Car wash: cleaning-up the industry

We meet the people bringing an eco-friendly, hi-tech approach to washing your car

Cleaning cars is big business, with the UK car wash industry worth an estimated £1billion a year.

But big bucks can bring big problems. Up to 8,000 hand car washes engage in illegal activity, and the Environmental Audit Committee recently warned many amount to “modern slavery in plain sight.” Furthermore, cleaning agents can cause chemical burns to workers, while untreated wash water has “toxic effects” on animal and plant life.

The industry recently announced a new code of practice in response to concerns such as these; car wash firms will soon be encouraged to sign up to a set of employee and chemical-handling standards, and motorists will be urged to look out for washes bearing a Responsible Car Wash Scheme logo.

• Best car cleaning and car care tips

Some companies are ahead of the curve, however, offering drivers ecologically sound car washes provided by workers on a decent wage. Firms such as Dropless and Wash Doctors, for example, treat their contractors well and use eco-friendly chemicals, while also offering the added bonus of coming to your house to clean your car.

To get a flavour of what the car wash of the future looks like, we invited Dropless’s co-founder, Christian Duncan, and Dropless car-wash guru, Adam Westlake, to our house in London. We would, naturally, be left with a sparkling vehicle, but we were equally interested in what the modern car wash industry looks like from an insider’s perspective.

Christian tells us the idea for Dropless came when his business partner’s busy wife tried to organise for her car to be cleaned at home. “She went online and found expensive options for someone to come and valet it. We came up with an idea for a service that is reasonably priced and can come to you wherever you are,” he explains.

But they ran up against problems almost immediately. “Every option we looked at involved big vans that require a lot of fuel to get around the city,” Christian says. Research led Christian and his partner to realise that a waterless – or near-waterless – option existed, with nano particles and microfibre cloths meaning Dropless’s workers don’t need a hose, and can fit all their gear in a Renault Twizy, although the company is using Smart ForTwos in its early days.

Christian says while an average hand car wash uses 150 to 300 litres of water, Dropless’s solution needs just a litre.

• Hand car washes should be licensed, says MPs

As a start-up company going through its first round of ‘angel’ investment, Dropless only covers south-west London and Kingston for now. The company has big expansion plans, though, with a smartphone app in development, and contracts with various car hire companies and dealers.

Adam, who’s doing the honours on our Volvo XC60, tells us the chemicals Dropless uses are better than those he worked with in previous roles as a professional valeter. “Most hand car washes insist you wear gloves because the chemicals are so harsh,” he says. “Even so, I used to get rashes. With the cleaning products Dropless uses, I don’t even need to wear gloves. That means I can feel the dirt under my fingers, and clean more effectively.”

Adam gets to work on our car, applying an enzyme-based nano solution with a spray bottle, lifting and breaking down dirt on the Volvo’s surface. A microfibre towel removes the dirt, and a dry, clean microfibre mitt buffs it down before carnauba wax is applied. The wheels are cleaned next, then Adam starts on the Volvo’s interior.

As well as using employee-friendly chemicals, Dropless is keen to treat its workers well. All its washers are self-employed, and they keep 70 per cent of the price of each wash they perform. Dropless retains the other 30 per cent, and for that it fills its workers’ calendars, trains them and supplies all cleaning materials, including a cordless vacuum cleaner. With an exterior clean costing £15 and an ‘in-and-out’ job £25, workers are likely to earn at least £10 an hour, so they should comfortably take home the London living wage.

“If we want to retain talent, we need to be able to pay the guys well,” Christian says. “We looked at on-demand services such as Deliveroo and Uber, and understand a lot of work goes into cleaning a car compared to a delivery service.” He adds that Dropless will “definitely” support the Responsible Car Wash Scheme once it’s fully up and running.

Once Adam has finished, our XC60 is gleaming. And because he has used eco-friendly products and so little water, there’s no mess on the road, nor any toxic run-off for Thames Water to clean up later down the line.

The latest tech in new cars makes the job even easier, too. “If we get a Tesla, we call the customer to let them know we’ve arrived, and they can remotely unlock the car so we can clean inside. They can then lock it when we’re done,” Adam adds.

All things considered, the business model being rolled out by the likes of Dropless and Wash Doctors looks set to offer the car wash of the future, for the car of the future.

What's the best car wash service you've ever used? Let us know below...

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