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Ultimate Waterless Car Wash Guide

There is a satisfaction to soaking a sponge in a big bucket of soapy water or blasting your car with foam cannon. Then that spray of water to rinse all that beautiful soap off. On a hot summer day, washing the car in this manner is iconic. It is almost therapeutic.

But there are times when using water to wash the car is undesirable. How can that be you say?

Well, consider a few scenarios:

  • Drought plagued or water restricted locals,
  • Yards or driveways susceptible to mud that tracks on feet,
  • Vehicles in a garage or under cover,
  • Old, classic autos that are susceptible to rust, and
  • Cars that need to be bone dry for waxing and buffing immediately after washing.

In all these scenarios, the water used while washing creates problems. And that does not even touch on the most obvious issue with using water:

Many want to minimize their water use to be Eco-friendly.

It is a fact, washing your car with a hose and bucket uses many gallons of water. In today’s modern society, minimizing the impact on Mother Earth is a concern. Using less water means less energy is consumed and there is less waste or run off that needs to be treated. So, for many, reduced water use to wash anything, including the car, is an objective.

If you are dealing with any of the above issues, simple logic dictates that a method using no or little water would be preferable. With today’s technology, it is not surprising to learn that this is not only possible, it is a viable option.

It’s called Waterless Washing or a Waterless Car Wash.

Essentially, instead of using two buckets and hose to wash your car you use a bottle of specialized washing lubricant, such as Optimum No Rinse, and a few plush towels to spray and wipe the car clean.

Related: Best Waterless Car Wash

So, for all those who are prohibited by law from using water to wash your car; people who want to eliminate over spray, rust, or mud problems; or automotive detailers who just need to eliminate the lurking water oozing from all those nooks and crannies while waxing, let’s dive in to learn more about this intriguing car washing method!

When is a Waterless Car Wash a Good Choice?

First, we need to get one thing straight. If you have been four wheeling and there is an inch of mud covering portions of your vehicle, waterless washing is not for you.

The exterior surfaces need to be free of debris and grit that can scratch your paint. In other words, this technique works best on cars with a moderate amount of dirt and grime. Many like using the waterless technique in between the more serious water-based cleanings when the car needs more than a dusting and the dirt and grime are not too heavy.

So, there are limits on what you should expect when washing with little or no water. That raises the question:

What do you do if the car is heavily soiled?

Well, one trick mentioned in my guide on rinseless washing  is to visit your local self-service car wash to knock off all the heavy dirt and debris. This tip is just as handy if you intend to detail your car using waterless wash techniques. Just run through a local touchless car wash (if you are lucky enough to have one in your town) and purchase the cheapest option to knock the heavy stuff off, then head home.

If for whatever reason you forgo the drive-through car wash, you will need to first find a place to rinse the vehicle to remove mud, grit, and debris. Yes, this is using some water, but as stated once already, this is a must to prevent scratching of your paint. Once the car is free of the dirt and debris, then you can head back to the driveway or garage and get into the waterless washing.

Then there is this…

If you wash regularly before the dirt and grime gets heavy, you will not need the rinse or a run through the local automatic car wash. While it may not be possible for a four-wheel enthusiast, regular waterless washing is possible for many of us and it is a good way to eliminate the need for a rinse. Plus, your car will always look as if it just came from the show room.

Waterless Washing Procedure

The process is pretty simple, but the small details are important for success, so they are worth reviewing.

To start, you will need a few things, including:

  • Lots of clean, soft cloths,
  • A separate, dedicated cloth to clean your wheels, and
  • Waterless car wash product.

Waterless Wash Products

While this is not a detailed review of waterless cleaner products on the market, there are a few things to know about this family of cleaners.

Related: Best Waterless Car Washing Products

To begin with, lets address a subject that bubbles just under the surface when talking of waterless wash products – homemade formulas. Some feel they can mix a few cleaners and chemicals they have in the shop or home and make their own product. While this may seem reasonable, it is not.

The process of waterless washing places a number of demands on the product.

First, the cleaner must lift and remove dirt without damaging multiple automotive surfaces, all without the use of rinse water. It must also leave no streaks, spots, or other visual defects after drying. Oh, and it cannot leave a sticky residue. Plus, a number of other requirements.

You get the idea, this is a pretty specialized cleaner and your best bet is to leave it to the professional chemists on this one. Spend the few dollars and buy a product from a manufacturer you trust.

With all that said, when shopping for a waterless wash you should know that there are two types of products you can buy:

  • Cleaning only, and
  • Cleaning with wax, protect ion, or other additives.

If your paint is in good shape, with no small scratches and swirl marks, then you may want a cleaner with wax or protective additives. A combo product like this will give your car an extra shine and some added protection, all for no extra work while washing. Who doesn’t like added benefits for no additional work?

But if your paint has scratches or swirl marks that will need to be detailed, then you are looking at some sort of rubbing, buffing or waxing after you clean. In this case, you need a product focused on washing only. The reason is simple, the additives are wasted and unnecessary since you will be waxing and polishing in a separate step. Pick a product that is focused on cleaning and get the surfaces as clean as possible.

Once you decide whether your paint is in good shape or needs more involved detailing, there is a second factor to consider. You will have to decide whether you want:

  • Premixed ready-to-use cleaners, or
  • Concentrates that needs to be mixed.

For those who do not want to be bothered mixing a concentrate with water, obviously you will want a premixed, ready-to-use product. Easy to use without any mixing. But it means shipping and storing greater quantities of liquid.

Some products do come as a concentrate and the advantage is less liquid to ship and store. This means dollars saved on shipping (if you order on line) and less space used on the shelf. But, yes, you must mix before you can use them.

So, to mix or not, the choice is yours.

Waterless Washing Procedure

The waterless washing method is based on a rudimentary concept, spray on cleaning solution, wipe it off, lifting the dirt in the process. But, the specific techniques (some might even say tricks) you use can make a difference.

To start, a quick bullet list of the involved steps might be useful:

  • Fold a clean cloth in half, then in half again to divide it into multiple sections.
  • Start at the top and work down (more on this in a bit).
  • Spray a section of the vehicle and your cloth with the waterless wash.
  • Wipe in one direction to lift off dirt. No circular motions!
  • Dry with a second soft, clean cloth.
  • Flip your wash cloth often so a new, clean section of cloth is always in use. When all the sections of cloth have been used, get a new cloth. (Remember we said you will need multiple towels?)
  • Move on to next area to be cleaned.

Waterless Washing Technique

As should be obvious by now, cleaning is done with the cloth and waterless wash product, which means the dirt ends up in the towel. Therefore, you should use plenty of the waterless wash to allow the cleaning product to work on your car’s dirt and grime and allow the towel to slide easily over the areas being washed.

Many products brag about their lubricity, and while that may be true, using plenty of product is a must to realize this benefit.

Because of how this technique is intended to work, the cloth should never be moved in a circular pattern, you would just be rubbing the dirt into the paint and risk micro-scratches. Use “swipes” in straight lines and lift the dirt, never circles. Plus, you need to make sure you are diligent about using a clean section of cloth when you are washing. Flip that towel often!

Waterless Washing Towels

Speaking of cloths/towels, which one you chose makes a difference. You want a soft, clean cloth for sure. But the towel should also be, well, fluffy (now that’s a word not used much when talking about cars).

So, what is a fluffy towel for this purpose? While that is difficult to define in one sentence, it’s a towel with an open, deep nap (and the nap is the “yarn” that stands up from the weave). This gives the towel a way to grab and lift the dirt off your car’s surfaces. If you have flat, tight cloth the dirt will not be picked up and you will end up wiping the dirt into your car. Yuk! Make sure to use good quality cleaning cloths and flip them often. When all clean sections of a towel have been used, switch to a new towel.

Related: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Microfiber

Waterless Washing Order

To clean an entire car, some may dive in and start cleaning whatever they see first, but that is not recommended. The order in which you clean the surfaces does matter. In general, start at the top and work down. This orderly work will prevent drips and runs from running over an already cleaned area and you will not be touching and leaning on already clean sections.

So consider a routine like: roof, widows, hood and trunk, upper panels on doors and fenders, front (grill, lights, bumper, scoops, etc.), rear (bumpers/lights/tailgates etc.),  lower panels on doors and fenders, and finally the wheels.

By the way, for cleaning the wheels, use a cloth that you designate for wheels only, so you never risk transferring that pesky brake dust to the paint.

Waterless Wash Sprayers

Let’s talk about spraying the waterless wash for a moment. Yes, many of these products come in ready-to-use trigger spray bottles. They are handy and easy to use. But ask yourself how many times you will need to pull that trigger. The answer is a lot. Some professional detailers, therefore, like to use those handy-dandy, amply sized pump sprayers.

Once you pump it up, you can spray large sections fast and with less work. A bonus to using a larger pump sprayer is that you can mix a concentrate in the pump sprayer’s bottle. Most of these sprayers are about a quart and a half and you can mix plenty of cleaning product that will last for many washings. If you clean your car often using the waterless wash technique, a pump sprayer may become your best friend.

Once you have the technique down, you will find this is a fast way to clean your car. It easy and can be done under cover or in the garage. So, you may even find you wash your car more often and keep it looking its best.

So, while a simple technique, the details matter in order to achieve that clean, shiny show room appearance and now you know all the tricks, too. So, get out there and wash that car, without using water.

Happy Detailing!

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