Updated Monday, September 6, 2021

The following post offers general advice about detailing your car at a coin-operated self car wash. The best way to maintain your paint is with safe and regular washing, which is why a weekly wash is recommended for most cars (or once every 2-3 weeks if you garage your car).

Note: This guide doesn’t apply to the car washes where your car goes through a tunnel with big spinning brushes. Also, I don’t recommend these types of washes because the heavy duty brushes and highly acidic soaps strip sealants and ceramic coatings and also leave heavy swirl marks on your paint.

Bring a Lot of Quarters

Coin-operated self service car washes time how long you can use their wash equipment and vacuums. Most coin-operated car washes need quarters in the coin slot for more time. Some fancy car washes take credit cards but even most of these will still have machines that take quarters. Carry extra quarters (or your credit card) on you during the wash so you’re always ready to add more time if needed without having to go back into your vehicle or run over to the change machine mid-wash.

Bringing a lot of quarters is also a good idea because sometimes the machine that exchanges quarters won’t work.

Detailer’s Tip: If you have a few extra quarters, then wash your vehicle in the following order to prevent scratches and swirls: blower, soap mix, water rinse, soap mix, gentle hand wash, water rinse, blower.

Bring a Bucket with Clean Microfiber Mitts or Towels

Coin-operated car washes are great because they’re quick, low-cost, and usually open 24 hours. Because of this convenience and affordability, a bunch of vehicles go through these car washes daily, meaning the foaming soap brushes that a lot of these places have are usually dirty, having been contaminated with the previous vehicle’s dirt and grease. I’d avoid these brushes and instead, suggest bringing your own bucket with your own clean microfiber mitt(s), like Meguiar’s Microfiber Wash Mitt and/or clean microfiber towels, like Meguiar’s Supreme Shine Microfiber Towels.

You’ll need the bucket to presoak your mitts and/or towels. You can fill the bucket with water or a water/soap mix from the car wash. Don’t put any mitt or towel that you’ve taken out of the bucket back into the bucket: instead put them aside when they’re dirty. You’re going to need a lot of mitts and/or towels if you want to safely self wash your vehicle: I recommend between 6-20 mitts and/or towels depending on how dirty your vehicle is. You’ll need more for cars that haven’t been washed in over 3 weeks.

While this 1 bucket wash method requires more towels/mitts than the traditional 2 bucket approach, it’s safer for your paint than the 2 bucket wash method because dirty towels/mitts aren’t put back in the bucket of clean pre-soaked towels/mitts. For this reason, a grit guard isn’t needed for the 1 bucket wash method.

Start From The Top and Work Your Way Down

Working your way from top to bottom, gently wash one panel at a time with your microfiber towels or mitts. For larger panels like your roof or hood, wash one half first (driver or passenger side), then wash the other half next. Rinse your vehicle top to bottom after you’ve finished washing each panel.

Use the Blower

Before and after you’ve rinsed off your car, if available, use the air blower for best results. This helps to remove loose debris and also aids in quicker and better drying results. Sling the hose over your shoulder to avoid scratching your automobile’s paint with the blower hose.

Bring Your Own Drying Towels

Bring your own drying towels.

I prefer waffle weave microfiber towels because they don’t leave fibers behind, they don’t streak, and are really absorbent due to the high surface area weaving. For professional jobs and for drying my own cars, I use Meguiar’s Water Magnet Microfiber Towel.

Dry Your Vehicle in the Shade

If possible, dry your car in the shade. This prevents water spots. This also prevents scratching because parking your car in the shade will cool your paint, making it harder (paint is softer when it’s warm) and as a result, less susceptible to scratching.

Use A “Drying” Aid

Bring a bottle of detailer spray while drying to prevent scratches. “Drying” aids like Meguiar’s Quik Detailer are a great way to safely dry your car with microfiber towels because they lubricate your towels and paint. For my professional jobs and for when I wash my own car, I like to “prime” my drying towels with detailer spray to help with minimizing swirls, and also one or two spritz of detailer spray per panel. When drying, go about your car top to bottom and in straight lines. Use as little pressure as possible.

Optional: Paint Correction

You could correct your paint with a 1 step polish/sealant like Griot’s Garage One-Step Sealant to remove light paint rub, light oxidation, and swirls. 1 step products, also known as cleaner waxes and polishing waxes, are great for on-the-go paint correction repairs because they save time by combining compounding, polishing, and sealing into 1 step, can be applied by hand, & buff dry easily.

It’s a good idea to do paint correction in the shade. 1-step products must be applied one panel at a time. Work some product onto a microfiber towel and rub it into your paint until the product finishes down to a smooth finish. Repeat until the entire panel is smooth. This product leaves behind a durable sealant finish so you can skip the next step.

Bring Your Own Paint Protectant

BYOB. Bring Your Own Bottle, of wax or sealant, that is. It’s generally a good idea to seal your car in the shade. Coin-operated car washes usually offer their own wax, but these low-end waxes are not very glossy or durable. If you haven’t yet made the switch to paint sealants, then you can still seal your paint with a bottle of spray wax like Meguiar’s Ultimate Quik Wax. Working one panel at a time, lightly spray a bit of wax onto your paint, let it flash dry, then buff dry. Keep in mind wax doesn’t last for more than a week or until your next car wash, so you’ll have to reapply each time you wash your car.

If you’ve graduated from waxes and have advanced to sealants and ceramic coatings, then apply a paint sealant like Meguiar’s M27 Pro Hybrid Ceramic Sealant. Sealants on ungaraged cars will last 3 to 4 months with safe and regular washing while sealants on garaged cars will last around 6 months with safe and regular washing before needing another application. Sealants, like wax, can be applied by hand with applicator pads or by machine with finishing pads.

Bring a Flashlight if Vacuuming at Night

If you prefer to do your washing and vacuuming at night to avoid the sun, then bring a flashlight with you when you’re vacuuming. While most coin-operated car washes have some lighting for nighttime cleaning, these lights usually aren’t bright enough to reveal all angles of your vehicle’s interior. A flashlight or head lamp, like this Milwaukee 600 Lumens USB Rechargeable Headlamp I use on professional jobs, will help you see every crumb and pet hair stuck in those tough to get to spots while keeping your hands free to guide the vacuum nozzle and to hold up the hose to prevent interior scuffing.

Pay It Forward

If you know someone who goes to coin-operated self car washes and would benefit from this advice, then please pay it forward by sharing a link to this post. Thanks, now find some quarters and go wash your car!