Why Is It Important to Wash Your Car Regularly?
Reason #1 - Appearances
To begin with, the car just looks better. Sad to say, we live in a world of people who make snap judgments about others based on a one- or two-second first impression. If that impression is you getting out of a filthy car to go into the store, the person next to you may assume that your personal habits and housekeeping are no better.
They will perhaps feel “creeped-out” and be careful not to come to near you, for fear of catching fleas, cockroaches, bedbugs or that general-purpose ailment from your childhood, the dreaded “cooties.”
Reason #2 - General Maintenance
Cleaning your car’s exterior is the perfect time to check for things that may be working loose, such as license plates and frames; headlight and taillight lenses; mirrors; valve stem caps; hubcaps and antennas.
It pays to use the time down on the ground while cleaning the wheels to take a peek underneath the chassis to be sure you have no loose or broken cables or hoses. A worn or broken brake fluid line, for example, is not something you want to find out about while driving.
While washing the car, pop the hood and take a look inside the engine compartment. Look for loose wires; broken cable ties (you don’t want a wire hanging and getting snarled in the fan); loose connections on the battery; loose connections on the air cleaner cover, and so forth. Check to be sure there is no corrosion built up on the battery connections, as well.
Reason #3 - Exterior Finish
Your car is metal. Well, mostly metal, although a lot of plastics are being used these days in such places as bumpers, the linings of the wheel wells and some trim parts. Metal is known to rust. The paint protects the car from the elements, forestalling the process of rusting. The paint is in turn protected by a clear coat, which is what gives the shiny-looking finish to the paint.
Pay attention the next time you see an old beat-up car. The clear coat is all worn off, and the paint is dull. It looks like a primer coat instead of the finish coat of paint. New finish-coat paint will be somewhat shiny by itself, but not nearly as much as after the clear coat is applied. Dirt dulls the finish.
What Makes Dirt Stick?
As you drive, and even while you are parked outdoors, dust and dirt blow around and land on the car. Now, believe it or not, even on a dry day, and especially overnight, there is moisture in the air. Unless you live in an absolute desert, there is going to be moisture. When that moisture hits the dust that has settled on the finish, it makes it sticky, and you cannot now “blow it off.” After a few days or a week, depending upon your climate and how much dust is blowing around, you will notice a dirty film start to appear, even though the car may not yet look very dirty from any distance.
Even in a large city, where all the natural dirt is pretty well paved over, there is still dirt and dust blowing around. The source, instead of Mother Nature’s dirt may be particulate matter from bus exhausts; construction debris; rubber dust from all the tires on the roads themselves, and so forth. These kinds of dirt are even stickier than “regular” dirt, and they stick by themselves without the help of moisture. Add the moisture, and you have a very dirty car. That dirt is damaging to the finish.
There are also run-ins with those rude birds who never like the color of any car, and try to re-paint it to their own tastes. Bird poo is highly acidic, and it will etch the clear coat and paint. Get it off as soon as you notice it, even if it is not a regular wash day.
How Does Dirt Damage the Finish?
As dirt builds up, it traps moisture. That moisture and dirt on the bottom layers are now in continual contact with the clear coat. As you drive down the freeway, the wind generated by your speed is enough to move that dirt around some, and as it moves, it makes tiny scratches in the clear coat. Over time, those tiny scratches become larger ones, and then the real trouble begins.
Once the clear coat is damaged, the dirt and moisture are able to seep underneath and begin to lift and destroy the clear from underneath. Once the clear coat is gone, there is nothing to protect the paint, which is the next thing to begin to be abraded by the action of dirt and wind—and clueless, careless people brushing against the car in parking lots, or stupid kids writing stupid sayings in the built-up dust. All of these things continue to scratch the paint.
Once the paint is damaged, you’re down to the bare metal… and now the problems get worse. A scratch in the paint may be minor, but if it goes all the way through the paint, and exposes any metal at all, even if it’s too small to see with your naked eyes, that moisture and dirt now start working their devilment upon the metal.
Regular washing along with other routine maintenance helps retain your car's resale value.
You’ve seen cars with “bubbled” areas in the paint around the doors or windows. Those are rust bubbles. As soon as the metal is exposed, the process of rusting begins, and it creeps under undamaged paint to cause those bubbles. It can start to happen as fast as overnight, especially if you live in a moist climate near a body of water.* Salt water is the worst: it accelerates the damage exponentially.
*”Near” can be as far as a few miles away—the moisture wicks up into the air and travels quite some distance, but the closer you are, the worse and faster the damage: see sidebar about my father's experience in the Navy.
An Extreme Case
To illustrate how quickly things can rust, I’ll re-tell my dad’s story of his days in the Navy during WWII. He was stationed out on Johnston Island in the Pacific, and he was working in the machine shop.
They had trays of oil stationed around the shop, and all the hand tools were stored in the oil! When they needed a tool, they had to fish it from the oil, wipe it off, use it, and drop it right back in the oil. Failure to do so saw the tool start to rust almost before their very eyes—certainly within the hour!
Obviously, that’s an extreme example in a very hostile environment, but rust happens no matter where you are, and yes, even out in the desert—think of the Ansel Adams photo of a rusted-out hulk of an old car smack in the middle of the desert.
Are Automatic Car Washes a Good Idea?
Oh! An easy, mess-free way to wash your car! Yes, we've all been to these drive-through machines, probably more than once; some on a regular basis.
The trouble is, these are not very good for your car's finish. Most of them recycle the water, which is good for the environment, but maybe not so good for your paint job. There could still be microscopic particles that have not been trapped by the filtering system.
And think about those revolving brushes and spinning whips. Those never get rinsed or washed out, so they are also full of the dirt from everyone's car before you.
When we had the graphic painted on our show car, we were specifically instructed to never, ever take it through an auto-wash (and that was with ten coats of clear-coat over the graphics)!
Auto-washes are just not kind to the finish of your car.
What Happens If You Don’t Wash the Car Often Enough?
Well, if you are very lucky, and you live in a fairly dry area, maybe not much. You might consider that you have a protective coat of mud instead of a clear coat.
Ironically, the older the car, the more possible it is to get away with this approach for a while. This is because they had better paint jobs in the old days. However, the newer cars, with our modern emphasis on doing everything faster and on the cheap, have thinner coats of paint and thinner clear coats.
Besides that, the appearance of the paint is a factor in the trade-in value, so it behooves you to keep it nice-looking. The salesman will likely assume that if you couldn’t even be bothered to wash the car, then there are probably other things wrong with it, including a lack of routine maintenance, which could result in mechanical issues.
Today’s cars are almost designed to be throwaway vehicles, as many of our corporations are dealing out planned obsolescence. They don’t expect people to keep a car for 10, 15 or 30 years as people used to do; they expect you to trade it in for the latest model hardly before the ink on your final payment check is dry.
The paint jobs are made to match that expectation, so to keep your car looking shiny and new, you’d better get out there and wash it, pronto!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2012 Liz Elias