With a historic drought hitting the Southwest, many Americans are being asked to do their part to conserve water. There are restrictions and potential fines for watering lawns, hosing down driveways and yes, even washing your car.
Car washing is indeed a water-intensive affair. A free-running hose can spray out 80 gallons of water as you wash your car, and earn you a fine of up to $500 in California. Water-wasting fines are easy to avoid by using a shut-off nozzle, which reduces consumption to about 10 gallons.
Commercial car washes also go through the gallons, though their consumption varies, depending on how much water is reclaimed and evaporated. In general, a self-serve car wash will consume about 16 gallons and automated in-bay and conveyor washes can use up to 30 gallons per car, though some claim to use less than the typical at-home wash.
Fortunately, there are some water-wise ways to maintain your vehicle's appearance and value in these tough conditions.
The Basics of No-Water Cleaning
One way to maintain your car's finish while conserving water is to actually start with a good detail job. A smooth glossy surface will make it more difficult for contaminants to adhere. The detailing process will vary according to your needs, but the basic steps will include a wash, using a clay bar to remove surface contaminants, polishing with a compound to get a deeper clean and a wax application to protect the finish. The time, money or effort that goes into detailing may pay dividends if you're able to keep the car out of the elements.
The easiest way to preserve a clean and detailed car is to park it prudently. Keeping it away from lawn sprinklers, bird perches and vegetation that may drop sap is paramount. A covered parking space or a car cover will extend the time between washes.
A Light Dusting
Despite your best efforts, your car will get dirty. Fortunately, in drought-affected areas it's less likely to get coated by a layer of overnight dew. More likely than not, it will get a very light coating of dust. As long as conditions and surfaces are dry, products such as the California Car Duster will dispatch that dust easily. The paraffin-infused strands of brand-new car dusters have a tendency to leave some streaks, but after some use that will subside. Use only very light pressure on the surface, only a little more than the weight of the duster itself. That will minimize the chances of scratching.
Car dusters are intended for dry surfaces only. If there is any moisture present, it may cause streaking. Smaller dusters are also available and do an admirable job of removing brake dust from wheels.
With the light layer of dust removed, it is less likely that water spots or other contaminants will adhere to the surface of your car.
Liquid Damage Control
The trickier part of maintaining a clean car is dealing with liquids that hit its surface. According to Mike Pennington from car-care product maker Meguiar's, the biggest offenders are bird droppings and eggs. Both will eventually eat through the protective layers of your car's finish and damage the paint. You should remove eggs and droppings immediately. Water spots are less urgent, but the process for cleaning them up is similar.
You don't have to break out the hose and buckets, though. You can remove liquid contaminants with a variety of detailer sprays available from companies such as Mothers or Meguiar's. Nearly every spray we've sampled follows similar cardinal rules. It's important to use these products on a cool surface and in the shade. As Pennington notes, a hot surface will make the spray product evaporate prematurely, reducing its effectiveness and possibly causing more harm than good.
It's also important to use a quality microfiber towel. Microfiber fabrics feature a very light construction that traps particles deep within the weave. The typical cotton terrycloth towel will keep contaminants closer to its surface and has a tendency to leave light scratches in its wake. Microfiber towels are also much more absorbent, which makes clean-up quick and effortless. They'll also remain effective for a long time if given proper care. Microfiber towels should only be washed with other microfiber products. Mixing in other materials like cotton will drastically reduce a microfiber towel's effectiveness.
A Deeper Cleaning
There are a number of products that offer a sound intermediate choice between a spray detailer and a full wash. Among them is Meguiar's Ultimate Wash & Wax Anywhere spray. Besides cleaning the surface, it also leaves a water-repellent protective coating.
For those who are more militant about water conservation, Meguiar's also makes Rinse-Free Express Wash and Wax, a product that eliminates the need to rinse off your car after washing. This concentrate is mixed in with the wash bucket water and is intended for moderately dirty cars. It was developed for on-location car care professionals with limited access to water and can be purchased online, though you might not easily find it in the usual car parts and accessories stores.
The Dirty Details
At the very least, using a combination of these techniques will extend the time between conventional car washes. It's very important to follow the product directions: Failing to do so could harm your car's surfaces. With some care and effort, though, you can do your part to combat the drought and maintain the appearance and value of your car.