Car cleaning options review and compare

How can you save water while washing your car? CHOICE investigates.
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bucket and sponge

In brief

  • If you wash your car commercially, look for a cleaning station registered with the Car Wash Water Saver Rating Scheme.
  • If you do it yourself, wash the car on your lawn – two buckets is all we used for a full wash.

Whether you wash your car with a sense of pride or dread, you need water to do it effectively — even waterless solutions contain water. And living in the world’s driest inhabited continent, a strong sense of conservation is also essential. The amount of water used to clean a car can vary wildly, ranging from less than a litre up to 150L.

The choice of method is made more complex by issues of energy use, chemicals used and how much it costs.

  • Is the water recycled?
  • How do you know chemical-tainted water isn’t going into the stormwater drains?

For the ultimate in water and money savings, many people simply don’t wash their cars; they wait for the rain to wash away the dirt and grime. While this is environmentally sound, it’s not reliable and doesn’t keep your car looking its best.

Please note: this information was current as of November 2008 but is still a useful guide today.

Manual cleaning

When cleaning your car at home, remember to clean on the lawn if you have one, or if you don’t want to damage your lawn with the weight of the car, wash on the driveway and direct the waste to the lawn with barriers.

If you wash your car on the street, you may be fined according to your state’s laws for allowing pollution into the stormwater system. Try to use phosphate-free detergent to lower the pollution risk.

We looked at the most popular car wash options, with their pros and cons, water usage per wash and cost, excluding water if you're using a commercial car wash – we based this direct cost on 20 washes. We also conducted an online poll and found that most people still stick with the traditional do-it-yourself method.

The commercial car wash operators are required by law to collect all trade waste that comes from cleaning a car, such as grease, oil, tar, rubber and detergent. This is disposed of by collectors and the water that remains after collection is directed into the sewer for treatment.

Some of the commercial car wash companies do recycle their water and there is a study being undertaken by The Australian Car Wash Association (ACWA) for more effective ways of recycling. CHOICE looks forward to seeing a balanced way of reclaiming water and the energy use in doing so, given the large energy input in most recycling technologies.



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