Automation makes everything better – or does it? While it’s convenient for machines and technology to automate a lot of our daily tasks, washing our cars is one that can leave permanent damage. The automatic car wash has been around for quite some time. In fact, it’s the leading source of normal routine car washes in North America.

But is visiting an auto car wash a smart idea? Are there some pros and cons of using them to keep your car clean? Is it better to hand wash your vehicle at home or take it to a professional detailer every few weeks? These are questions we’ll answer in this article – and the next few articles coming soon. But first, let’s explore the facts about automatic car washes.

What is an Automatic Car Wash Facility?

One misconception in the auto detailing world is that all automatic car washes are identical. That’s simply not true. In fact, there are multiple types of automatic wash techniques and facilities, each offering a different way of accomplishing the same task – remove debris from your vehicle.

A purple dodge going through a hybrid car wash

There are basically two types of automatic car washes in North America – touchless and friction-based.

Touchless Car Wash

The touchless car wash is the most user-friendly and less likely to damage your vehicle. This system usually features an in-bay automated system, where the driver pulls into a wash bay, and the system rolls over their stationary vehicle to wash it. Some of these touchless car wash system connect the wheels to a series of gears and a conveyor system, that move the vehicle through the touchless process – sometimes including undercarriage wash.

Friction-Based Car Wash

The second type of automated car wash is the friction-based facility like that found at a gas station. This uses a series of industrial-strength spinning machines with a cloth-like material that is used to wash the surface. These materials are made for durability – and not for gentle application of force. As such, the potential for swirl marks, paint chips, and other damage to the vehicle’s paint surface is greater than the touchless or hand wash system.

There are hybrid automated car washing facilities that use a combination of both touchless and friction materials. The main difference with these systems is the detergents that are used to wash the vehicle. The hybrid will typically use a lower pH car soap than the touchless machines.

Since touchless machines depend on high-pressure water – the shampoo needs to be more alkaline-based, to loosen debris, dirt, and contaminants from the surface. Hybrids using the wash wheel or strips can ‘scrub’ the car clean with less aggressive soaps.

What is a Tunnel Car Wash?

The most popular automated car wash facility is one you’ll find at gas stations, or local car wash facilities. It’s called a tunnel car wash – simply because you’ll drive the vehicle through a tunnel (with the tires connected to a conveyor system). There are some commercial car wash locations that will send your car through the tunnel car wash, before completing the wash with hand drying or applying protectants.

An orange dodge getting scratched at an automatic car wash

This is your prototypical automatic friction-based car wash. If you listen carefully, you can hear this Mopar SRT screaming in pain.

There are three common tunnel car washes – an express tunnel, (which completes the entire washing and drying process), flex serve tunnel (that only washes the vehicle’s exterior – usually using touchless methods), and the full-service tunnel (includes applying paint protectant spray wax or sealants in a final-optional step).

The Pros and Cons of Using an Automatic Car Wash

If you’re thinking about using an automatic car wash to keep your vehicle clean – there are some pros and cons to consider. Let’s start by clarifying that we’re not recommending or non-recommending (is that even a word) the use of automated car washing facilities.

We always guide Ceramic Pro customers to the trusty two-bucket hand washing method – but if you’re without ability to wash your car at home, the touchless automatic car wash is your best option.

Here are the Pros of Using Auto Car Wash

PRO: Much better cleaning than in years past. New technology is infused into today’s automatic car washing facilities. They wash a vehicle better and with thorough coverage than in years past.

PRO: Touchless systems reduce potential of paint damage. The high-pressure washing facilities are better than the friction-based systems. If you can’t hand wash your vehicle with high-quality microfiber media (like a wash mitt), then the touchless system is best.

A fiat being washed in an automatic car wash that is touchless.

If you’re going to use an automatic car wash, the touchless system like this one is really your best option.

PRO: Quick, Fast, and Efficient. Anytime you can get your car washed in a matter of minutes – that’s a plus.

Here are the Cons of Using Auto Car Wash

CON: Using the wrong one can damage your car. As vehicle paint protection experts, we tend to focus on damaging your clear coat. But automatic car washes can also damage other parts of your car. In fact, there are some that have been known to tear off antenna, sideview mirrors, and even front or rear bumpers.

CON: Harsh chemicals and car soaps. As we discussed above, some automatic car washing facilities use an industrial strength alkaline enhanced degreasing shampoo. These formulations are great for stripping wax, paint sealants, and even bird droppings, bug guts, and tree sap. But that aggressive soap leaves a mark on unprotected paint. In fact, overtime, it can start to eat away at the clear coat, leading to oxidation of the coat, corrosion, and eventually rust.

CON: Water Spots. Even the auto car washing facilities with super hair driers are prone to water spotting. Most facilities use city industrial water – which isn’t filtered and contains higher calcium deposits or other minerals. As water dries on the surface, those deposits will dry rapidly, and leave dried mineral deposits that are difficult to remove.

Best Practices for Using an Auto Car Wash

If you have installed a paint protection film or ceramic coating on your vehicle, and can’t hand wash your vehicle, using a touchless car wash facility is your best option. There are several waterless wash solutions that are likewise good alternatives, but the high-pressure washing system is what we’d recommend.

The best touchless wash facility is one where you’ll drive into an open bay and use a high-pressure washer. These locations often have a brush you can use on the paint finish. However, the soap used can contain harsh chemicals used to remove road grime.

A man using a high pressure car wash facility to clean his wheels.

If you’re going to use this type of car wash equipment, here are three easy tips:

Bring Your Car Washing Supplies. You can use a high-pressure car wash facility – and in most case, bring your own washing supplies. For an optimal car washing experience, bring a 5-gallon bucket, some automotive-specific car shampoo (pH neutral with no wax if you have a ceramic coating or PPF), a microfiber wash mitt, and drying towel.

Use the high-pressure water to pre-rinse the vehicle, to fill your wash bucket, and rinse off. Don’t use the hand-held brush – as this will scratch the surface likely.

When you’re done washing the car, use a dedicated microfiber towel to dry the car’s finish while still in the bay – and out of direct sunlight.

Having a high-quality paint protection solution like Ceramic Pro 9H nano ceramic coating or Kavaca paint protection film is a great way of keeping your vehicle surface clean, free of damage, and in original factory condition. These high-quality materials can be applied to car’s paint, headlight covers, and in the case of ceramic coatings, wheels, windows, and even on top of PPF.

If you’d like to learn more about ceramic coatings or paint protection film, click the link below and request a free estimate from a professional auto salon near you.

Aiden Forde

Author Aiden Forde

Aiden Forde serves as the Pai Mei of Ceramic Pro Americas content management team.

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