A Canadian’s Guide To Washing Your Car In The Winter

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Winter foam cannon

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Washing your car in the winter is something many of us northern detailing enthusiasts have to deal with. Now that the cold weather is officially upon us, this can be quite the challenge. Especially if you don’t have the luxury of being able to wash your car indoors. 

When is it too cold to wash your car?

Kenny Rodgers famously said “You gotta know when to hold em and when to fold em“, and that certainly applies to washing your car in the cold.

In my experience, anything colder than -10 Celcius (or 14 degrees Fahrenheit) is going to be problematic. At this point, there’s real potential for your car to freeze as well as the water that fell to your driveway turning into a skating rink.

I’ve even pushed the limits by washing a car in colder temperatures and the rinseless wash turned to slush when I was attempting to dry the hood. There comes a time when you have to accept defeat and at that point, there was no more denying it.

8 Tips For Washing Your Car In The Winter:

I’ve spent years struggling with this very issue, whether it be on my own car or clients’ cars. Through much research, trial and error, and fingers so numb that frostbite was a concern, here is what I’ve learned about washing cars in the cold.

Hopefully, you can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made and save yourself a lot of headaches. 

1. Dress for the occasion 

When the outdoor temperature is hovering around the 0 degree Celsius mark it can be tempting to avoid going out altogether, let alone washing the car. By dressing appropriately you give yourself the best chance of surviving long enough to do a good job. 

Make sure to layer up – thermal shirts and long johns are your friends here! It’s also important to wear the proper outer layers. Waterproof pants and jackets are incredibly helpful.

Staying dry is the first step to staying warm. If the jacket you’re wearing soaks up water instead of resisting it you’re going to have a bad time – ask me how I know.  

Wear thick rubber gloves and insulated rubber boots. At bare minimum, thick socks and standard rubber boots, and thin gloves under your rubber gloves will give you a much needed layer of insulation. 

A pair of winter running gloves under latex gloves might just be the best way to stay warm and retain dexterity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to do this in sneakers, but I know I’ve regretted it every single time. 

Cold weather car wash

2. Find shelter

If you are able to use your garage to wash inside, you are literally winning at life. If you’re like most of us this isn’t feasible. In those cases, any sort of shelter from the wind will drastically improve your comfort. 

A temporary carport can be picked up from Canadian Tire for less than $500. This will by no means be as comfortable as washing indoors but it will take the edge off allowing for a more enjoyable experience. 

If you’re on a tighter budget this may not be for you. Lucky for you there are several coin-operated wash bays in nearly every city in North America.

Coin-operated wash bays come with the added benefit of having a spot-free rinse feature, making it easier to avoid water spots if you happen to miss a spot in your haste to get out of the cold.  

3. Use Warm Water 

Notice I said warm water and not hot water? There’s a reason for that. Hot water is too harsh to be used for washing cars, especially in the cold. Using hot water in the cold could turn a small crack in your windshield into a large one. 

Warm water cleans better than cold water. If you’re able to use warm water in your pressure washer as well as a bucket you’ll be giving yourself an edge in the battle of cold weather detailing. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t hook your pressure washer up to warm water but it sure is nice. 

An added benefit to using warm water in your wash bucket is that it allows you to warm up your hands a little before going back to touching cold metal and plastic. If the water is too hot you’re just going to be causing yourself more pain.

If you’re planning to use a coin-operated pressure washer make sure to fill your bucket with warm soapy water and seal it with a water-tight lid before leaving home. 

4. Tackle Road Salt and Road Grime

I know people will typically wash their cars less often in the winter and they’ll use phrases like “It’s just going to get dirty the next time I drive it.” to justify this behavior. This is the opposite of proper car care. Bottom line: you should be washing your vehicle more often in inclement weather. 

Since the roads are filthy causing your vehicle to get dirty faster, doesn’t it make sense to stay on top of it and wash your car more frequently? Take road salt for instance. Road salt allowed to dwell on your car’s surface is what causes rust and corrosion. 

In southwestern Ontario where I’m from, rust and corrosion are two of the biggest killers of our vehicles. If the owners of these rusted vehicles had taken better care to wash the road salt off they might be buying new tires instead of looking for a replacement vehicle.

Cold weather car wash

It may be beneficial to invest in an underbody sprayer to clean the undercarriage of your vehicle. I’m assuming you don’t have access to a vehicle lift where you can wash the underside of your car since you’re reading this article. 

Using an anti-salt and corrosion car soap additive is another weapon to add to the winter washing arsenal. Boost from AMMO NYC is a great product in this field. Equally important though, is ensuring your vehicle is washed frequently and that it’s protected with wax, sealant, or a coating. 

5. Prevent Ice Formations

It’s not uncommon to find ice in various places after a cold weather wash. Here are a few steps to prevent this from happening:

Firstly, it’s important to warm up your vehicle. Turn on both front and rear window defrosters and keep the car in the sun as much as possible.

This way the glass isn’t shocked when you begin washing it with warm water. It’s also a good excuse to drive to your nearest Timmies for a large double-double (If you know, you know!). 

If you’re able to pull the vehicle inside after the wash it is wise to do so. You won’t have to finish the job in the cold, and you’ll give yourself more time to dry the car off before you’re fighting icicles.

Be sure to thoroughly dry the vehicle. If you have access to compressed air, go ahead and use it to blow out all the cracks and crevices that water gets trapped in. If you don’t have compressed air, a leaf blower can be a good alternative.  

Also, be sure to dry the door jams and rubber weather stripping. Nothing sucks more than having your door frozen shut on Monday morning when you’re already running behind schedule. 

6. Adjust Your Work Time

Since you’re working in cooler weather, you may find your detailing products don’t react the way you’re used to them reacting. This is mainly evident in the amount of dwell time you can allow.

Where you might be rushing to rinse off a product in the summer to prevent it from drying, you may find you have a lot more time before the products begin to dry. 

Speaking of which, it can be difficult to get your car actually dry in cold weather. Low temperatures combined with high humidity can have you wiping and wiping, yet still be left with a damp surface.

You might want to consider a soap or rinseless wash that is less likely to leave a residue behind if you find yourself in this situation.

Obsessed Garage Karcher pressure washer

7. Protect Your Equipment

Most of our detailing products come in either liquid or paste form. It can be tempting to leave them in the garage because it’s a convenient storage solution. However many of these products specifically warn against allowing them to freeze.

I had a wheel wax that I allowed to get too cold and the next time I went to use it, it had separated and I couldn’t get it to blend together. It made application and removal more difficult and for all I know could have changed the chemical makeup.

Many products will expand and contract when they go to and from a freezing state. On top of that, keep in mind that plastic bottles will get brittle when they freeze. That’s a recipe for a blowout.

It’s also important to remember that pressure washers will always have a little bit of water in them after use, so allowing them to remain outside in the cold is a surefire way to destroy the pump inside the unit. 

8. Washing Substitutions

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, wash your vehicle often. Sometimes schedules and life don’t allow for concourse-level details frequently. This doesn’t have to be a reason to skip out on detailing your vehicle. 

Doing a quick and simple job is more beneficial than skipping it altogether as getting salt off the car quickly is key to reducing rust and corrosion. This is where a hoseless or waterless wash can save the day. It can be especially helpful if you have a garage and don’t want to spend an hour in the bitter cold. 

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