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How to use Self serve car wash – Car Wash properly 3 steps + Tips

Blog_Cars_How to use Self serve car wash - Car Wash properly 3 steps + Tips, Do's and Don'ts

I’m going to show you how to use these self-serve car washes so that you know what to do, what to avoid, but most importantly, get great results like us!  3 wash steps + 1 bonus step, that’s it.

When it’s time to wash your car there are generally 3 main options most people have.  Manual wash with a hose and buckets, automatic car wash and self-serve car wash.

If you have the time and right tools, manual washing with the 2 bucket method is one of the best ways to maintain the paint on your vehicle.  Plus, when manual washing, you will spot things earlier like chips, rust or dings that you did not know were there before and can repair them earlier.

TIP: Checkout our paint chip repair video here.

#Carwash #CarDetailing #detailing #carlifestyle #mercedes

Self-serve car wash wish high-pressure wand and animal hair foam brush
Self-serve car wash wish high-pressure wand and animal hair foam brush

Automatic car washes are really not that great as they can tend to use soaps that are really harsh (Acidic soap) in order to get the dirt and grim off easily.

NOTE:  You can test the acidity of the soap using pH test paper.  Find links to one below in the products section.

Check out what these types of car washes did to the black chrome trim on my Mercedes-Benz.  The Dealership said it was caused by harsh soaps used at automatic car washes.  Plus, some of them have tracks, rails or conveyor belts that you have to drive through that can damage your cars wheels.

Self-serve car washes are a great alternative to manual washing at home as it is still a manual car wash with the exception that you have tools that help make it easier to wash your car properly.

Plus, in places where you get winter weather, it’s impossible to manually wash your car outside at home when everything is frozen outside.

Let’s get started.

Watch our full video here!

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Finding a Good Car Wash

Before you go wash your car, you should find a good car wash.  If you can, find a newer or modern self-serve car wash.  These will have newer and better equipment like higher pressure washers, animal hair foam brush, heated water, credit card reader and clean, large bays.

You can use Google maps or other reviews online to find a highly rated one.  Make sure to read some reviews … good and bad comments.  Then check the busy times too.  Also, they should be well maintained by the owner and staff.

Entering the Car Wash

When you drive into a bay make sure to leave enough space at the front for you to be able to easily clean the front of the car and the car mats.  Good car washes will have clips for you to hang your mats on.

Leaving room at the front of a car wash bay
Leaving room at the front of a car wash bay

The Control Panel

Self-serve car wash control panel
Self-serve car wash control panel

Look for the control panel.  This is where you pay and select which tool you use and also what comes out of the tool.  Soap, water, wax, etc…  Credit card ones are easiest to use.  For coin operated ones you will have to keep an eye on the timer during washing so that you can add more coins before the time runs out.

Also, this is a great time to read the instructions and note where the Stop or End button is.

When paying by credit card, it will continually charge up your card by the minute until you hit the stop button when you are done, to end the charges.  Pay attention as you near the end of your wash so that you can Stop the machine near the end of the minute and before the start of the next.

Note that some machines charge the next minute before the end of the current minute so watch out for that too.

As soon as you pay, the counter starts and your minutes start.

Self-serve car wash charging next minute before end of current minute
Self-serve car wash charging next minute before end of current minute
  • Sometimes, there is a minimum you have to pay to get the wash going.  If you accidentally use up your time before you put more coins in you might end up having to put more than you need to finish the wash.  For example, to start the wash for the first time it may be $2.00.  Every minute after that may be $1.00.  If you don’t put more money in before using up what you paid, the wash stops and you have to start again paying $2.00.  So if you only had 30 seconds of wash needed to finish, instead of paying $1.00 you will have to pay $2.00.
  • Some car washes don’t have payment at the control panel.  Instead, they have a ticketing gate that you have to pass where you are given a ticket before entering the building with your car.  The timer starts at the time you get the ticket.  When you are done, you have to take your ticket to the office where the attendant will stop the timer and give you your total charges.  In these cases, it would be best to have everything you need ready so that you can start your wash as soon as you get in.  If it’s your first time there, then you may want to walk in and check out the place and see the wash tools and options first.
  • For machines accepting credit cards, if you pay attention as the machine’s timer increases you can see when the machine charges the next minute.  In some cases, the machine gives you a few seconds into the next minute before it charges you for that minute.  You could take advantage of this and get a couple more seconds of rinse in!  Other times the owner set the machines to charge the next minute several seconds before the current one ends.  For example, the above image show a control panel that charged the next minute at 51s into the current minute (before you are finished using your current minute)!

Tools & Wash Options

As you can see, this new car wash has many wash options and tools.

Some car washes will name the options differently so you will have to determine the matching options to the ones I recommend.

  • Some things you might want to bring are some gloves and a mask.  The gloves will keep your hands clean and the mask is used if you spray liquid wax as a last step.  You don’t want to be breathing that in as it’s meant to coat the paint on a car and not the inside of your lungs.  In any case, even when wearing the mask, try not to breath in the spray as the mask may not filter out all of the spray wax misted into the air.
  • This car wash has so many wash options available, even a PAUSE.

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Before you start, walk around the car to note the dirtiest parts.  Typically, this will be the lower half of the car.  These are the areas where you will need to focus on more than the areas that are cleaner.  The cleaner areas should get less attention for all the upcoming steps.

In other words, don’t spend equal time on all areas of the car.  Spend the time where it counts.  The dirtier parts will need more attention.

Also, hang your floor mats for cleaning if needed.


Step 1 - Soap / High-pressure Soap

Set the dial to Soap, grab the spray wand, then put your payment through to start the wash.

If washing your floor mats then soap them up and soak before continuing with the car.

From top to bottom, use overlapping spray with the wand nozzle about 6 inches away from the surface.  Work on a small section at a time so that the spray is consistent all over.  Note that if you have any paint chips or other sensitive areas, you have to be careful not to get too close to with the nozzle as it could cause more damage.

Work your way around the whole car and don’t forget the mirrors, wheel wells, wheels, tires and undercarriage.  Remember the dirtiest parts of the car that you checked earlier? … those areas will need more attention and more spraying.

You will also want to spray into the crevices where the door jambs are, the fuel filler door and also between the bumper covers and quarter panels.

The crevice between the bumper cover and quarter panels are also a place where rust likes to form from the inside out.

Starting with the High-pressure soap will right away start to remove and wash off the heaviest dirt and debris on the surface.  Just keep in mind that it may take a minute before the soap fully comes through the system.

Watch our video on rust proofing this trouble area to prevent rust on your car

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  • Wear nitrile gloves so that you can keep your hands clean.
  • The water/soap spray coming out during high-pressure settings is dangerous and can hurt you or damage your car so make sure to not spray yourself or anything at close range.  This is also why you don’t what to have the nozzle too far away from the surface because at too large a distance the water pressure is minimal.
  • If you have paint chips or loose trim then be careful and keep the wand nozzle further away than recommended in above step so that it does not do further damage.  You may instead have to use the foam brush more in those areas
  • If you have any type of paint protection film such as 3M, Expel, etc… then be careful when spraying at the edges of these.  You don’t want to spray against the edge of the film as it could cause it to lift and separate from the car’s surface.
  • If you have Rust Check or similar annual rust protection sprayed on your car to prevent rust, then do not spray the wheel well or undercarriage with High-pressure Soap.  Just spray these areas using the High-pressure Rinse only.  This will prevent washing away the oily rust coating that you applied or paid for someone else to do.
  • Do not spray water/soap into the exhaust pipes.  Too much water inside could cause the mufflers to start rusting from the inside out.

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Step 2 - Foam brush

We have received a lot of comments to not use the foam brush due to reasons that any physical contact is not great for the paint.  Plus, there are too many variables to control including a poorly maintained foam brush, foam brushes that are made from hard plastic bristles, other particles that may not be easily removed from the brush by spraying it.  Thank you for the comments.

From dirty microfiber cloths and wash mitts to snow brushes used to clear snow to driving at highway speed in sandy conditions to foam brushes and more, any thing or particles that come into physical contact with the paint could potentially cause the paint to get swirl marks or micro scratches depending on many variables.

The aim of the video was meant to familiarize people who haven’t used the self-serve car washes before.  Hopefully it achieved its goal to demystifying what is involved in using one.

Though a 2 bucket method would be recommended for the ultimate care of your paint, most car washes don’t allow you to do this since it takes up a stall without payment to use it for the full time you are there.  Plus, in the winter zones where temperatures get below 0°C you can’t wash your vehicle at home on your driveway (If you have one).

So, if you want to treat your cars paint with the most care at self-serve car washes, then it may be best to use a touchless method to wash your vehicle at the self-serve car wash.

In the past, we have had issues getting the vehicle fully clean with just a touchless method and was a reason we use the foam brush (one that was cleaned by us, expels a lot of foam soap and was made of animal hair, not synthetic plastic or rubber and used lightly).  It helped to remove the fine dirt film/residue that gets left behind.  To treat our paint the best going forward, we have recently been trying again with a different touchless method and it so far is working better.  More testing needed, though.

The new method we are testing:

1) Start the wash using the high pressure soap or rinse from the wash wand to rinse off all dirt and debris from your vehicle. Focusing more time on really dirty areas.

2) Use the foaming soap from the wash wand (Not the foam brush) to dispense soap to cover the entire vehicle and wheels.

3) Stop the timer to stop the charges and to let the soap soak for a few minutes (You can go as long as you want).  NOTE: We don’t use the Pause function since it still counts the time and continues to charge.  You may need to experiment because there will usually be an initial, higher startup cost to start the wash.

4) Start again, using the high-pressure rinse from the wash wand to rinse the entire vehicle clean.  Starting from bottom to top to help ensure no sections are missed, then rinse top down.

5) Dry using a large clean microfiber cloth.

6) Use spray wax to finish.

Of course, use whatever method you are most comfortable with to wash your vehicle.

Don’t forget that all car washes are different, with different quality and condition of equipment and soaps.  Some are maintained better than others, which could give varying results.  You can also consider testing the soap with litmus paper (pH test paper) to check the acidity.

Let us know if you have any comments or suggestions!

It’s true that no one washes these after they use them and there could be a lot of dirt and sand inside, but let me ask you… why not just clean it before you use it?

It’s important to make sure that the brush is an animal/boar’s hair brush with long hairs, though.  I wouldn’t use any regular brush.  Do not use synthetic hair brushes as those are very harsh and do not absorb water like animal hair.  The brush must be in good condition, clean, with long hair bristles and wet with a lot of soap/foam before use.  One thing that the self-serve car washes have that you don’t have at home is the foam brush that continuously expels soap/foam.  This will continuously push dirt out of it and provide new soap/foam.  See how much comes out from the one in my video.  I wouldn’t recommend a foam brush that you use at home that doesn’t expel this much foam.  Alternatively, some recommend using a microfiber style brush instead.

We always take the brush out at the beginning and then wash it thoroughly before starting the Foam brush step.

After high-pressure washing the brush set the dial from Soap to Foam brush and start scrubbing gently as I show you next.

The reason we need to use this is that the high-pressure spray can not always completely remove the dirt on the surface.  Often times after the car dries, you will still see some dirt and streaks left over if you don’t do this step or do it properly.  You need some physical washing to remove some of the dirtiest parts.  

Before you get started, just make sure to let enough foam come out and cover all the bristles.

Start from top to bottom working in sections.  For this step, clean the top half of the car first then the bottom half last.  The bottom half is usually dirtier so we don’t want to contaminate the brush as we wash cleaner areas of the car first.  Remember again to spend less time on the cleaner areas and give more attention to the dirtiest parts of the car.

Important Tip: every now and then, flicking the foam and dirt off as you scrub will keep the brush head clean.  Doing this frequently will help clear the brush of dirt and debris picked up as you wash.  At the minimum, do this after every panel/section of the car.

At the very end of this step, make sure to scrub your wheels, tires and mud flaps.  Give the wheels a good gentle scrub.

Don’t forget to scrub the floor mats if needed.

  • Make sure the the boar’s hair brush is in good condition.  The mount where the hair attaches to the brush should be made of rubber so that it does not easily cause scratches when it bumps into your car as you are scrubbing.  Even a light bump could cause paint scratches.  Also, there should be A LOT of foam coming out.  This is important in helping to prevent the dirt you are lightly scrubbing off from damaging your paint.
  •  If you are concerned about using the brush, you can also bring a bucket with a grit guard and fill it with clean water before you start washing.  This bucket can be used to clean the brush after washing each panel of the vehicle.
  • When lightly scrubbing the wheels, holding the brush vertically with both hands and scrubbing in an up and down motion can make it easier to clean the wheels.  An up and down motion or elliptical up and down motion works well.

Step 3 - High-pressure Rinse

Next, we use the high-pressure rinse to rinse off the soap and dirt remaining on the car.  Set the dial accordingly and use the spray wand starting from top to bottom.  Rinse off your floor mats if you soaped them up in step 1.  Then move on to the car.  Work in small sections and make sure to use an overlapping spray pattern.

Don’t forget to rinse the mirrors, wheel wells, wheels, tires, under carriage and crevices as mentioned in step 1.

Rinse step from top to bottom at self-serve car wash
Rinse step from top to bottom at self-serve car wash
  • Start to monitor the control panel for time/charges so that you can time when to press the Stop/End button to stop the charges.  Ideally, you want to stop just before the next minute is charged.  As mentioned before, some car washes are configured to charge the next minute before the end of the current minute.  Different car washes are configured differently so be aware of that.  We have seen some that charge the next minute after 1s into the next minute while another one charges the next minute at 51s into the current minute.
  • When rinsing, be careful not to let the high-pressure spray point down onto the floor.  There is a lot of dirt on the floor that will be kicked up and splashed onto your clean car if you accidentally do this.  If you accidentally do, not a big problem as you can just rinse that off.
  • Do not spray too much water into the exhaust pipes.  Too much water inside could cause the mufflers to start rusting from the inside out if it soaks inside for too long.

BONUS Level - Going All the Way!

Now, you can stop here and most people do, but if you want to go that extra mile to get the ultimate shine, finish off your wash by first taking a large micro fiber towel and drying off the surface.

If you don’t dry the car and just drive off, you might find that the dirt, sand and dust on the road will get sucked up by the air as your car drives past and cause it to stick to the wet surface of the car.  This basically undoes all the hard work you just accomplished with the wash.  So take the time to dry your car before you drive off.

Some people air dry but that does take a longer time.  Others like to use the air dryer provided at the car wash.  We find that sometimes the air dryer does not blow enough air and so it will take too much time and money to fully dry a car.  In the end, the best solution for us is to use a microfiber towel to dry.

We find the large towels to be easier to use than small towels.  But you have to make sure to not drop any part of it on the ground as it will pick up a lot of dirt, which can scratch the paint.

Work in sections and note that you do not need the surface to be completely dry.  Make sure to wipe the top half of the car first, then the bottom half and the wheels last.  You may find that some trace amounts of dirt still remain so you might want to consider washing the area again with the foam brush and rinsing.  If there is light dirt streaks left, spray some liquid spray wax to dampen the area and dampen a small microfiber cloth and carefully and lightly wipe away the streak in one direction.  Make sure to fold the towel to a new and clean section before continuing to use.  Don’t forget to wipe the door jambs too as they tend to be dirty and wet after a wash!

Scratches and swirl marks are also introduced during drying so having a clean paint surface and a clean towel are a must.

Use a large microfiber towel to dry after a car wash
Use a large microfiber towel to dry after a car wash
Apply premium liquid synthetic spray wax after a car wash
Apply premium liquid synthetic spray wax after a car wash

Next, use a premium spray wax with a clean, dry microfiber cloth and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.  Again, do the top half of the car first then the bottom half.  We find that the synthetic spray waxes work great as they are streak free and can be applied on wheels, plastic and rubber trim too without getting a white residue.

The final touch is to spray or apply tire shine.

Check the description for the car care products we recommend using.

We hope to read comments of you getting great results using our car wash method.

Don’t forget to check out the last Bonus Tips #6 below!

If you find our content useful you can also use our affiliate links below to purchase the products we like or similar. We are not sponsored by anyone.

  • You may not be allowed to dry or wax your car after the wash if there are no empty bays and if there are people waiting to use the car wash.  It’s always good to go when most people aren’t which is usually earlier in the mornings.  You can check Google maps for least busy hours and go then.
  • Wear a mask when spraying the liquid wax.  Try not to breathe it in as you spray because the mask will not block all the wax droplets and breathing this in is not a good thing.  The wax is meant to coat the car paint, not your lungs.
  • If you choose to use automatic car washes anyway, where only one car goes in at a time and there is only one bay, then if there is a line-up of cars waiting outside then count each one and multiple by 5 to 10.  This will give you a rough estimate of how long in minutes you will have to wait.  If more than 20 – 30 minutes I would come back another time.  It’s usually not worth your time to wait more than that.

Always use the method that is most comfortable and suitable to you.  There is more than one way to wash your vehicle so choose one that works best for you.  

Happy Cleaning!

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