How to Safely Wash Your Car in the Winter

By Mike Cardenas

mike-detailGreetings fellow detailing enthusiasts! It’s that time of the year again, and so far we’ve been pretty fortunate to keep old man winter away this season. But inevitably, the snow will soon pay us a visit along with some pretty cold temperatures. Pretty soon, vehicles begin to look like powdered donuts with so much salt being laid down on the roads. In this edition of Shift, I’m going to address one of the most common questions I hear during the winter season, “How can you safely wash your car in the winter?”

Having worked in the car washing industry for 15 years, I know winters are typically the busiest time of the year, partly because washing cars at home would turn a driveway into an ice rink. Certainly automated car washes have a purpose for vehicles with no paint or finish concerns, or simply when time and convenience become a factor. But there are many of us who simply prefer the safety or tradition of hand washing a vehicle. Here are two methods for safely washing your vehicle in the winter. 

The Bucket Method

Having worked in the car wash industry, I will tell you that some car wash companies won’t allow the use of buckets in their wash bays. Of course, this is to keep everyone pumping quarters into the machine for more water, but even with this bucket method, it’s not uncommon to spend anywhere from $5 to $9 to wash your vehicle in a self-service bay if you’re planning on washing correctly. It’s always good to speak to the attendant and explain your reasons for your method to get approval first. Trust me, you’ll be thanked for asking and for assuring that you’re going to spend good money in the bay.  

So let’s assume that you have access to a high pressure wash bay during the winter. You will need two buckets with grit guards, a car washing mitt, microfiber drying towels, a wheel scrubbing mitt or brush, wheel cleaner, and a proper wash detergent. The detergents in most self-serve wash bays use chemicals that are pretty harsh or too strong, and they can cause issues over time on plastic components, or in some cases even strip the wax off a vehicle. Also, avoid using wax or sealant products as they may interfere with what you currently have on your vehicle. Using warm water from the wash bay, fill your buckets and wash as you typically would using a two bucket method, with one bucket as your wash water and the other to clean wheels. Spray your vehicle’s wheels, and rinse the vehicle first of heavy dirt, salt, and debris. Wash the vehicle from the top to just about the top of the lower sections; you’ll leave those bottom sections until the very last. Rinse, and if possible use a “soft rinse” or reverse osmosis rinse function.  

Finally, use a proper drying such as the “blotting” method to dry your vehicle, using separate towels to dry wheels and door jambs. Remember, it’s winter, and those surfaces are not going to be the cleanest thing this time of year. Lastly, use this method if the temperature is preferably above freezing, or at least no lower than 25 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The Rinse-less Wash Method

If you don’t have access to a wash bay, or the conditions are too frigid to wash outside, then this method works extremely well. Advancements in washing detergents now allow you to wash your vehicle within the confines of your garage, or virtually anywhere, without the need for a water hose. For this approach, you will need the same materials as we previously mentioned in the bucket method, with one big difference. The wash detergent will need to be a rinse-free type, such as Optimum No Rinse or, my favorite, Rinse-Free Car Wash from XPEL.

Follow the directions on how to create your wash solution, as dilution ratios vary among brands, and you’re ready for washing.

Rinse-free wash systems allow you to take a dirty vehicle and begin washing with a mitt, with one major difference: they don’t require rinsing. So how does it work? Most use natural ingredients to safely lift up dirt and encapsulate it, while incorporating lubricity to help prevent scratching or harming the paint surface.

These products are extremely popular in the Southwest United States and in other drought-prone regions. It’s important to have some rinse-free solution available in a spray bottle to treat extremely dirty areas prior to washing with a mitt, to help prevent contamination on the wash mitt. A grit guard is absolutely essential when using this method, and you have to make sure that the mitt hits the grit guard properly to keep contamination away as much as possible. Again, wash the vehicle starting with the top sections, but it’s important to dry each section as you go as much as possible until the lower sections are completed. Don’t allow the rinse-free wash solution to dry onto the surface.

The rinse-free method is one that we use quite often when we detail on location and washing conventionally is not possible. Keeping a bottle of rinse-free mix is also great for long road trips or for cleanings where a quick detail is not enough to get the job done. So if winter is causing a bit of washing anxiety in your garage, not to worry. Hopefully these methods will bring back some detailing bliss to your vehicle. Until next time, take pride in your detailed ride!

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