Last month’s column about road salt sparked comments about car washes. My readers seem to have vastly different experiences. Blinding soapsuds and noisy machinery obscure our travel through automatic car washes. How can we know what is really happening out there?

I came up empty in a search for car wash quality standards and for an enforcement agency, but I did stumble across the New England Car Wash Association. This professional organization shares best practices for marketing, and has four members from Maine: The Auto Spa Car Wash in York, C. N. Brown Company in South Paris, Classy Chassie Car Wash in Portland, and Golden Nozzle Car Wash in Manchester.

I spoke with Lenny Hurrell, owner of nearby Classy Chassie, who clarified that there are no quality standards for performance, only environmental regulations. He did assure me that there are techniques to ensure excellent service, so customers can make an informed choice about where to do business.         

Hurrell’s car wash is a tunnel with a conveyor and cloths to clean cars with friction. The other category of car wash is a touch-free type, which cleans with high-pressure spray.  Hurrell explained that friction methods usually work better, but some people are afraid of scratching their paint.

There is a common misconception that grime from one dirty car will lodge in a brush and then scratch the next car. That is very rare. Instead, it is typical for car washes to remove dirt that was hiding existing scratches. People notice the shiny scratches for the first time and blame the car wash, even though they came from other sources.

Customers should not worry that recycled water will coat their cars in road salt and dirt. Only the initial preparation stages of the wash use recycled water. This is for cost savings of water and sewage treatment, as well as conservation of water.

Fresh water is used in the last stages and the final rinse. The only exceptions would be remote locations that have extremely strict guidelines for water disposal.  Depending on the timing of the bottom blast, it could be a first blast of recycled water and then a high-pressure rinse of fresh water.

For a complete wash, automatic car washes use from 15 to 50 gallons of water that ends up in the sewer.  A garden hose will typically dump 150 gallons of water into the storm drain during a DIY wash. Some communities outlaw washing cars in driveways during droughts.

For chemical additives, a high pH soap initially breaks the bond between dirt and the car. Then it is neutralized with another soap. Waxes and polishes will protect the vehicle going forward.

Hurrell says the more products, the better. At the end of the wash, if water beads up, it means the car is clean and dirt won’t stick to it.

Soap, wax, and polish applications need to be carefully calibrated. It is a win-win for business and customer if dispensers are regularly tested for proper balance. This means products aren’t wasted, and the solutions are optimum for performance. Again, if recycled water is too dirty, it won’t pass the test and the solution will need adjustment.

If a car wash has attendants checking the operation, it will be maintained better. A full-service business such as Classy Chassie is distinguished from some other car washes because attendants put the car into the wash, and inspect it on the other end as they hand-wipe it dry. They also vacuum and wipe down the interior.

Right now, everyone is aware they need to wash their cars because they are so dirty from salt and grime. Hurrell observes that Mainers tend to miss out on the importance of cleaning vehicles year-round. He reminds us that pollen, acid rain, and ocean salt are additional environmental hazards that need to be washed away.

Ruth Morrison is an Automotive Technology Instructor and Department Chair at Southern Maine Community College. She holds certification as an ASE Master Technician and Advanced Level Specialist and was a former Ford Senior Master Technician.