Car cleaning options review and compare

How can you save water while washing your car? CHOICE investigates.
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01 .Introduction

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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The Car Wash Water Saver Rating scheme, accredited by the Smart Approved Watermark, was set up by the Australian Car Wash Association (ACWA). Similar to the star rating on many whitegoods, the scheme provides a rating system for commercial car wash companies. Each star represents the amount of water used by the company per car washed.

This scheme involves a star rating system for commercial car wash companies similar to the star rating you find on many white goods. Each star in the system represents the amount of water used by the company per car washed.

water saver logoStar rating system

3-star car wash uses between 121L to 140L per wash.
4-star uses between 101L and 120L.
5-star uses up to 100L per car wash.

These amounts are for normal conditions. In areas under drought conditions, the maximum allowable water usage will be up to 70L for a five-star car wash.

How is it verified?

To verify the claims of the car wash companies, an independent auditor makes spot checks of accredited companies. The scheme is currently voluntary however the ACWA hopes to make it a national licensing condition in the car wash industry.

In the meantime, look for the five-star rating at your local car wash. If it’s not prominently displayed, ask why they are not a part of the star-rating scheme.

Choice verdict

Washing your car on a lawn with a bucket and sponge uses the least water and is the most cost-effective method, however not everyone has this option. Even though self-serve car washes are more expensive over 20 washes, they use only 33L of water and five-star rated operations are environmentally friendly.

CHOICE looks forward to seeing the results of the Australian Car Wash Association’s recycling study. We want to see a balance in the way water is reclaimed and the energy used in doing so, given the large energy input in most recycling technologies.

Results table

Type of car clean Water (L) Water cost ($) Sponges ($) Detergent ($) Cost of service ($) First wash cost ($) For 20 washes cost ($)
Hose & sponge 150 0.24 3 8 0 11 16
Hose with spray attachment 120 0.19 3 8 0 11 15
Bucket and sponge 100 0.16 3 8 0 11 14
Low pressure 23 0.04 3 8 110 121 121
Self-serve 33 na 0 0 3 3 53
Auto-wash Not known na 0 0 10 10 204
Hand wash 33 na 0 0 24 24 480
Waterless car wash 0 3 0 5.50 (A) 8.19 113
Mobile waterless car wash 0 0 37 37 733

(A) The median cost of using this type of wash.

We’ve included the most popular options, comparing their cost and water usage per wash, excluding water in a commercial car wash. Cost is the average for a single wash – see the table  for the full cost breakdown. We didn’t include mobile car wash services, as the cost of the fuel used in driving to your home is an environmental issue and as such, means the real cost can’t be compared with the other methods. 

Bucket and sponge

Simple, traditional and popular.

Good points

  • It’s inexpensive.
  • There’s no waiting.
  • Satisfaction of doing it yourself.
  • Allows you to check the car for wear and tear.

Bad points

  • Labour intensive.
  • Difficult to rinse car with a bucket.
  • You need to buy and replace sponges and detergent.
  • There’s a legal requirement in many areas to wash cars on a lawn.
  • Possible fines for roadside cleaning.
  • You have a legal obligation to ensure pollutants don’t go into stormwater drains.

Water usage: The average bucket and sponge wash uses 100L of water, or the equivalent of 10 buckets per wash, according Sydney Water. We managed an effective bucket and sponge wash on a small/medium car with just two buckets, using a watering can to rinse the car.

Price: $0.70 / wash

Hose with trigger nozzle

A trigger nozzle on a hose is a legal requirement in some states when washing your car at home. It helps to reduce water usage.

Good points

  • Usually easy to adjust spray or turn it off while sponging.
  • It’s inexpensive.
  • There’s no waiting.
  • Satisfaction of doing it yourself.
  • Allows you to check the car for wear and tear.

Bad points

  • Labour intensive.
  • You need to buy and replace sponges and detergent.
  • There’s a legal requirement in many areas to wash cars on a lawn.
  • Possible fines for roadside cleaning.
  • You have a legal obligation to ensure pollutants don’t go into stormwater drains.

Water usage: 120L

Price: $0.75 / wash  

Hose and sponge

Cleaning your car with an open hose connection, allowing the water to flow into a drain, is not recommended.

Good points  

  • Good ease of use.
  • It’s inexpensive.
  • There’s no waiting.
  • Satisfaction of doing it yourself.
  • Allows you to check the car for wear and tear.

Bad points

  •  Labour intensive.
  • Large loss of water.
  • Difficult to contain constant flow of water in barriers for directing onto lawn.
  • You need to buy and replace sponges and detergent.  

Water usage: From 150L per wash, according to Sydney Water, to more than 500L per wash, according to some car wash manufacturers. It depends on whether you leave the water running between sponging down the car and rinsing.

Price: $0.80 / wash  

Low flow, high pressure car cleaner

These low water use, high pressure devices claim to save water compared to using traditional methods of cleaning your car.

Good points

  • Relatively easy to use.
  • High pressure cleaners can help remove dirt.

Bad points

  • We used more water than the manufacturers claim.
  • Substantial initial cost included in price below.
  • High pressure is not enough to clean the car directly, still requires sponging.

Water usage: 23L

Price: $6.00 / wash


You drive into a bay which has a high-pressure washing tool and brush that dispenses detergent. They are usually coin-operated, allow a selection of wash functions and count down so you know how much time is left to clean your car.

Good points

  • Can collect the waste for treatment and possible reuse – check if your self-serve station does this.
  • Cheaper than a serviced car wash, if used regularly.

Bad points

  • Takes a few times to get used to the timed cleaning.
  • Possible queues.

Water usage: Between 25L and 40L, according to the Australian Car Wash Association.

Price: $2.70 / wash

Auto wash

Either touchless or brush rollover, this system is a simple drive-in car wash, which is generally paid for beforehand and is located in service stations.

Good points

  • Totally automated.
  • You don’t have to be out in the cold or hot weather.
  • Some recycle much of the water used – check whether yours does.
  • Incorporates waste treatment into the machinery.
  • Can be incorporated into regular routine as most are located at service stations.

Bad points

  • Brush rollover can leave scratch marks on vehicles.
  • Touchless may not clean effectively.
  • Possible queues.
  • Expensive.

Water usage: Unknown, but recycling would lower amount used.

Price: $10.00 / wash 

Hand wash

A luxury option, also called car wash cafes, these often offer a free coffee with a car wash.

Good points

  • Many services offered.
  • You usually don’t have to be out in the cold weather or heat.
  • Can be incorporated into shopping routine as many are located at shopping centres.

Bad points

  • Possible queues
  • Expensive.
  • Up selling tactics sometimes used.

Water usage: 33L

Price: $24.00 / wash

Waterless car wash

These cleaners claim to encapsulate dirt when sprayed onto a car, preventing scratching when you then remove the substance with a cloth.

Good points

  • Very little water used (other than as an ingredient).
  • Allows you to check the car for wear and tear.

Bad points

  • More labour intensive than water methods.
  • More expensive than water-based methods.
  • Many people fear the rubbing action will scratch the paintwork, but we found it didn’t in our test, Choice March 2005.

Water usage: Very little

Price: $5.50 / wash

Other options

There are also mobile car washes that drive to your home and wash your car, however in doing so they are using fuel and can be quite expensive. Waterless mobile car wash options also exist, but again they use fuel to get to you and are expensive. We found a number of products that potentially help you reduce your water use; see Low flow high pressure cleaners for our test results.

One option for manually cleaning your car is a low flow high pressure car cleaner. These all use a pressurised spray, but not so high as to damage the paint on your car. We tested three low flow high pressure car cleaners to see how they performed and whether they were easy to use. All three have been accredited by the Smart Approved Watermark and we found we didn’t need to use more than 26L per wash – little more than a bucket and sponge option. With a little practice, it would be possible to lower even this amount.

All low flow high pressure car cleaners can be used in multiple locations, such as cleaning at a camping site, and also on your bike or boat; however, we found none of them claim, or are able to clean a car directly, still requiring a sponge and detergent to clean effectively.

What we found

Both the Car Cube and Watersaver use a car battery to pressurise and were more effective at initially wetting the car than the Autowasher which is manually pressurised, however the Autowasher's effectiveness may possibly be improved by removing its filter. The Car Cube and Autowasher came integrated with a water container so it didn’t require an extra bucket like the Watersaver.

Low flow high pressure cleaners 

L to R Autowasher, Car Cube and Watersaver 


Full results for all models are shown in the table below.

Brand/model (in rank order) Overall score (%) Performance score (%) Ease of use score (%) Method of operation Storage facility Dimensions (WxLxH) (cm) Hose/Power lead length (m) Weight Empty/Full (kg) Price ($)
Car Cube CC1 (1)
65 60 77 Car battery Yes 29 x 43 x 35 6.1 / 5.1 6 / 19.5 160
Watersaver Multipurpose Liquid Pump
55 50 67 Car battery Yes 16 x 47 x 26 6.9 / 3.1 2.5 / NA(2) 90
Autowasher AM 12
39 40 37 Manual No 22 x 22 x 60 2.5 / NA 2.1 / 13.4 80

Table notes

Scores The overall score is made up of:

  • Ease of use: 30%
  • Performance: 70%

(1) Discontinued August 2008, new model released September 2008 (CC2) with stronger pressure.

(2) Requires an extra container to draw water from.

How we tested

  • Initial rinse effectiveness Our tester rinsed each car to begin with to see how much dirt was removed and scored accordingly.
  • Final rinse effectiveness After sponging each car with detergent, the product was used again to rinse car of detergent and its effectiveness was scored.
  • Convenience/Adjustments Each product was assessed on how easy it was to move around and spray adjustment was to use.
  • Aiming This assessed how easy the head of the product was to move around awkward areas such as wheel housing.
  • Transportation/Storage Assessing portability of the product when stored for travel and if it had compartments for storing different hose attachments that were included.
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