Inoculating Your Car Against The Salt Virus: Winter Car Washing.

Total rust destruction is not inevitable!

Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the country where there’s no winter to speak of. Good for you! You may want to skip on through most of this article.

I’ve chosen to live “where the air hurts my face” for lots of reasons, but I can’t deny that winter’s hard on people. Or that salt, while good for winter driving safety, is very bad for cars.

One of my hobbies is convincing people that even if you live in a state where salt spray is a given in winter, a car destroyed by rust within a few years is not. But! You’ve got to be willing to wash your car. In winter. More frequently than never. I’m going bust up some misconceptions I’ve heard about washing your car at a carwash. And then I’ll pass along a few winter car-washing tips.

Winter’s rough on people and cars alike.

Cold-Weather Car-Washing Misconceptions

  • Car-washing is really only for vain, status-conscious people. Wrong! Washing the salt off your car as often as you can helps prevent rust. The longer salt-spray stays on your car, the more rust you’ll have and the faster that rust will accelerate. If you’ve got an older car you’re trying to keep on the road as long as possible, washing your car is one of the simplest ways you can extend the structural integrity (and safety!) of your old car.
  • There’s no point in washing my car; it’s just going to get salty again! It will, yes, but unless you live in an extremely snowy place where multiple snowfalls a week are the norm, there’s going to be a few days or a week or even a month between storms. That’s time your car could be salt-free instead of carrying a thick load of damp salt eating away at your brake lines, your fuel lines, your suspension parts, and the structural panels that protect you in a crash.
  • I just let the rain wash my car! You’re going to bet your car’s longevity against fickle winter weather, which may not give you a thaw with heavy rain for several weeks or a few months? You’ve got more faith in Mother Nature than I do!
  • Who cares about rust? I don’t care how my car looks. Rust is just a cosmetic issue. By the time there’s visible rust on the body, rust on parts of the car you can’t see easily is already well-established. As rust progresses, it starts affecting the structural integrity and safety of your car. During an accident is not when you want to learn that your rocker panels are rusted enough to crumple in a crash, compromising the passenger compartment. During a low-visibility freeway pile-up is not when you want to discover that your brake lines are one panic-brake away from splitting!
  • If I wash my car in winter, the doors will freeze shut. This is partially true. Many automatic carwashes close at a specific temperature anyway and then you are out of car-washing luck. But you can wash a car at an enclosed, automatic carwash down to about 18-20 degrees without too much trouble. Make as much use of whatever air-dryer the carwash has as you can.

How To Wash Your Car In Winter Without Dying.

If I’ve convinced you that it’s worth the effort to wash your car reasonably often in winter, as conditions allow, here are some tips to make it a little easier:

  • Find a good carwash. One with an underbody flush! In the fall months, many car washes offer a sale on monthly access cards or punch cards. Pick a reputable car wash that has touch-free option. Soft-touch or brush car washes that won’t leave swirl marks on your paint are out there but they’re rare. Chose touch-free if you can! A good carwash will also have a high-velocity air dryer which also helps prevent some of the freezing that can happen during winter.
  • Temptation-bundle the task. If you dread the time involved, bundle the car-wash time with browsing your favorite guilty-pleasure social media site. Or treat yourself to an Uber-Sugar Mega Cappucino Double Chocolate Explosion from the local coffee shop to sip on while you wait in line. Take a friend or a teenager and get in some quality chat time.
  • At least in the Midwest, storms often follow a “storm-cold snap-mini thaw” pattern. Watch for the mini-thaw (not always a true thaw but at least a small rise in temps) and try to get your car through a carwash within three days of any snowfall that brings out the salt trucks. Not always possible of course, but get through the carwash when you can.
  • If you just can’t get the car washed, leave it parked outside, where the slush-garbage is more likely to stay frozen. Frozen snow-crud is a little less of a threat rust-wise than melting saltwater.
  • Given that many people in salt-using states wash their cars exactly never during the winter, if you get your vehicle washed even 2-3 times during the winter months, you’re ahead of the game! Good for you!

It’s always best not to have any salt on your car at all, of course. That’s why car culture really thrives in parts of the US with no winters, like California! But there’s definitely a lot you can do to slow down the rust that comes from the salt-scourge that the roads are during the snowy months in the northern United States. Total destruction within a few years is not assured. There’s hope!

Do I Need Snow Tires?

Last year I created a handy flow chart to help you decide if you should consider winter tires for your car, van, SUV, or truck. Continue reading for a free PDF download! The short answer could be summed up this way: If you’re considering shopping for a four-wheel or AWD vehicle because you hate driving in the winter, what you probably need more than a new car is snow tires for your current car.

Snow (or winter) tires are made of softer rubber compounds that stay stickier and grippier at cold temperatures. They have wider tread patterns designed to grab and bite snow better. If you’re remembering back to Grandpa’s station wagon and the loud hum it always had during the winter, modern winter tire tech has come a long way since the 1970s. Current snow tires are much quieter than the chunky, noisy tires you may remember from years ago. And they’re surprisingly affordable for most cars! Although there’s an initial expense, you’ll be saving winter wear on your all-season tires, so over time, the cost of running winter tires evens out very nicely. The increased feeling of security while driving during the misery months of November through March is well-worth the start-up expense of a full set of winter tires for those who live where the roads can be brutal and dangerous in the snowy months.

Lots of people who think they need all-wheel drive just need better tires on their front-wheel-drive car. But not everyone should bother with winter tires! That’s why I created this handy winter-tire decision tool. If you have any other questions or want help finding a winter tire and wheel package for your car, contact me.

Winter driving can be a drag, but the right tires can increase your confidence on the road.