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How much does a car wash cost? Automatic car wash, hand car wash and do it yourself prices compared

Can cleaning your motor by hand, rather than at a car wash, save you money? We did all the calculations to find out

Whether you are the type of driver who likes to pamper your car every weekend, or someone who cleans it only when the neighbours start to complain about the state it’s in, you might wonder about the real cost of washing your vehicle. 

The products we test here at Auto Express throughout the year can seem expensive in isolation, so is it actually cheaper just to nip to your local hand wash, or even run your car through an automated machine at a petrol station? We fired up the spreadsheet to work it out.

The automated car wash

First, we visited a nearby automated car wash, at the BP fuel station in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The mid-price option seemed to be the best value, offering a shampoo, wheel and under-chassis wash, plus a blow-dry, for £8.

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We know from previous tests that these mechanical washes aren’t the best for your car, because they are likely to create tiny micro-scratches in the paint, and can also damage trim and aerials. The wheel wash seems to clean only the outer face and miss the sides of spokes as well.

The hand car wash

Most local supermarkets feature a franchise offering car-cleaning services, and we found Waves at our nearest Tesco, in Stevenage. The basic Bronze package for a medium-size model such as a Volkswagen Golf cost £15, and included an exterior wash and ‘liquid gloss rinse’. Larger cars such as SUVs were between £18 and £20, depending on their size.

The DIY costs

To work out the cost of cleaning a car at home, we gathered our favourite products and calculated what they cost per clean if used according to the instructions. This is crucial, because the ‘guesstimate’ method of pouring some fluid into the bucket or snow foam bottle isn’t only wasteful, it might result in a poorer cleaning result.

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We assumed access to a bucket will be possible in the majority of homes – but if not, they cost less than a pound from most DIY stores. You will need a sponge or wash mitt to apply the shampoo, however, and although you can pick these up for less than a quid, too, we used our Best Buy Armor All 2 in 1 Microfibre Wash Mitt for these calculations. We divided the £4.08 cost over 26 washes. That’s a year’s worth of fortnightly treatments, although in reality the mitt should still have plenty of life left in it, and it may last much longer.

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We used the same calculation criteria for a drying cloth, applying it to the top-scoring Armor All Extra Large Drying Towel, which is priced at £5. Spread over a year, the cost is 19p per wash.

A pressure washer represents a significant investment but will really speed up your car cleaning. Our top-rated machine is the Hawksmoor 140 bar, which costs £89.98 from Toolstation. Large hardware items such as this should last at least five years, so we divided the cost over 130 washes, representing our fortnightly car-cleaning sessions. The washer will be useful for all sorts of cleaning tasks around the home too, but they weren’t factored into the calculations.

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Then we get to the products you’ll need to do a really good job. We’ll start with some wheel cleaner to get rid of the brake dust. This task is unlikely to need doing every two weeks, unless you are attending track days – but, for simplicity, we did our calculations as though you were using it at every wash and giving each wheel six squirts of our top-rated Bilt-Hamber Auto-Wheel, which costs £14.95 for a litre. 

We measured the amount of fluid in the six squirts, and were surprised to see it was less than 5ml per wheel. That’s a total of 20ml per cleaning session, which works out at 30p per wash.

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Next comes a nice blanket of our newly crowned Halfords Advanced High Performance Snow Foam, which is priced at £11 for 2.5 litres. At the suggested dosage, this works out at 18p for a 250ml solution, which is plenty to cover our mid-size Mazda 3.

To match the ‘liquid gloss rinse’ offered by the Waves hand car wash’s Bronze package, we also added a wash wax treatment. This isn’t recommended more often than once a month, so we halved the 60p per treatment cost of Dodo Juice’s Future Armour.

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To be really precise on the costs, we also worked out every wash uses around 120 litres of water, which at current metered rates costs about 12p. The pressure washer also uses power for the 12 minutes it is working during a wash. We measured this to cost 9p at the daytime tariff rates. That all works out to a total of £2.20 per DIY home wash. That’s not counting your time, of course, but many people enjoy hand cleaning a car and getting the better results. And the workout involved will save on a gym membership, too.

This represents a saving of £277.68 per year versus a typical hand car wash, and £95.68 compared with the fuel station machine clean. That’s plenty of incentive to get busy with a bucket.

Price check

Cost of Waves Bronze Wash, medium size car: £15

Cost of BP’s shampoo wash, wheel wash, under-chassis wash, dry: £8

Cost of DIY wash:

  • Bilt-Hamber Auto Wash: 100 washes from a 500ml bottle costing £16.95 = 17p per wash
  • Halfords Advanced HP Snow Foam: £11 for 2.5 litres, diluted at 1:5 = 18p for 250ml
  • Bilt-Hamber Auto-Wheel: £14.95 for 1.0-litre. 5ml per wheel = 20ml per wash = 30p
  • Armor All 2 in 1 Microfibre Wash Mitt: £4.08/26 washes = 16p
  • Wash wax – Dodo Juice Future Armour: £12 for 20 monthly treatments = 30p/two weeks
  • Armor All Extra Large Drying Towel: £5/26 washes = 19p
  • Hawksmoor 140 pressure washer: £89.98. Five years – 130 washes = 69p
  • Water: 120 litres = 12p
  • Power: 1,800W for 12 minutes = 26p/kwh = 9p

Total per two-weekly wash = £2.20

You know the cost, now you just need the skills! We explain how to wash your car...

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