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Car wash or hand wash - which is best?

Published 26 March 2015 by

You’ve just bought yourself a brand spanking new (or new to you!) car, but now you’ve got to fill it with petrol, tax it, insure it and maintain it, which usually involves keeping it clean. And how do most people keep their cars clean? Yes, at the car wash. But is taking your car to the car wash really worth it? Or could you do the same job at home for half the price?

But, before we get into costs, there are some other issues you should take into account when you think about washing your car at home. The main ones being:

Water Use

Do you think you use more water at the car wash or when you do it yourself?

There is a bit of confusion about which method of cleaning uses the most water. Some organisations giving hose pipes as being the method that uses the most and other saying buckets use much more and a third group saying that commercial car washes are by far the best. So what’s the truth?

Well, when it comes to the two methods you can use at home – bucket and hosepipe – it seems that it really depends on how you use them, not necessarily which one you choose. What we mean by this is, if you use a hose with a sprinkler attachment, that only dispensers water when you press it, you’ll use about 30 litres. This is equivalent to the amount of water used in an average bucket wash. However, if you use a hosepipe without an attachment and you leave it running the whole time, you will use much more water than washing with a bucket. The same goes for bucket use, if you just fill the bucket over and over, and throw it over the car with no real thought, you’re going to end up using much more than a hose pipe.

So how do commercial car washes compare? Very well it seems. The average car wash will use about 70 per cent less than washing with a hosepipe, and many of them reuse much of that water for first rinses after the wash.

But water usage is not only about the environment, it’s also about money! If you have a water meter, it’s likely that you’ll already be careful with water, as leaving the hose running is like rolling pound coins down the drain. But, cast your mind back a few years, to before the time of water meters and I bet you can remember your Dad (or your Mum - we’re all about equality here) leaving the hose running while they washed the car, which, in those times, was okay. Everyone thought it was okay because we didn’t pay for what we used and there was little talk about the environmental impacts of water usage.

However, now things have changed and water meters are a common feature of many homes. So if you wash your car at home, working out how much water you use is vital if you want to know if it’s more economical or not. This handy water calculator might help, just leave out all the other uses to see how much you water you use just for cleaning your car.

One way you could reduce your use of water when washing your car at home is to use grey water for your first rinses, like the car wash does. But, this would require you having to collect grey water in the first place. You can do this by simply leaving the plug in when you shower or saving your bath water. Then when it’s time to wash the car, use that water instead. It might take a bit more effort, but it will save water and pennies.

Waterless cleaning systems are another way of making your car all sparkly. And they can be ecologically friendly too, like this one from The Car Wash Company. It’s contains a biodegradable emulsifier, which will lift the dirt from the surface it’s sprayed on, whilst creating a protective shield between the dirt and the car. All you need to do is spray it on, leave it for a while and then wipe it off with a soft cloth, leaving behind a high gloss finish – so the website says – and all with not a drop of water in sight.

The Environment

You may think that washing your car at the car wash is going to be less environmentally friendly than doing it yourself, and it can be, but only if you make a real effort. If you don’t, and you use the well- known commercial brands of car detergents, then the run off from your car will go straight down the drain and into the water system, including rivers and streams, untreated. Once in the water, these chemicals can cause havoc to the wildlife and eco-systems. But detergents are not the only thing that gets washed down the drains, there’s also the oil and residues from exhaust fumes too.

Water from a commercial car wash will be collected and either recycled for use as a first rinse or sent to the treatment plant to be cleaned before re-entering the water cycle.

One way you can minimise the toxic run-off if you have to wash your car at home, is to park on gravel or grass. The microbes in the earth help capture and breakdown the detergents. Another would be to use car cleaning products made from cheap household staples that are all non-toxic. For example, you can make a quick and easy window screen wash by adding white vinegar to a spray bottle and topping up with water. Spray it onto your windows and leave for a minute or two before wiping it off with newspaper. You can find similarly cheap and cheerful car washing formulas, including a chrome cleaner and a detergent on this frugal living website.


The final aspect of car washing we need to examine is how much each option costs you, starting with the car wash.

The car wash

If you take your car to the car wash, you could be spending up to £20 per month, which is already £240 per year. Plus, you’ll also need to add into the cost of petrol you’ve used to get to the car wash, we’ll estimate £20 in total for the year, as a car wash that costs more than that to get to, would hardly be worth it. That gives us an estimated total of £260 per year.

Washing at home

When you wash at home and make your own cleaning products, from things like vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and biodegradable detergent, and use a simple chamois cloth for buffing up, you can clean for just a few pounds – let’s estimate £20 – per year. Then add on the cost of the water you might use, we’ve calculated using just one hour of water usage a month, which gives a total of £172.00 per year, and we’re at £192.00.

There’s a difference of £68, which sounds like a great saving. However, we must remember these figures are for comparison purposes only, your costs could be much more, or much less, depending on your usage, location of your nearest car wash and how economical you are with your water usage and how much your water company charges.

So, to answer the question posed at the start – to car wash or hand wash – is, it depends! Why not try doing both to see which works out the best for you?