How to Safely Wash Your Car in the Winterby Marc Harris & Jacob Bunyan
Trying to keep a driven car clean in the North is impossible. The good news is that by using the right products and techniques, you can periodically have a clean vehicle without stripping your wax or inducing swirls to your finish.
First, let’s examine the two most often used ways of having a clean vehicle in the Winter months. Drive-through “Soft Touch” car washes will leave your vehicle’s finish swirled and dull. In addition, I’d recommend anyone to stay away from places that use questionable mystery products. Touchless car wash bays use harsh products to chemically clean your car without physically touching it. Not only are these products bad for your plastic and rubber over time, they’ll strip off any wax or sealant you still have on your finish. Sacrificing your protection for a few days of having a clean vehicle doesn’t add up in the long run. Both of these types of car wash bays can quickly strip your protection, and both have been known for adding “beading” agents into their rinse water so that owners have the illusion that they still have wax or sealant on their car. I’ve seen how these products work in person: you begin rinsing down a vehicle and there is obvious and prevalent beading, but after a gentle wash and rinse, all water lays flat. The harsh cleaning chemicals keeps owners with dirty cars happy while the illusion of protection keeps more discerning owners thinking they’re good to go.
Luckily there are better and safer methods of Winter car care that you can use during these ugly pre-Spring days. I’ll discuss my favorite method: The Great White Winter Wash. This is a traditional two-bucket wash adapted for Winter use, when most of us can’t use our frozen water sprockets outside of our homes. While most won’t have the time or energy to commit to this type of Winter wash, it is a better and safer alternative that allows owners like me to keep their sanity every now and then by having the cleanest car on the road.
(2) Five Gallon buckets
(2) Grit Guard bucket inserts to be used in your buckets.
(1) Car wash shampoo; your favorite kind. I prefer high quality shampoos like Dodo Juice Born To Be Mild or Chemical Guys GlossWorkz.
(1) Wash mitt. Sheep Skin wash mitts are my all time favorites, but this could even be a microfiber towel if you choose. Just make sure it is a paint safe material and clean.
(2) Drying towels. Microfiber waffle weave style are my go-to towels for drying.
(1) Quick Detailer, Spray Wax, or Spray Sealant. My personal favorite is Dodo Juice Red Mist Tropical as it is very slick, glossly, and has given me a month of protection by itself. Optimum Car Wax or Opti-Seal are other great choices and I like.
(2) or (3) High quality microfiber towels to be used with your Quick Detailer, Spray Wax, or Spray sealant of choice. The DI reTHICKulous towels are perfect for this.
(2) or (4) Latex, rubber, or nitrile gloves. You only need two, but I like to have an extra pair handy in the event I get a rip in one or more gloves.
(5) to (10) Dollars in quarters.
Last but not least, you’ll need to search the net for a Gamma Seal bucket lid. These are attachments that fit onto your 5 gallon bucket to give it an air-tight seal.
1. After successfully installing your Gamma Lids onto your 5 gallon buckets, place the Grit Guard inserts into the buckets and fill them with the warmest water you can stand in your bath tub or laundry sink. Warmer water breaks down grime easier than cold water, and will help to keep you warmer while you work. One of your buckets will be all water, the other will be your water+shampoo mix. Follow the direction for dilution. Some car wash shampoos dilute 128:1, others such as Dodo Juice’s Born to Be Mild dilute closer to 800:1. Proper dilution saves product and gives you the most effective cleaning power. Close the lids and secure your buckets and supplies into the car (clean plastic bags like shopping bags or garbage bags can be great for transporting your microfiber without contamination).
2. Drive to your nearest Do It Yourself car wash bay. Here in metro-Detroit, they’re often sparsely populated. Most bays don’t want people to bring their own supplies as they don’t know what types of chemical you’ll be pouring into their drains, and they don’t want you to hold up their money making business in the event of a line beginning to form in the event you’re moving slowly. Every bay I’ve been to has the same signs, but I’ve yet to have a problem.
3. Begin with giving your car a thorough rinsing with the DIY bay’s pressure washer first. This should be done using the “Rinse” cycle water.
4. Using your buckets and wash mitt, perform a traditional two-bucket wash on your vehicle. In very cold weather, you’ll likely need to rinse the car once more half way through to avoid significant ice build up.
5. Rinse the vehicle to flush dirty water and shampoo residue off the finish.
6. Lightly but quickly dry the vehicle with your waffle weave towels. Don’t worry about light water residue: your Quick Detailer, Spray Wax, or Spray Sealant will take care of any remaining drips or streaks.
7. Apply your favorite spray protection product. Keep in mind many of these products aren’t designed for such cold climates and will therefor work much slower. Don’t forget your windows, head-lights, and tail-lights!
While your results might not last a long as they do during the warmer months of the year, the few days they last will buy you some time of sanity after seeing your baby trashed for most of the season. Even better, you won’t have a horribly swirled and marred vehicle come Spring! If you want to see an example of how this can be effectively done, please check out the following video I made with the help a highly talented local photographer named Steven Pham. Steven gave me a hand in documenting exactly how I used this exact process to clean my girlfriend’s vehicle (Thanks Jessica for the loaner!). The results speak for themselves:
I hope this helps some of you fellow enthusiasts take better care of your vehicles, and if you have any questions on my method or process, please ask in the comments.
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Great work on the car, it looks awesome. I am in Massachusetts and with all the snow we have gotten it hasn’t allowed me to wash my car. I might get a heater for the garage and do an ONR wash. I like the idea of going to the car wash place and doing a true 2 bucket wash. My question is how to take care of the underneath of a car? I know the Touchless washes have sprayers for undercarriage. Also, is there any protection methods that you have used to “winterize” the undercarriage of a vehicle prior to the winter weather?
Thank you for the tutorial,
Thanks for the kind words, Don! Regarding the undercarriage of the vehicle, there are basically two theories of though. Some believe that any washing of the undercarriage is better than nothing. Their basis is that the less snow and salt are on the car at any time, the better. Other believe there is no amount of “undercarriage washing” that can actually clean the surface enough to remove the salt and buildup without actually having the car up on a hoist with a pressure washer. Further, most cars will NEVER see the type of undercarriage cleaning needed for a truly clean undercarriage, so little bits in winter will not do much in the grand scheme of things.
Remember that the main idea here is to minimize swirls during winter washing, not preparing the vehicle for a white-glove judged show. Cleaning the paint whether it be via ONR in your garage or at the DIY bay will include about the same attention to the undercarriage: barely any.
If you live in an apartment or condo, or just don’t have space in your garage to wash during the winter, the DIY bay is your best option.
To winterize, we use Meguiar’s All Season Dressing or Chemical Guys’ Bare Bones (smells better, lighter than ASD) after a good scrubbing, and let it “dry” for a day before getting it wet (driving the car is fine a sling as it stays dry). Do the wheel wells, engine bay, and anything you can reach underneath, as much as you want. Still, this is no match for harsh road salt for months on end, but does help. And it helps subsequent cleaning.
Hope this helps!
Nice video there man, I usually use ONR in the winter I just pre-treat the panel at the QD ratio the with a pressurized sprayer and wash using the three bucket method with grit guards;) one for rinsing, one for washing and one for wheels, wheel wells and exhaust tips. I always wash my wheels, wheel wells and exhaust tips first the traditional way using Zep citrus at 4:1 with appropriate wheel and tire brushes. I then will precede washing the vehicle via ONR with a DI sheep skin mitt, Pakshak waffle weave for drying, and DI double sided plush towels for quick detailing with Chemical Guys Pro-Detailer aka P-40 detailer. One thing I do, do that might help others is to dump out my rinse water half way through the wash and re fill with hot to warm clean water again this helps reduce the chances or swirls especially for those who have black vehicle like me its totally worth the extra 5 minutes.
Great advice Danny, and I’m sure you’ve seen Ivan’s outstanding ONR Winter Wash article that goes by the same logic as your Winter wash technique. As with many things, there is no single right or best way, and its the ability to adapt techniques to fit your lifestyle that will help to keep your vehicle looking better for longer. Thanks for sharing!
You do get around!!! GREAT write up! I always enjoy reading your write up’s. Still waiting on that old goat story 🙂 Looking forward to some sun too.
Thanks, Stu! I hope all is well. We have a very cool ’69 Goat versus ’69 SS story in the editing room I’m sure you will enjoy very much 😉
Is it really ok to get that close to the paint surface with a high-pressure sprayer? I’ve always tried to stay at least 1.5 to 2 feet away.
Good question Paul and the answer varies as not all pressure washers operate at the same pressure or volume. Individuals must choose based off what they feel it safe. In this case, the wand had a fairly wide fan and wasn’t very powerful compared to say some gas units that owners may have at home.
Thanks for taking a look and the outstanding question that will surely help some other readers. Happy Detailing!
Love the video, top notch for sure! If you love your car you go to extreme lengths to do it right.
Thanks a lot Greg and I look forward to your next article as well as talking to you again soon!
Thanks for sharing the great info Marc…video was well done!
Thanks a lot Todd and Go Blue!
Thanks for the tips! I do have one question, Marc. I certainly love to use hot water in the winter, but I am concerned about ‘hitting’ my car’s finish — which is cold — with hot water. I have a hard time believing that this quick temperature change isn’t bad for the paint. Please comment.
Sorry for the delay in my response, but thank you for the excellent question regarding temperature differences.
The first thing to keep in mind is how amazing and flexible automotive paint truly is. A black car’s paint in the summer can go from 80degrees in the shade/garage to over 170 degrees once pulled into the sun in a matter of minutes. Once pulled back into the shade or a garage, it quickly again begins to cool to the ambient temperature again. This isn’t exactly latex paint that is used inside of homes.
Washing with warm water has huge advantages as warmer water breaks down dirt and grime much easier. Most particles dissolve much easier into warmer water which means less scrubbing at your vehicle’s surface. Additionally, using warm water shouldn’t produce any negative effects. While I’m sure you might run into trouble if using 90 degree water in extremely cold temperatures (I don’t recommend washing in -40 degree weather by any means), for the conditions you’re likely to go out and wash your car, you shouldn’t have any worries.
This is a great idea. I love the video and thought it was really helpful to see the approach demonstrated. Thanks guys!
Great information and video. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I am definitely going to try this.
Nice video. In warmer months I use a long lasting foam to loosen stuck-on dirt after the initial rinse, and enable me to clean the surface with minimum pressure. The do it yourself place near me has a ‘foaming brush’ attachment, but I’m concerned about it being abrasive. How can I get a good layer of foam down while at the DIY place so I’m less likely to scratch the surface during the 2 bucket wash?
Jim in Massachusetts
I’m not sure you can. The best solution will be to use your soaked wash mitt to scoop up soapy water and squeeze it onto your finish. Every little thing you do to help makes a difference.
never get car wash in winter at repair shop ,husband washed car last night no heat this morning heater motor got flooded and froze
need to get repair..
Update… I have kept my car in pristine condition this winter. When the temperature is above freezing I use a garden sprayer filled with Hot water to wash off any salt, dust, or loose dirt, and then dry with a leaf blower. The results on a well waxed surface are amazingly good except for the stuck-on grime behind the wheels. For that I am using a spray on foam (with a special pump sprayer designed for foaming application), let sit for a few minutes, then rinse with Hot water, and Pat dry (don’t rub) with a microfiber towel. I am lucky enough to have a second car that I drive when the roads are wet, which greatly reduces the magnitude of the film on my good car.
Many years ago I used a “wetting agent” I got from a local Fire House,which is supposed to aid the effectiveness of water by reducing the surface tension. My goal was to aid the removal of wallpaper! What was this stuff,and does it have any place in car cleaning,such as aiding sheeting and reducing spotting? I am not willing to set fire to my home as a field test.
I am just starting out detailing in the winter. This blog and video was a great help! Thank you so much for the info. Got a car to do today, not looking forward to getting outside, waiting for it to warm up a little more. It’s 25 right now. Looking forward to my customers reaction on getting the outside done, as he thought it may be too cold to do.
It’s a new Winter, and I have an improved technique that I’d like to share, if there’s a way to upload some photographs. It’s simple, fast, and inexpensive to do, and it produces excellent results.
I appreciate this information about how one should wash their car in the winter. It is good to be aware of the needed materials for this project. I did not realize that five gallon buckets would come in so handy. Something to think about would be to keep your windshield clean no matter the weather to enhance safety on the road.
You have to wash your car rightly in winter to lessen the seasonal effect on it. You will undertake the job with appropriate products and techniques. You should not also forget applying wax on it to retain the luster of the paint. When vehicles ply on the road during this period, their wheels come across snow and salt. So, you can get them the underneath parts of the vehicles. If they are not removed immediately, they can pose threat to the vehicles. Therefore, a thorough washing is necessary for them.
Just a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw great style and design. “The price one pays for pursuing a profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” by James Arthur Baldwin.
Thanks for sharing the article.
Through the winter, it’s a good idea to shower your vehicle every 10 days. … Whether washing the vehicle at home-based or at a car wash, use fresh water and a high-pressure hose. If washing at home, add baking soda to the wash water in the winter o help dissolve dried salt on the vehicle’s surface.
Hi, Marc Harris & Jacob Bunyan. These steps and lists of car care during our cold times, surely help! Not a lot of people knew that these machines using car washes damage our surfaces and protection to our paint jobs. When a person’s car is half ways to being damaged at the surface from these, how do we reverse it? Thanks!
A great idea, this help me alot, tks all you guy !!
The winter is a very festive season loved by most. But one thing car owners may not love about it is its risks on cars due to the salt, snow, and ice on the road. But they can all be prevented with more frequent car washing.