For many Americans, the act of hitting the car wash on your way home is a weekly occurrence, and since things like road grime, carbon build-up, and bird droppings speckle everyone’s ride, we can certainly see the appeal of a quick fix. Not everyone has the time, energy, or interest in learning how to clean a car like a pro, and with gas stations offering half-price washes with every fill-up, the convenience versus value factor just makes sense.
But not everything is as it seems, and when professional car detailer Michael Trevor began rattling off reasons why we should all avoid the local car wash like the plague, we felt moved to share his insight with the masses. We’re sure by now you’ve heard at least one car wash horror story, where the entire line locked up and someone was stuck in their car for hours, or how a poorly calibrated roller cracked someone’s windshield, but what of the other dangers lurking in these cleaning tubes?
So we did some digging in order to illuminate what risks, if any, the average automobile faces in an automated car wash. While touchless systems are now more commonplace than ever before, and both water saving techniques and environmentally-conscientious chemical usage are quickly becoming the norm, the risks to your car are still a lot higher than when washing by hand.
When looking into the reasons why these automated machines pose such a threat, we discovered that quite a few reputable sources have raised warnings in the past few years about drivers using robotic car washes. Here are five solid reasons why the local car wash should be avoided for the sake of your vehicle’s health.
1. The Clearcoat Killer Strikes Again
The first warning any professional car detailer will mention when the topic of automated car washes comes up, is how the traditional, brush-style machines will wreak havoc on your car’s paint job. While the old school, rough bristle scrubbers are pretty much extinct (thank heavens), the risks associated with cloth-clad rollers still exist. These blue strips of cloth require regular cleaning in order to safely remove any dirt, sand, or road grime that could build up on them after a few vehicles go through. Swirl marks, scratches, and patchy clear coat removal are all risks that your vehicle will likely face if the car wash’s scrubbers are not properly cleaned and serviced.
2. Wheel Rash and Tire Scuff Headaches
This is an issue with mechanical car washes that is almost impossible to avoid: Once those wheels hit the rollers, you relinquish all control of the vehicle, and that means those guard rails that keep you pointed toward the exit are going to chew-up your alloys. Having experienced this firsthand, we can attest that complaining to the management won’t return any favorable results either, as they will likely just point to a sign that says “Not Responsible for Any Damage to Wheels or Tires,” and send you packing.
3. The Rust Bucket Effect
This is an issue that doesn’t have as much to do with what a car wash does to your vehicle, as it has more to do with what it fails to clean properly. Almost all automated car washes cleanse, rinse, and dry a vehicle on a set timed schedule, and since time is money, their attention to detail can be lacking. In northern states, where salt corrosion is essentially a serious form of automotive cancer, not properly blasting the underside of a car with fresh water in the warmer months can mean the difference between preservation and devastation. So even if you don’t like scrubbing your vehicle in order to keep it clean and protected, experts suggest getting out the garden hose and blasting the underbelly of your car’s chassis a few times in early spring just to be safe.
4. Antenna Animosity and Wiper Woes
Vehicle owners don’t have to worry about the antenna side of this issue so much anymore due to the advent of shark fin designs and windshield integrated systems, but on older cars, the dangers of a snapped extendable antenna are still very real when the rollers hit the decklid. Wipers are another component at risk when at the wash, as they tend to bend and break more easily than one might expect, and even if they don’t, the pressure placed on them could potentially chew up plastic regulator teeth. We found an article by CarsDirect that covers these risks, and explains the steps required to get reimbursed if said damage occurs.
5. Burn Baby Burn
Our final warning of the day comes to us directly from the U.S. government’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. According to a report last year, the cleaning chemical known as hydrofluoric acid has been linked to 48 severe burn incidents at car washes in Washington State alone from 2001-2013. While the victims all came into contact with the chemical while working at car washes, the CDC’s report proves that hydrofluoric acid contains a very high corrosive burn rate that cannot be detected right away. Often used on wheels to remove stubborn brake dust build-up, road grime, rust, and salt deposits, this chemical has been known to eat into wheel paint and even etch itself into glass, a problem that the Chicago Tribune covered back in 2013.
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