Automatic or At-Home Car Wash – Which Is Better?

You love your car. We love your car. Never would we ever wish ill will upon the paint and exterior of your favorite mode of transportation. Unfortunately, that takes a little bit of effort, though. The outside world is a tough and dirty place and with your vehicle flying down roads at highway speed, it’s impossible to escape the unsightly buildup of grime and dirt. Fortunately, a sufficient car wash (whether automatic or manual), will help prolong that glowing coat of paint.

Long story short, you have to wash your car. Whether you love your vehicle or not, it’s crucial for the longevity of the exterior. Because it takes an ample amount of effort to break out a bucket and sponge, many resort to riding through the automatic car washes near their home. Though those with an ever-growing fondness for their vehicle may question the weight of both options.

Which one is better? Should I opt for an automatic car wash or break out the equipment and do it myself? Will my stress ever end?!

While we can’t answer all of life’s questions, we can give you further information about your car washing method. Let’s break it all down.

How Often Should You Wash Your Car?

Before we even jump into describing each method, we must note the importance of a car wash.

Washing your vehicle correctly will help break off the dirt and other contaminants caked onto the exterior. If left unchecked, these grimes and goos will break down your wax, paint, and outside metal, causing the vehicle to look unsightly within an extended period of time. A car is an expensive endeavor, even if you plan on selling it in the future. Therefore, it’s best to keep the appearance pleasant (especially if you plan on selling it).

Ultimately, how often you should wash your vehicle depends on the area you live in. If you live in a harsh environment with plenty of dirt, sand, or salt, you may need to wash your car more often (duh). The rule of thumb is somewhere between every month. If you notice your car getting significantly dirty in that time, you may need to push it up every two weeks.

This unrequited love and care for your vehicle can be burdensome. Consequently, most people choose automatic or paid car washes. In fact, the car wash industry was worth 29.3 billion in 2021.

What About the Winter?

Glad you asked.

Winters can be rough on your vehicle, especially in Colorado. Salt, sand, snow, and ice can wreak havoc on your car’s exterior. Though a pain, you should wash your car more often during the frigid months. Despite the brutal temperatures, you need to bust out the water and soap to save your paint (just another positive for automatic washes).

We discussed the entire topic here.

Automatic Car WashPros and Cons

Automatic car washes are often seen as unmanned washes that move your vehicle through a track. You pull up and the machine pulls you through, using various brushes, soaps, and waxes to clean your vehicle. Most of the time, you stay in your car during the process.

Technically, car washes that involve employees washing your car do not count as automatic. They often bring the best of both automatic and manual at an extra cost. The premium allows your car to be washed automatically and cleaned thoroughly by workers. That’s an entirely different subject.

ProsCons
Saves you time and energyCan’t pinpoint problem areas
No winter chill (stay inside)Doesn’t always create the best clean
Save water, the planet, and your paintCosts More

Pro – Time and Effort

This pro speaks for itself. Using effort to clean your vehicle takes… Well. Effort.

If you are a stickler for the outward appearance of your vehicle or live in an area where you need to wash your car often, choosing the efficient method makes sense. With an automatic car wash, you don’t even have to stand. You let the wonderful world of modern technology take care of the work for you. Isn’t that magical?

It’s called automatic, after all. Does this really need to be explained?

The con that rears its head here is that of price. The more efficient and easy method is always going to cost more than the one that involves manual labor on the buyer’s behalf. Prepare to spend significantly more on automatic work than buying the ingredients and cooking at home.

Con – Can’t Be Specific

At the end of the day, automated washes can’t pinpoint the problem areas on your vehicle. For example, if you have a specific spot where dirt gets trapped, you can’t tell the machinery to focus on it. Also, depending on the quality of the machinery, the wash may leave some spots relatively untouched.

There’s nothing more detailed and specific than using your own hands and might. You can make sure that every little bit gets the attention that it needs, providing for better cleaning.

Once again, this all depends on the business. There are extremely detailed and advanced car washes out there, but they will come at a higher cost and may not be readily available.

Pro – Save You During Winter

Nothing is worse than working with water during a bitter morning. The biting Colorado air can make washing your car in the winter an absolute drag. Ironically, winter is when your car needs the most attention. What a brutal reality we live in.

Luckily, automatic car washes save you from having to use warm water and extra-thick gloves during the chilly months. If you decide to pay for your cleanings during the winter, you won’t have to deal with the glacial task of scrubbing water onto your exterior.

How many more synonyms for cold can I possibly come up with?

Con – Doesn’t Always Look Great

As we stated, there’s nothing more detailed than detailing (get it?) your vehicle with your own hands. An automatic wash can easily miss those problem areas and doesn’t give extra attention to all dirt buildups, leaving your car unevenly clean.

On top of that, the quick method and fan drying that most car washes use can leave your exterior covered with unsightly watermarks. When your vehicle is unable to air dry in a closed tunnel or is blasted with air, it can leave streaks of drying water on the paint. If the automated car wash is not of the highest mechanical quality, you can be assured that you will have some spots left after cleaning.

What’s the point in paying if it isn’t perfect?

Pro – Better Water System and Paint Protection

Believe it or not, automated car washes may be better for the environment!

Some washes have a recycling water system. This technology allows the wash to use the exact needed amount to wash your car, reducing excess spillage of clean water. It will also reuse a significant amount of water during a wash, cutting usage by a substantial margin. This system helps keep water usage down, especially in states that are prone to droughts (i.e. California and Colorado).

Secondly, most cleaning manufacturers rely on harsh chemicals to make their cleaning agents fast. Unsurprisingly, these chemicals are bad for the longevity and shine of your paint. Most car washes avoid using these chemicals, choosing softer cleaning agents instead.

Save the environment and your paint. Win-win.

Manual Car Wash – Pros and Cons

Time to get the elbow grease and your hands dirty. Manual car washes involve using your own equipment and space to wash your vehicle. Often seen are hoses, buckets of water, soap, sponges, rags, and microfiber cloths.

The tried-and-true method, manual car washes will never go anywhere. They do have their downfalls, though.

ProsCons
Pick your spots carefullyNeed outside space for washing and good weather
No watermarks after dryingNeed free time to do it right
Save yourself moneyBad materials can damage paint

Pro – Can Be Specific

As we stated, human assistance can make sure that every problem spot on the vehicle is cleaned. Furthermore, you can use more detailed cleaning tools to hit those hard-to-reach spots.

Nothing beats the good-ole-fashioned method of getting dirty and doing it yourself.

Con – Face the Elements and Space

We already discussed the concept of winter car washes to death, but we must note the other extreme weather scenarios.

Washing your car manually involves having the space to do so and doing so in said space. It’s that simple. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a designated and climate-controlled area like a heated garage, you will find yourself bearing all sorts of inclement weather.

For example, if you have health issues, you might not want to be outside doing manual labor during an extremely hot day. Though Colorado is known for its beautiful snow, its summers can be full of sweat-drenched affairs.

Secondly, if you live in a small area like an apartment complex, it can be hard to find ample space to get your entire cleaning process done. This is a point for automatic washes.

Pro – Drying Is Better

Remember how we noted water spots drying on your vehicle after a car wash? Ultimately, it depends on the drying method. Most of the time, if you are air drying or using a fan (like most automatic washes), you are going to end up with a spotty experience.

Guess what can combat that? Manual drying, of course!

Drying your vehicle off with a microfiber towel can help eliminate the chances of those unsightly water spots. Furthermore, it gives you the opportunity to apply some finishing wax or other shining materials. Not only do you get a better dry, but you get a better gleam afterward. It’s a win-win.

Con – Time

Much like efficiency and energy, washing your car manually costs a significant amount of time. Not only do you need ample time to clean the vehicle (inside and out), but you also have time for setup and breakdown. You have to make sure everything is in the right place and cleaned up, creating an arduous experience.

If the weather is cold or hot, you might not want to spend that much time in the elements.

If time is money and automatic car washes cost money, is spending money on an automatic wash and saving time actually saving money? Think about that for a while.

Pro – Save Money

We did a little research so you didn’t have to.

A full car wash kit will cost you anywhere from $30-$50. Let’s say, on average, this gives you 10 car washes before needing to re-up (it could even be higher, really). The average cost of the cheapest auto wash is around $10.

Quick math.

10 of the absolute cheapest automatic washes would cost you double the best quality washing equipment. So, there’s that.

Con – Damage to Paint

Working with your own equipment can lead to all kinds of mistakes. For example, dropping a cloth or sponge in the wrong place could pick up unwanted debris. Rub that on your finish and you are looking at a huge autobody mistake.

Furthermore, some waxes and soap are horrible for your car’s wax. You can always end up with a quick-fix soap that manufacturers make, lowering the overall longevity of your car’s paint.

At the end of the day, there’s more room for error when you are working on your own with your own materials. There’s no one else to blame but yourself. If an automated car wash damages your car, it’s not on you.

Conclusion

We can argue about the differences between the two washing methods until the cows come home. Ultimately, it’s up to three main things:

  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • How much do you care about the fine details?
  • How much time do you have to spend?

Those are the three major differences between the two. Answer those questions and you should be able to decide which is best for you. Remember, you aren’t signing a contract. You could always mix and match (duh). For example, get automatic car washes during the winter and wash manually in the summer.

The main point is: neither is better or worse than the other. They both have pros and cons.

Car Wash Facts

Bonus Round: here are some interesting facts we found during our painstaking washing research.

  • Washing your car frequently can actually lower your gas usage! No, really. Less dirt on your exterior means less wind resistance. It’s incremental, but it still does something. Mythbusters found that a filthy car can lower fuel efficiency by 10%.
  • You can easily use 150 gallons of water to wash your vehicle at home, hence the environmental benefit of using automatic washes.
  • 27% of people say their car stinks. — This doesn’t have anything to do with car washes, but it is gross! Clean your car, please.
  • The conveyer-style “automatic” car wash was invented in 1940 in Hollywood. It used a winch system to pull the car through the tunnel while manual workers washed the car. So, it wasn’t truly automatic.
  • The average profit margin per car is approximately 29% for automatic car washes.
  • 304 million gallons of water are used for car washes per day, globally.
  • The car wash market grows by 3% every year.