A more environmentally friendly car wash

(First published October 2008, updated June 2010)

I used to be a clean car freak; not only regular washing, but a wipe down every single day in the mornings – courtesy of overnight dew on the vehicle. Then I moved to state that had dust in place of humidity and after a few months gave up – it was absolutely futile.

These days, I keep the inside tidy, but my vehicle gets a proper wash once every 12 months or so – and whatever nature provides in the form of rain. Instead of my vehicle making a statement about me or being a status symbol, I see it only as a tool now – it’s serviced regularly and gets me from A to B. It’s become a rather shallow relationship :).

That’s probably okay for my own situation, spending much of my time in the bush in a vehicle with little resale value; but in the city I guess appearances need to be kept up for a number of reasons; be it to preserve resale value, for work or just so you’re not know as “that person with the dirty car” who drags down neighborhood property values and incites the wrath of the local homeowners association :). Also, if you live in an area known for high corrosion, such as near the ocean, then it makes sense to wash your car to protect it.

There’s a few things you can do to make your car washing a little less harsh on the environment and water resources. Here’s some tips:

Wash your car on the grass.

This will give the grass a drink, the soil will help to break down impurities and prevent the water from entering stormwater drains and winding up in local waterways. Some of the chemicals in car wash detergents are nutrients for algae; so this water getting into waterways can help feed algal bloom and eutrophication problems.

Be hose wise

Use an adjustable trigger nozzle to improve pressure while reducing water consumption.


Use an earth friendly detergent or consider not using any at all if possible. If you do use detergent, don’t use in excess of manufacturer’s recommendations; you’ll only waste money, put more chemicals into your lawn and you won’t get a better result.

Use a bucket more

The hose should only be used for the final rinse. Sure, it’s easier to sit there and blast off grime with the hose, but it uses a ton of water. A bit of elbow grease using a sponge and bucket is good exercise too :).

Wash in the shade

Hot metal evaporates water incredibly quickly. The more that evaporates, the more you’ll need to use so try and either wash your car in the shade, wait for a cloudy day or do it early in the morning or late in the evening.

Wash less

Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for guys to wash and polish their vehicles every Sunday – it became somewhat of a tradition. If you’re washing your car purely out of habit rather than necessity, take a deep breath and try and go cold turkey for a while. It can be done and your car won’t fall apart :)

Automatic car wash

Is an automated  car wash greener? The answer is – it depends. If you pass a car wash on your way to and from work, or during any of your regular driving, it could be a more environmentally friendly alternative. Modern car washes use far less water than a home wash and they recycle their water. Automated car washes use anywhere from 20 to 45 gallons of water, but home washing can easily use in excess of a hundred gallons.

If getting to a car wash requires a special trip, then it’s likely not a green option when you consider the emissions of your vehicle and gas consumption to and from the car wash.

Waterless car wash

I’ve noticed a lot of products on the market now claiming to be waterless car washes that are also environmentally friendly. I can’t say I’ve ever used them, but I have read some encouraging reviews. These products are made primarily from vegetable extracts and silicone. The are said to attract dirt via electrostatic means and then coat it. It’s a matter of wiping on and wiping off. I was always taught that wiping off dirt in such a manner scratches the paint work, but if these products do really coat dirt, I guess it wouldn’t be such an issue.

Perhaps these waterless car washing products could make a good alternative for when your car has only light grime or could be used every other time in order to reduce overall consumption of water.

As always, with any product claiming to be environmentally friendly, read the label and do a spot test first.

A nice shiny car is certainly a pleasure to behold, but given that fresh water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource and the general environment is rebelling against all the toxins and excess nutrients we’ve pumped into it over the years, it’s now time for us all to practice moderation in all things – including washing our cars.

Have some tips for environmentally friendly car washing? Please add them below!