Car washes while you shop. Car washes that come to your home or business. Greener washes. Softer cloths. Better computer technology. These are among the latest developments in the long, sudsy history of the car wash.
The earliest car washes were simple affairs -- "the days of the sponge and bucket," as the International Carwash Association calls it. Conveyers, initially just a chain hooked to the front bumper, pulled the car through the wash.
Later, mechanized operations replaced hand washing as the norm. But even they required people to vacuum the car or clean the inside of the windshield.
Today's mobile car washes, however, often mean a return to washing by hand.
"There's no automated system," says Eric Goodman of his full-service car wash, Dr. Detail, which operates out of the Cambridgeside Galleria mall in Cambridge, Mass.
Which type of wash cleans better: hand or machine? It depends who you ask, and also on a variety of factors including time, convenience and how dirty the car is.
Steve Harris, owner of the Mr. Wash shops in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, prefers the machinery "because it's more consistent."
- • Brown Bear, which has several locations in Seattle and surrounding communities, has do-it-yourself and mechanized options. The shops also use environmentally friendly products and treat wastewater before releasing it into the sewer system.
- • At Elephant Car Wash (pictured), which has 10 locations in the Puget Sound area, computers analyze the pH of the dirt build-up on cars and adjust the soap solution accordingly.
- • Mr. Detail, with two locations in downtown Seattle, hand-washes and details while you shop.
- • Want to go hands-free? Costco in Sodo and National Pride Car Wash in the Rainier Valley offer drive-through service.
- • Dynamic Mobile Detailing and World Class Mobile Auto Detail are among the local companies that will come to your house or business to clean your vehicle. Both serve a wide area around Seattle.
Edward Rogers, who has worked in the mobile car-wash business in the Atlanta area, disagrees. "A hand can get to places that a machine can't get," he says. "You're able to actually press down and wipe."
But Rogers says mobile car washes provide an advantage: convenience. "It's time," he says. "How much is your time worth?"
Car washes in mall parking lots allow people to multitask. Goodman says his customers often go shopping and have lunch while their car is being cleaned.
"It's very common for a car-wash customer to get a full-service [wash] -- inside, outside and underside -- every third wash," says Eric Wulf, executive director of the International Carwash Association. In between, he says, drivers may opt for just an exterior cleaning.
Over the years, car-wash equipment and materials have changed to clean better and protect cars' paint. One significant development, says Wulf, was replacing nylon bristles with soft synthetic cloths.
Computer technology also has helped. "One of the greatest challenges ... is there are so many different types of cars," Wulf says. "Through using computers and robotics you can profile a car. The equipment can read or sense its outline and shape." The equipment then adjusts to the size of the car.
There also has been a move toward making car washes more environmentally friendly.
Wulf says car washes use more biodegradable soaps and chemicals. Some use a closed water system, so the water is recycled. The International Carwash Association has created a WaterSavers program to promote such steps.