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A car wash (also written as "carwash") or auto wash is a facility used to clean the exterior and, in some cases, the interior of motor vehicles. Car washes can be self-serve, fully automated, or full-service with attendants who wash the vehicle. It may also be an event where people pay to have their cars washed by volunteers as a method to raise money for some purpose.
With the modern convenience of automatic car washes, it may be difficult to remember that the industry was not always so high-tech. Though, other commercial car washes came before it, the first semi-automatic car wash in the United States made its debut in 1946, and from there, the industry has grown in both size and sophistication.
The start of the history of car washing dated back into 1914. People used manpower to push or move the cars through stages of the process. Eventually, manual car wash operations peaked at 32 drive-through facilities in the United States. Prior to this time, the evolution of car washing was just at the beginning, and that the automatic car washing was born. The first semi-automatic car wash was active for the first time in Detroit, Michigan using automatic pulley systems and manual brushing.
Many things had occurred within 1955 regarding car washing history. A businessman named Dan Hanna was encouraged by the car washers in Detroit, operated his own materials, then eventually made his own car wash called the Rub-a-Dub in Oregon. In 1957, he formed the Hanna Enterprises and eventually reached about 31 car washes in America. In 1959, Hanna operated his wash rack until he made the first mechanized car washing system. As the news spread throughout the city, so did his business.
By the mid 1960s Hanna Enterprises had established itself as the main source innovator and the manufacturer of car washing equipments and materials. Over time, Hanna had made several machines that will be the first to do the main requirements over car washing, this includes the Wrap-Around Brush, Roller-on-demand Conveyor belt, soft cloth friction washing, several ways to wash the tires, and a recirculating water system. With that said, Hanna Enterprises have become the largest vehicle washing equipment manufacturer.
In the 1970s it was a difficult time for the car washing industry, as the result of the gasoline prices increasing rapidly. Still, Hanna Enterprises made another two inventions during this time: the automatic wheel cleaner, and the polish'n'wax.
While there are many types of car washes, most fall into the following categories:
- Car wash lift (single-post), where cars are placed in a lift platforms which can be used to wash under car.
- Hand car wash facilities, where the vehicle is washed by employees.
- Self-service facilities, which are generally coin-operated, where the customer does the washing, including pressurized "jet washing".
- In-bay automatics consist of an automatic washing machine and dryer that rolls back and forth over a stationary vehicle - often seen at filling stations and stand-alone wash sites.
- Tunnel washes, which use a conveyor to move the vehicle through a series of fixed cleaning mechanisms.
- Chemical car wash, also known as waterless car wash, uses chemicals to wash and polish car surface. Claims to be an eco-friendly car wash method. Recommended only for cars with light dirt accumulation to avoid paint damage.
- Steam car washes use a jet of steam and micro fiber towels, some include detergent injection. Known to have originated from South Korea, steam car washes have been especially popular as a low-investment, eco-friendly car wash solution in Asia, Middle East, and Europe thanks to its sanitizing features and mobility.
- Mobile car washes, often also serving as mobile detailing systems, which carry plastic water tanks and use pressure washers. Sometimes these systems are mounted on trailers, on trucks, or in vans. Generally these operators also have a generator to run a shop vac., buffers, and other tools as well.
Mechanized car washes, especially those with brushes, were once avoided by some meticulous car owners because of the risk of damaging the finish. Paint finishes have improved as have car washing processes, and this perception of vehicle damage is much less prevalent today. However, this perception was the motive behind the rise of facilities utilizing "brushless" (cloth) and "touch-free" (high-pressure water) equipment, as well as modern "foam" washing wheels made of closed cell foam.
In today's modern car wash facilities, whether tunnel, in-bay automatic or self-serve, soaps and other cleaning solutions used are designed to loosen and eliminate dirt and grime. This is in contrast to earlier times, when hydrofluoric acid, a hazardous chemical, was commonly used as a cleaning agent in the industry by some operators. There has been a strong move in the industry to shift to safer cleaning solutions. Most car wash facilities are required by law to treat and/or reuse their water and may be required to maintain waste-water discharge permits, in contrast to unregulated facilities or even driveway washing (at one's home), where waste-water can end up in the storm drain and, eventually, in streams, rivers, and lakes.
Self-serve car wash
A simple and automated type of car wash that is typically coin-operated or token-operated self-service system. Newer self-service car washes offer the ability to pay with credit cards or loyalty cards. The vehicle is parked inside a large covered bay that is equipped with a trigger gun and wand (a high-pressure sprayer) and a scrub foam-brush. When customers insert coins or tokens into the controller, they can choose options such as soap, tire cleaner, wax or clear water rinse, all dispensed from the sprayer, or scrub the vehicle with the foam brush. The number of coins or tokens inserted determines the amount of time customers have to operate the equipment; in most instances, a minimum number of coins is necessary to start the equipment. These facilities are often equipped with separate vacuum stations that allow customers to clean the upholstery and rugs inside their cars. Some self-service car washes offer hand-held dryers, a somewhat new feature.
Automatic car wash
Conveyorized/tunnel car wash
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The first conveyorized automatic car wash appeared in Hollywood, CA in 1940. Conveyorized automatic car washes consist of tunnel-like buildings into which customers (or attendants) drive.
Some car washes have their customers pay through a computerized POS, or point of sale unit, also known as an "automatic cashier", which may take the place of a human cashier. The mechanism inputs the wash PLU into a master computer or a tunnel controller automatically. When the sale is automated, after paying the car is put into a line-up called the stack or queue. The stack moves sequentially, so the wash knows what each car purchased. After pulling up to the tunnel entrance, an attendant usually guides the customer onto the conveyor. At some washes, the system will send the correct number of rollers automatically, based on tire sensors. The tire sensor lets the wash know where the wheels are and how far apart they are. On other systems the employee may guide the customer on and press a 'Send Car' button on the tunnel controller, to manually send the rollers which push the car through.
Prior to entering the automated section of the wash tunnel, attendants may prewash customers' cars.
The car wash will typically start cleaning with chemicals called presoaks applied through special arches. CTAs, or "chemical tire applicators," apply specialized formulations, which remove brake dust and build up from the surface of the wheels and tires.
In some car washes, presoak application is followed by an empty space, or idle zone. Wheel cleaning equipment, such as sill brushes or high pressure wheel blasters, may be placed in the idle zone. A sill brush (also known as a wheel brush or tire brush) consists of an 8-foot-long brush assembly which is pushed against the car's wheels and door sill area. Sill brushes are typically use flagged bristle, as dirt is usually most heavily concentrated on the lower parts of the car. The material on a sill brush may have alternating lengths or use material which is intentionally mounted off-center to allow wheel surfaces of various depths to be cleaned. Sill brushes rely on the rotation of a customer's car's wheels in order to achieve complete wheel contact. Similarly to the CTAs, wheel brushes often only activate when the customer buys a wheel cleaning upgrade. Some car washes use wheel-rim disc brushes in addition to or in place of sill brushes. These assemblies extend out towards the wheel and follow it at the same speed as the conveyor while rotating at high speeds to clean the wheels. At the end of a car wash's presoak idle zone is often a high pressure arch which direct high pressure water at a vehicle's surface.
Mitters are ribbon-like components which suspend cloth strips or sheets over the tunnel while utilizing motion to increase friction against the car's surface. The friction zone may also include specialized front grill and rear brushes. Older automatic washes - a majority of which were built prior to 1980 - used to use brushes with soft nylon bristles, which tended to leave a nylon deposit in the shape of a bristle, called brush marks, on the vehicle's paint. Many newer washes use either soft cloth or a closed cell foam brush, which does not hold dirt or water, thus is far less likely to harm any painted finish.
After the main friction zone, some car washes have a dedicated care zone. Prior to entering the care zone, the car is rinsed with fresh water. This is immediately followed by a series of extra services. In many car washes, the first of these services is a polish wax. After the polish wax application is typically a retractable mitter or top brush and, in some cases, side brushes or wrap-around brushes. Next is a protectant, which creates a thin protective film over a vehicle's surface. Protectants generally repel water, which assists in drying the car and aiding in the driver's ability to see through their wind shield during rain. A low-end wax or clear coat protectant follows the main protectant. A drying agent is typically applied at the end of the tunnel to assist in removing water from the vehicle's surface prior to forced air drying. After the drying agent, there may be a "spot free" rinse of soft water, that has been filtered of the salts normally present, and sent through semi-permeable membranes to produce highly purified water that will not leave spots.
Dryers may be present in a variety of forms, such as stationary gantries with a contouring roof jet or as small circular assemblies with nozzles of various shapes and sizes mounted on arches. Mitters, side brushes, top brushes, and/or wraps outfitted with chamois- or microfiber-based material may follow the dryers.
At "full-service" car washes, the exterior of the car is washed mechanically or by hand, or using a combination of both, with attendants available to dry the car manually, and to clean the interior . Many full service car washes also provide "detailing" services, which may include polishing and waxing the car's exterior by hand or machine, shampooing and steaming interiors, and other services to provide thorough cleaning and protection to the car.
Like soft-touch car washes, touchless car washes are automated, with the vehicle passing through a tunnel where the vehicle is cleaned; however, touchless car washes do not use the foam or cloth applicators that soft-touch washes use, instead relying on high-pressure washers to both clean and rinse the vehicle off. Sensors utilized by these washes allow for a more precise clean along the vehicle's exact shape. To compensate for not physically contacting the vehicle, touchless washes use more caustic detergents than ordinary car washes. Because the vehicle is not physically impacted during a touchless wash, the vehicle is at a lower risk of being damaged. However, touchless washes have a harder time cleaning off tougher materials or reaching difficult-to-reach locations on vehicles, and their usage of stronger chemicals can potentially damage a vehicle's paint finish.
Bikini car wash
Bikini car washes are typically a summer events in the US and which are fund raisers for a school, a sport association or other youth organizations or charities. Typically, women in bikinis bring in donors by standing on a roadside with colorful cardboard signs or posters, and the cars are washed by their classmates in a nearby parking lot. Depending on the organization responsible, as well as the local laws, a variation of the bikini car wash sometimes occurs, in which the women will wash the car topless, usually for an extra fee. There are also commercial bikini car washes, where bikini-clad women wash the cars for a fee and the entertainment of the drivers. Hooters restaurants usually have bikini car washes in the summer to attract customers.
The primary environmental considerations for car washing are:
- Use of water and energy resources;
- Contamination of surface waters;
- Contamination of soil and groundwater.
Use of water supplies and energy are self-evident, since car washes are users of such resources. The professional car wash industry has made great strides in reducing its environmental footprint, a trend that will continue to accelerate due to regulation and consumer demand. Many car washes already use water reclamation systems to significantly reduce water usage and a variety of energy usage reduction technologies. These systems may be mandatory where water restrictions are in place. In Europe, Germany is leading the way and has very strict regulations making it illegal to wash your car on the street or in your driveway.
Contamination of surface waters may arise from the rinse discharging to storm drains, which eventually drain to rivers and lakes. Chief pollutants in such wash-water include phosphates; oil and grease; and lead. This is almost exclusively an issue for home/driveway washing, and parking lot style charity washes. Professional carwashing is a "non-point source" of discharge that has the ability to capture these contaminants, normally in interceptor drains, so the contaminants can be removed before the water enters sanitary systems. (Water and contaminants that enter storm water drains does not undergo treatment, and is released directly into rivers, lakes and streams.)
Soil contamination is sometimes related to such surface runoff, but more importantly is associated with soil contamination from underground fuel tanks or auto servicing operations which commonly are ancillary uses of car wash sites — but not an issue for car washing itself.
For these reasons, some state and local environmental groups (the most notable being the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) have begun campaigns to encourage consumers to use professional car washes as opposed to driveway washing, including moving charity car wash fund raisers from parking lots to professional car washes.
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- Hobby, Tom (4 September 2019). "Pros and cons: soft-touch vs. touch-free carwashing". Professional Carwashing & Detailing. Retrieved 15 October 2019.
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