Are Automatic Car Washes Safe?

Dear Tracy,
During the summer months I always wash my car at home, but in the winter I rely on an automatic car wash to get rid of the salt and sludge on my car. My dad recently told me that going through automatic car washes on a regular basis is not good for your car. Do you have any advice on automatic car washes? If it is okay to go, should I be getting all the services, or just the basic wash?
Mike L.

Dear Mike,
Taking your car through an automatic car wash is a good idea – especially in winter when the effects of salt can be extremely damaging to your car. Today’s car wash systems are safe, unlike the old brush systems your dad may remember. Keeping your car clean in winter is so important because long term exposure to salt, dirt, and grit will dull your car’s paint finish and contribute to rust and corrosion. It is a good idea to wash it at least once a month, or possibly more frequently if it is parked outside.

The car wash offers extra services that can quickly add up from the price of a basic wash. Though the car wash typically recommends them, they may not always be necessary. A service such as “undercarriage rust-proofing” may not be as effective as it sounds. Rust-proofing is beneficial when it is applied to brand-new metal, and will protect the metal from contact with road corrosives like salt. Most new cars receive a thorough rust-proofing at the factory during assembly, which should be sufficient, without any further treatments. The only extra you might want to splurge on a few times a year would be an underbody wash. It is important to keep that area clean and free of damaging debris. This is not as easy to do at home.

A final suggestion is to towel your car dry after a trip through the car wash. Even though automatic car washes usually have high power blowers for drying, the car may still come out wet. Use your own clean towel from home, or if the car wash does it for you, make sure they are using fresh towels on each car.