Cleaning Up

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One thing you can still do yourself is wash your car.

And just as you used to be able to save a lot of money by working on your car, it’s possible to save money – and more than you might think – by cleaning your car yourself.

It typically costs about $12 to run through a basic automated car wash; if you opt for the wheel/tire cleaner and a spritz of wax – which isn’t worth much – the tab can sail to $20 or more.

That’s a couple hundred bucks a year – assuming you like to keep your car clean. Which you should, for self-interested reasons (more coming).

You can keep your car clean yourself – better – a  dozen times for the price of one full-service car wash. A jug of high-quality car wash soap, some wheel/tire cleaner (and a brush, to scrub the tires) shouldn’t cost you more than about $20 – less if you watch for sales. You probably already have a bucket and a soft cloth, such as an old bathroom hand towel you can use for free.

Keeping your car looking good will also help keep its value looking good – which will save you big money by not losing it. A tired-looking car with blotchy paint, glaucomic headlights and permanently stained wheels won’t sell or trade for as much as one that still looks great.

You could, of course, have it professionally detailed prior to trade-in or sale, but that will cost you a lot more than $20. A detailing job usually costs $75-$100 or more.

And if you let it go too long, even a professional detailer can only do so much. It’s analogous to not working out until you’re 50 and then expecting a trainer to give you six pack abs in a weekend.

Keeping your car clean can also keep it from rusting – which can cost you a fortune in repair costs as well as kill its resale/trade-in value. Cars that aren’t kept clean tend to rust faster because moisture – which accelerates rust – doesn’t drain or dry out as well or as quickly (and maybe not at all) when drainage holes are blocked by accumulated dirt.

Also, it’s easy to overlook minor paint scratches when a car is dirty.

It’s important to not overlook them because paint is like skin; the purpose isn’t just to look pretty – it’s to protect what’s underneath. If the pain chips and the metal underneath is exposed to air and moisture, it will begin to rust. And once it begins to rust, it’s hard to stop the rust.

And not easy – or cheap – to fix. You can’t buff out rust.

But it’s more than just a matter of aesthetics. Or saving money. Or even time savings (and sometimes, the line at the automated car wash is so long you could have washed your car yourself faster – and never had to drive anywhere to do it, either). 

It’s good exercise – and it’s a pleasant way to spend some time with your car. It might even get you interested in trying to work on it!

Some car wish Do’s – and Don’ts: 

Never spray water on a hot car or in direct sunlight –

This risks damaging the paint – in particular, the translucent clearcoat that gives a modern car’s finish its shine. If you damage the clearcoat, the paint will never shine again, no matter how much you buff it out.

This is maybe the best reason to never let high school kids trying to raise money wash your car. They usually have these fundraising car washes on hot summer days in a parking lot where there’s no shade. If you want to support the kids, give them some money – but keep them away from your car.

Use lots of water and keep the car wet –

Don’t wipe/scrub anything until you’ve thoroughly hit it with lots of water, to remove the dirt (grit) which will act like sandpaper if you rub it into the finish while you’re washing the car. Do this with the finish cold (per above) and in the shade so the water won’t immediately evaporate and will have time to soak into the dirt; your object is to use water pressure to wash away most of the accumulated grit before you go at it with elbow grease and your wash cloth (use soft/clean towels, obviously) or sponge.

Use the hose to clean the washcloth sponge off often – and make sure the soapy water in your bucket isn’t dirty water. Change if necessary.

Wash from the roof down.

Do the wheels first –  so that water doesn’t have a chance to dry on the finish while you’re working on the wheels.

Use a fresh/clean towel to wipe down the car once you’re finished washing. Be sure to avoid letting the water evap-dry on the finish. Then – in the shade – use a spray detailer to get at any bug splotches, etc. that didn’t come off in the wash.

Yellowing plastic headlight lenses can be brought back to non-glaucomic using buffing compound and and old rag.

And don’t forget to vacuum the interior!

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Great to encourage people to wash their car. As noted in earlier post, some areas do not allow car washing from a hose. Try Youtube and search for “waterless wash”. I have been “washing” my car for a year without a hose and it works great.

  2. After many years of going through the drive-thru car wash or parking in the pressure wash bay and feeding the machine quarters then running over to the vacuum hoses to finish up, I have gone back to hand-washing.

    I have a new car and have chosen to spend money on the cleanup and care products rather than driving through the car wash. I also want to take the time to clean my new car myself and take care of it since I don’t expect to buy a new one ever again. I will do classics or used but not new.

    This route for cleaning my car is also much cheaper than drive-thru washes or using the manual car wash bay at a car wash. I already had a small electric pressure washer with a chemical reservoir, so I used it for the initial cleanup to get bugs and road grime off. I also scavenged an old vacuum cleaner we don’t use anymore and turned it into a handheld corded car vac.

    I recently traded for a new 2019 Volkswagen Jetta S (which is the lowest trim level). It comes with manual transmission, simple instrument cluster with a tiny monochrome digital screen in the center and a small touchscreen in the dash above the center console. It also includes a real key you have to insert and turn, manual controls on the A/C, a few non-intrusive driver alerts but none of the newer smart “assists” that are on the higher trim levels of the Jetta or practically every other new car.

    The really nice smart feature is smart headlights (but with manual hi-low beam control). I loved smart headlights on a previous car I had several years ago. The only thing I miss on the Jetta S is that it didn’t have the option of a sun roof but they aren’t real practical in the Deep South.

    Eric’s 2019 Jetta review from last fall and the more recent Jetta GLI review is what turned me onto the Jettas to begin with. I test drove but ultimately couldn’t afford the sportier more powerful GLI, but I find the S to be a suitable compromise for myself and I’m loving changing my own gears again after over 20 years of driving automatics.

    As for cleaning products, I appreciate all the good advice and discussion in this comment thread. I went with Meguiar’s products for both exterior and interior cleaning. They worked very well on both an older vehicle and my new Jetta.

    • When we finally have a wet spell it’s a double ended thing. Since hard well water is all we have, I collect rain water. Then I have to use a soaker hose facing up to remove the huge amounts of mud on my truck. Then it’s rainwater washing via buckets(had a pressure washer but loaned it out with those typical results of throwing a non-working washer away). Talk about a hard day’s work. Standing in the bed washing part of the roof, washing from each side for the rest. A long bed wash plus toolboxes and headache rack . Once I’ve chamoised it off, then I get to start waxing. I hand wax since another person borrowed my never used expensive polisher and didn’t return it(stolen he said and collected insurance but I saw none of the money). Now I only loan out things I can afford to replace. You’ve never had fun hand washing when the entire vehicle is covered with mud with the only half-ass clean thing is the windshield where the wipers moved the mud aside. And it’s really not that easy with elevated rails on the bed sides that can hold thousands of pounds along with the headache rack and the rear rack over the endgate. But damned if it don’t look good when you’re through. Then the cats make a mess of it. Help. I need a single pickup garage with a lift. That would be 30X30 feet. I could manage it except concrete is Sooooo expensive.

        • I’ve done the car wash thing when it’s not that dirty. But when you can’t identify where the braces, brackets, transfer case and transmission end and begin, you can spend a fortune. We used to see stalls that you didn’t want to even drive into from trucks such as that but it would appear nearly all those people have bitten the big one and bought a high-pressure washer. It may not be using hot or warm water and not even decently soft water but it beats hell out of following a 30,000 lb tractor that’s been washed off and the stall is pure mud and the drains even get clogged so it’s like driving into a huge mudhole. You have to clean a path that costs you plenty just to get back in and not have two boots loaded with mud.

          Yep, I need to once again look for a new pressure washer and leave that mud in the yard where it doesn’t much matter.

          Back in the 90’s I was going broke in the cattle bidness so I worked 24 hrs a day for about a year. When I’d get in a bout 4:30 every morning it was time to move irrigation water(cell grazing) so I’d just stop in the grass patch, put a huge sprinkler inside the cattle trailer and leave it till I left again. At least it was good fertilizer. My red pickup would be nearly white sometimes from gyp water when I didn’t have time to really wash it, just let it get washed by an irrigation sprinkler. Oh, the good old days. That drought started in 93, a year after we’d invested a lot of money in cattle, and hasn’t broken yet. We have spates of rain but never the 6″ rains we used to get that would greatly help the water table. I used to keep 3 pairs of identical boots(Rocky) and wash them and let them dry a couple days. Adding insult to injury, we had one range fire that cost us a lot of money but we saved the house and barn and outbuilding with 3 volunteer fire dept.’s trucks working at the same time.

          I vowed once we sold our cattle for $.25 on the dollar, all registered red and black Brangus, I’d never buy another head until the drought broke. That was 26 years ago and I’m still waiting. We got a rain yesterday though, a whopping .1″, just enough to make this heat fairly unbearable, like living in Houston.

          We pray for a hurricane to blow up through Tx. between Corpus and Houston every year. 12-14″ would be about right.

  3. Many CA municipalities have “car washing” ordinances that preclude the high school X-country team holding a car wash fund raiser or even you washing your own ride in the driveway, on the dubious theory that water is being “wasted”. It wouldn’t surprise if chain outfits like Quick Quack (not a bad place to give your ride a quick ‘bath’, BTW) pay the local county board of supervisors to enact these busybody ordinances.

    Of course, Sacramento County presumes to regulate private repair at home of one’s car, in which the ordinance, presumably intended to deter folks from having an eyesore junker in their driveway, can be interpreted as forbidden “major” repairs such as an engine swap or painting, again, on the rather dubious notion of the release of “toxic” chemicals. Fuck ’em. My property, and I’ll do what I goddamned please.

  4. Excellent write up, as usual. We have a 2004 Hyundai Santa Fe pushing 200k, runs like a sewing machine and looks like a 3 year old vehicle. Keep it washed and undercarriage clean due to salted roads here in NE Tennessee winters. Wasn’t until last year that I gave this beauty a clay bar treatment. Unbelievable results. She shines like a diamond in a goat’s ass.

  5. The local car wash has a basic wash for $8, plus you can use their vacuums and detailing rags to get the rest of the car clean too.

    It’s not about the cost of materials for me — it’s about the value I place on my free time. If it takes an hour to wash the car and vacuum it out with my less effective home vacuum, versus paying $8, I’ll gladly pay the $8.

  6. +1 for Meguiars. I use their car wash soap in a cheap electric pressure washer. Seemed expensive, but I only use a few OZ a wash, and the bottle has lasted about 2 years now. The pressure washer takes longer to set up and put away than it does to actually wash the car, and even then it’s still quicker than using a hose. I also figured out how to use clay in the springtime, and use a Porter Cable random orbiter polisher to wax. The clay takes all afternoon but I can usually wash and wax in about 2 hours.

    That said, after running in the dirt, I’ll use the foamy brush place. Better to leave the mud in their bay than my driveway!

  7. I am very,very,very picky about my car…Washed every 2 days (drive 80 miles per day)..

    Car always waxed,detailed,interior is always clean..It’s easier cleaning a cleaner,clutter free car than a cluttered dirty car!

    Now as for those car washes,well my buddy and I when we were in our early 20’s a Strip Club had their ‘Dancers” in very,very small Bikini’s wash cars,so we went in my buddies car and well that was fun!! We were not the shy type and were noted to be man whore’s lol…Today we both are married and happy,and 1 woman is god enough for me these days..I just changed from multiple females to multiple cars!!!

  8. A few more tips.

    To clean the film off the inside of the windows (particularly bad when the car is new) use a micro fiber cloth. Spray the window cleaner on the cloth NOT the glass. You may have to make a few passes like this but, it will take all that stuff off.

    Clouded plastic headlights: this is a 3 step process, first use rubbing compound with a clean cloth. then polishing compound with another clean cloth, then wax. It should have them looking good and you seeing good for a few months. And, it’s much cheaper to buy the 3 compounds than the Systems-In-A-Box that are essentially the same thing. Using a polishing ball or disc on a drill makes it even easier. You can find cotton ones at Harbor Freight for a few bucks.

    Do you live or drive in an area with Love Bugs? Simple Green concentrate sprayed on them prior to washing will make removal a breeze.

    I’m also a believer in natural sponges and sheepskin chamois. You can often find natural sponges in Wal-Mart. They have a natural abrasiveness that lifts off dirt but, doesn’t harm the finish. NAPA carries a 2’x2′ sheepskin chamois for about $20, they will have to order it unless they’re a regional distribution center. If you don’t live near Tarpon Springs, FL it’s a great way to get one.

    Shine ON!!

    • Oh those damn love bugs. Used to hit those about 60 miles from Houston. By Hempstead I’d be stopping to wash the windshields and shake my head at the purple mess on the front of the truck. We went through cans of Windex like they were going out of style. At least the purple didn’t quite make it through the coolers onto the engine but coming back and getting into a mudstorm was enough to drive you crazy. First, covered with love bugs, then hit a mud storm and have to stop at a couple carwashes you could only pull up to the opening and wash the glass only to do it again 40 miles later. But you’ve never had fun till you hit a frozen mud storm. I’ve been to the high plains and had to change air filters for just a 2-400 mile stint.

      I got home one day and it was a nice balmy day, not very normal for us. The truck was covered in ice and I had to get out the passenger side door. 5/16″ tarp rope over an inch in diameter with ice. The wife steps outside with her mouth hanging open and I said “batten the hatches, it’s not far behind me.” The ice had melted somewhat off the truck and load before it began building up again. Time to brew some coffee, take a toke and go borrow a bottle from my dad(he didn’t drink but had all sorts of booze given to him since he ordered huge amounts of equipment from various salesmen). I’d ease up(walking speed)on the ice to my uncle’s house and we’d work that bottle over. Most of the truckers I knew were appreciative of a bottle of good whiskey.

  9. The bucket wash method is time-tested and true. However, there are more modern ways now that rely on advanced polymer chemistry. One such approach is “Optimum No-Rinse” (and other companies have their versions of this) that is a kind of polymer soap that dilutes in water and sprays onto the paint. You simply spray on ONR, wipe once, and dry with a 2nd clean microfiber and you’re done. No suds, and no rinsing. The polymers bind to the dirt and prevent scratching.

    This lets you wash your car in places with water restrictions or in your garage in the dead of winter. The major limitation is if you have more than surface dirt, then you’ll need to pressure wash mud and dirt off first.

    Another important modern wash chemical is Iron-X. You’ll want to use that to dissolve brake dust and rail dust and fallout from your paint. You spray it on and let it sit, and it’ll turn purple everywhere there is iron dust embedded in the paint. Then you just wash it off. It smells terrible but it works great and makes paint, especially wheels, shine like showroom.

  10. OT: What, you didn’t think anyone would try to involve the government here? (WARNING: Toxic doses of stupid)

    https:// /news/8718-straight-people-are-rejecting-transgenders-activists-demand-government-intervenes

    I actually don’t know how to react here. Like, I want to laugh, but it’s a crying kind of laugh. The fact that anyone would actually come up with this just beggars belief.

    Meanwhile, NASCAR has turned anti-gun because of course they turned anti-gun. Good thing I already pretty much stopped caring. Generic spec cars, spoiled whiny prima-donnish drivers, inscrutable byzantine rules that seem to change with the wind, racing that doesn’t get exciting until the last few laps and then mainly because of the potential for someone to delete half the field with a single mistake… at this point, why bother.

  11. I have been unsure about brands of cleaners to use for exterior, interior trim, interior windshield (that film buildup is terrible) and tires. I hate the feel of Armor All interior spray but I don’t know what else is better. Are you willing to make some brand recommendations?

    • You really can’t go wrong with Meguiars Gold Class for soap and wheel cleaner, personally I like Cockpit Plus for interior surfaces (cleans and protects while leaving a nice matte sheen, no greasy crap) but again a Meguiars product with low or no shine will work also.For leather I use Furniture Clinic products and I love them, the smell and feel after is wonderful. For cleaning glass there is a great How To by AMMO NYC ( FF to 35:00:00 for glass but the whole thing is full of great technique. Cheers!

      • I’ll second the Meguiars product line. After I retired and had time to actually wash my own vehicles, I was 25+ years out of practice. Hit the Internet, watched a number of videos, did some reading. Bought a bunch of Meguairs stuff. My neighbor, who spends more time washing vehicles than I think healthy, always thinks mine look better.

        Check into the two bucket method. One for soap, one for rinse water, both with grids in the bottom to allow grit to settle.

        Tried one of the microfiber Medusa mops for washing, but went back to my truck brush.

  12. Hitting the underside with a pressure washer on a regular basis will go a long way to slowing down road salt cancer. If you don’t have one spend the 3-5 bucks for a coin op car wash. work under the wheel wells, especially front and back, treat the nozzle like a pry bar to remove chunks of mud and clinging gunk (local hazards in farm country). Hit under the rockers, and maybe spray away any reachable grease/road grime from underneath the engine and differentials.

    Unfortunately its not advisible to do on a modern electronic car, but keeping the engine clean with some gunk and pressure used to be great for cooling and spotting leaks early.

    Also remember to spray through the radiator/intercooler/condensor fins to remove loose dirt and bugs. Just dont bend over the fins by spraying the wrong way.

    • I used Amsoil metal polish for my aluminum wheels on my farm truck. It was amazing it kept those wheels looking new for years(after you washed them). I applied it with a rotary ball and it put a fine finish on them. It’s there today in fact. I have used just about every brand of metal polish and paint wax. Amsoil metal polish was definitely the best of the metal polishes. It did a fine job in the middle of using various things to make your headlight lenses look great.
      Of course the final product I used to make them look new was a cleaner wax. But that was after rubbing compound and finishing paint compound.

      I will use steel wool on glass and then a good wax. I wax the glass on my vehicles inside and out. I was once stopped by the DOT, a really decent guy. He asked me to show him my windshield washers worked(a must). I begged him off assuring him they did but I didn’t want to screw up my windshield since it was freshly waxed and stayed that way. He actually said ” I noticed the glass on your rig was exceptionally clean”. He didn’t ask again and I was grateful to him. The washer worked but I hated to used it and mess up my wax job. I could be at a pit and get the dust off several truckloads of rock on my rig but one I left and the wind hit the glass, it was gone in a flash. Same held true for bugs. I only cleaned them with pure water till I needed to wax again. I suggest the bug remover/wax for windshields, RainX. It works better than anything else I have used. As long as you keep a good was on the glass though, bugs fairly much just splat and are gone along with rain. I don’t even need to use the wipers in a rain. The harder the rain the better. Everyone else is driving with their wipers on high while I don’t even need mine. If you doubt it, wax hell out of the windshield and you’ll be a believer.

      For avoiding fog on your outside mirrors, use Windex foam. Get the mirrors really clean, then spray the foam on and let it dry. When you hit fog it won’t settle on your mirrors(per directions on the can). I’ll use the heaters if I have to but clean mirrors to start with Windex dried on them will keep them clear. You must remember, mirror heaters didn’t always exist.

    • Ernie, I use your method and will go to the carwash(we have hard water)wearing coveralls I can lie on the concrete and get every inch of everything I can see. The coolers are especially well kept by doing this. I also don’t count on not having leaks in the coolant system by dint of good mechanicals, I throw in a big can of Bar’s Leak every couple years when I change coolant using triple distilled water with a good coolant. One of these days I’m going to change to waterless coolant that supposedly will last forever and is also good for water pump lube. On a relatively new vehicle(always used to some degree), I change coolant and install Bar’s leak and never have water pump failure.


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