Cleaning your car is cathartic. Just imagine the zen-like experience of scrubbing all your troubles away and power-washing them down a drain. All of life’s filth just washes off your whip’s sheetmetal, leaving it fresh and sparkling and pure. But if you don’t have your own hose, you’ve got to pay for this pleasure! Here’s how to hit the coin-op car wash with maximum efficiency.

Car people are two things: deeply attached to our rides and cheap as hell. We don’t like random jokers touching our cars, and we want the highest quality results for the least amount of money. Saving cash now means more money for parts later, right?

So pass on the detailing service, skip the line at the drive through and find one of those pay-to-spray slots.

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After years of experimenting, I think I’ve got a solid strategy to get the most out of your short time in the wash bay. Check it out, and think of your own experiences as you run down our list.

First, get your tools ready.

You’re going to want:

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  • A wash mitt or car sponge
  • A bristly wheel-cleaner
  • A whole lotta quarters, or credit card.
  • A terry-cloth towel
  • A chamois

Get all that stuff out of the car and off to the side before you start washing so you don’t have to open the doors or trunk while water’s running.

Set your time wisely.

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If you’re at once of those fancy-pants car washes that takes credit cards, you don’t really have to sweat this step. But the rest of us paupers will have to plan ahead; you definitely don’t want to be scrambling for slimy quarters with wet hands while you’re wasting precious paid hose time mid-wash.

I like to take a little over 10 minutes to wash my Acura TL. At my local coin-op joint, that’s about five bucks in quarters. You’ll start to know how much time you need after a few washes, but whatever you land on you want to make sure you’re all paid up straight away.

Clean wheels first and bring your own wheel brush.

Wheels are going to be the grimiest visible bits on your road car. When you clean them, the salt and soot and brake dust you wash off might get on other stuff, so clean wheels first.

The washer will either have a setting or a separate scrubber for wheels. Get the juicy soap from it, but attack with your own wheel brush.

I prefer one of these fuzzy-dildo looking things for two reasons: You can get lots of scrubbing torque on ‘em, and they fit into the corners of spokes. Do one wheel at a time, from the top down. Dial up the elbow grease, your wheel can take it!

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Quick rinse, target the nooks!

Switch to the “rinse” mode on the pressure washer. Hose off the wheel cleaner right away; the wheel soap will be more abrasive than the standard stuff so you don’t want it sitting on your rims too long. At a lot of car wash places it’s fine, but why risk it?

Now, from the top of the car down, soak everything but focus on the little cracks, seams, and corners. You’ve got a pressure washer, use it! Blast dirt out of the cracks between your trunk and body, lip spoiler, doors, everywhere.

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Oh hey, have you already started? Wait, stop! If your weather seals are smoked you need to be extra careful, in case that didn’t occur to you already.

Soap spray time!

Is there a “pre-soak” mode at your local car wash? Don’t bother. It’s just the same soap at a slightly lower pressure and dilution.

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Set straight to “high-pressure soap” mode, take the sprayer in one hand and your wash mitt in another, and pounce.

Hit your whole vehicle with soap, zoom in on the bits of dirt, bug body, bird poop, grime, and hit it hard with scrubbing and spraying. Should get just about everything off.

Chase the mud down the body with the power of the washer.

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B.Y.OM.: Bring Your Own Mitt

Most car washes will provide a big brush on a long stick for you. It probably even sprays soap for your convenience! Do not use this.

Reason one; the bristles are almost always too abrasive and will leave horrid swirls in your clear coat.

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Reason the second; it’s chock-full of dirt and crap from the last person’s car. If the bristles don’t swirl you something nasty, the chunks of road grime caught in them will.

If you must use this brush, at least blast it clean with the pressure washer first. But seriously just bring your own damn wash mitt.

Pressure rinse, top-down

You scrubbed and sprayed and soaped the crap out of your car. Now you’ve got to hustle and get that soap off before it leaves spots!

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Switch the sprayer back to “rinse” mode. Start at the roof, and chase all the soap down to the drain. Make columns from the top of the car to the bottom.

The “spot-free” stuff seems to work

Remember when Mr. Clean started selling a hose adapter with a “spot-free rinse mode” that eliminated the need to hand-dry? It’s just super-filtered water that evaporates faster without leaving residue.

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Your local wash bay probably has the same mode. I thought for sure this was a gimmick, but after experimenting at a few coin-op washes across the country I’ve found more often than not it actually does work. Downside; it burns a solid minute of your wash time.

So go for it if you want maximum clean, but you’re about to dry anyway.

Move the car to a regular parking space

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BEEP BEEP BEEP, time’s up!

Take a deep breath and wipe the sweat from your brow. Your harrowing race against the clock is over and it’s time to dry.

You don’t need the wash bay for that, so be courteous to the bros behind you and move your slab out of the washing area.

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Terry cloth in the cracks, chamois everywhere else

Did you go for the “spot-free rinse?” Me too. But I still don’t trust it to work completely, so I’m going to run a nice chamois cloth across the whole car. Just like rinsing; top down, long and smooth strokes. Wring out as needed.

Concentrate on the wide open spaces; hoods, doors, this is where water spots will show up and be most ugly.

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But first, open the doors and trunk and hood. Did a bunch of gunk congregate in the jamb? No worries, grab that terry cloth I told you about and scoop it while it’s wet and malleable.

Once your rig’s dry, survey at your work and take pride! Take an Instagram! #sofreshsoclean! You earned it.

Oh, and don’t forget to pack up your wash tools. Just realized left my mitt at the wash place.

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Things I would NOT do at a coin-op car wash:

Don’t: Use the vacuum. They’re always in piss-poor condition and the handles feel sticky. (Always! Why is that?) You’re bettering off buying a compact 12v vac or bringing your floor mats in the house and using mom/wifey/roommate’s real vacuum.

Don’t: Use the brush. Can’t stress this enough; I’ve seen several decent paint jobs be degraded to “meh” after a mean and sharp coin-op car wash brush scratched it all up.

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Don’t: Clean your engine bay. It’s too exciting to just stick the pressure washer in there and hang on for dear life, but you’re likely to soak some electronics in the frenzy. Take a little more time to clean your motor following my friend Tavarish’s solid tips.

Alright, let’s hear your strategies.

Now you know how I, self-proclaimed car guy and cheapskate, wring the most out of a quarter-powered car wash. Who else has tips and tricks we might want to try?

Images by the author, and via Bark/Flickr, Glenn Scofield Williams/Flickrs


Contact the author at andrew@jalopnik.com.