Washin' in the Streets

Many people don't even think about cleaning their car until the weather gets warm, at which point they suddenly realize it's time to hose off that six-month layer of crust on their car, truck, SUV, minivan or station wagon. Actually, if you live in a warm climate, the opportunity to clean your vehicle may last all year long. However, even in mild climates, there's plenty of filth that can build up on a car's paint in just a few short days. Residents of Los Angeles can testify to the fact that even a freshly cleaned vehicle will look dingy and tarnished after only 72 hours of exposure to the city's air. I affectionately refer to this accumulated, grimy substance as "L.A. Atmosphere" and try not to think about its affect on my lungs.

While cleaning the inner linings of your respiratory system can be a painful and medically complex process, cleaning and protecting your vehicle's finish is considerably easier. All you need is access to a high-quality, high-pressure spray nozzle, a few dollars in quarters, and some soft, abrasive-free towels. The entire process can take less than 15 minutes, though more time (and money) is required if you want to be thorough in your endeavors.

This column will cover the most efficient method of utilizing your local coin-op car wash to keep your vehicle looking its best with a minimum of time and expense.

1. The first steps to using a coin-op car-wash facility occur before you even leave the house. Two important items to bring with you are plenty of one-dollar bills and at least one large, 100-percent cotton, soft towel that isn't too important to you (hint to clueless male readers: Don't use your family's best linen!). You can also bring any loose quarters that might be floating around your house or trapped between the couch cushions, but having at least three, and probably up to five, singles is your best bet. The towel will come in handy when you're done washing the car because you don't want to have to spend 50 cents or more on those glorified paper towels they sell at most coin-op places.

2. After you pull into the car-wash stall, use the change machine to get quarters (or car-wash tokens) and make sure you get enough to do the job right the first time. Since most of these facilities have at least a two-dollar minimum, you don't want to underestimate your quarter needs and run out of water pressure just before finishing the job. If you do, you'll have to spend another two dollars just to get another minute of time. If you put in more quarters than necessary, you can always use the extra time to spray off less crucial areas like the undercarriage or engine compartment.

3. Once the water starts flowing, you'll want to begin with the high-pressure soap spray. This holds true even if you are planning on using the foaming brush. NEVER begin with the foaming brush because it will scratch your car's finish with the dried dirt and dust that is still on the paint. You first must get the paint wet and remove as much dirt as possible with the high-pressure spray. If the vehicle's paint is only dusty with little or no dirt, smashed bugs or bird droppings, the spray is all you should need to clean it effectively. Start at the roof of the vehicle and work your way down to the windows, hood, truck lid and lower body panels.

4. After thoroughly cleaning the body, use the high-pressure spray on each wheel and up, inside the wheel wells. Casual car washers often miss this area, but it accumulates a massive amount of dirt and grime that, if left unwashed, can eventually lead to rust (especially on older cars). After finishing with the high-pressure soap spray, and/or the foaming brush, turn the knob to the high-pressure rinse setting and thoroughly spray off the entire vehicle. Once again, start at the roof and work your way down to the wheels and wheel wells. Make sure to spray into the body gaps around the trunk lid, hood, doors, lower windshield and anywhere else that soapy water might accumulate.

5. A point should be made here about the spray-wax setting at coin-op car-wash facilities. Basically, don't use them. If you want to apply wax to your car, using a spray nozzle is not the way to do it. Proper waxing involves several towels, some elbow grease, and a good deal of time. It will be the subject of an upcoming How To... because it deserves its own column. While at a coin-op car wash, concentrate on cleaning the car.

6. After time runs out on the high-pressure spray, pull the vehicle into an open area and grab the towel you brought along. Start by drying off the roof and then move down. Flip the towel over and use its different sections rather than just rubbing with the same section over and over. While you use the towel to dry off the car, make sure you don't drop it! If it touches the ground at all, especially if it is already damp from soaking up water, it will be instantly covered in small rocks and debris. Using a dropped towel will scratch your paint faster than a feline with chicken pox. Stop the process until you can use a different towel, even if it means driving all the way home. Dry the wheels last since they will likely be covered in brake dust and assorted grime even after using the high-pressure spray and/or foaming brush on them. If you rub the towel on the body after drying and cleaning the wheels, you will scratch the paint.

7. Drive the vehicle a short distance, then stop and give it one more inspection. Water trapped in-between body panels will probably come out and run down the sides or back of the car when you drive it. If there's a section of your towel that never touched the ground or the wheels, use this section to mop up these last bits of water. Don't forget to dry off obscure areas like the exterior mirrors, headlight covers or lower bumpers. The entire process should take less than 15 minutes and cost less than five dollars (throw in another five minutes if you use the coin-op vacuums at the car wash). How many vehicle-maintenance procedures can you say that about?