of chemical may not do the trick, but it should work in place of a quick wash. A 26-ounce bottle is as cheap as $10. There are also complete kits on Amazon for $45 or so. You’ll want to read the label to be sure the chemical won’t damage the finish of your vehicle, but most reputable brands are perfectly safe to use.

The At-Home Wash

Person washing their car at home
Person washing their car at home

If you’re a stickler for details and believe in the motto, ‘if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,’ then the at-home wash is your best bet. It’s the most labor-intensive option of the bunch because you’re doing all the work yourself. From filling the bucket with soap and water to washing and spraying the car down to drying every nook and cranny. It also takes the longest amount of time.

Assuming that you’re equipped with the right products and use the best technique, you’re guaranteed that things are done to your satisfaction. The only question is: can you do a better job than the professionals?

Get Even More Detailed

Vehicle going through a car wash
Vehicle going through a car wash

If you really want to up the care of your car, take a look at some of our other articles like Professional Car Detailing Secrets, and Car Washing and Waxing. These can be especially useful if you are choosing the do it yourself car washing method. When it comes to the interior of your vehicle, we published a piece on Proper Leather Upholstery Care.

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Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson earned his journalism degree from South Dakota State University. No stranger to newsgathering and reporting, Jesse spent 13 years in TV news. 10 of those years were spent working in Charlotte, NC, home of NASCAR. A highlight of his time there was being able to take a lap around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His interest in vehicles, starting with Matchbox cars, a Big Wheel, and the Transformers, evolved into taking photos of motocross events. Now, he puts his research skills to use on car culture, reviews, and comparisons.

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