Kimiko Kidd
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Components of an Automated Car Wash

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A car going through an automated car wash

Ever wonder what you’re paying for when you take your vehicle to an automated car wash? Here’s a step-by-step guide to each component you’ll find in that mysterious dark tunnel of soap, water, and spinning scrubbers.

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Payment kiosks

Even though it’s not a direct part of the car-washing process, virtually every car-washing facility has a kiosk at the entrance. Automated car washes typically have more advanced point-of-sale units, which boast touch-screen displays that lead you through a series of menus. These kiosks will try to upsell you on fancier car-wash add-ons or future washes, so it’s a good idea to read each menu thoroughly — you don’t want to get stuck with surprise charges.

Conveyor track

Once you pull into the tunnel, it’s time to put your car in neutral and remove your foot from the brake. According to HowStuffWorks, a device called a correlator will align your vehicle with the conveyor track. Once it’s all lined up, an infrared sensor will measure your car and adjust the sprayers and rollers accordingly.


Now that you’re rolling through the car wash, you’ll notice a series of nozzles spraying down your car. This isn’t just plain old water — this is a pre-soaking solution that’s formulated to loosen up stuck-on grime. There are even special tire sprayers that shoot a detergent that’s designed to clean away brake dust and condition your tires to give them a nice, rich sheen. Once your vehicle has been thoroughly wetted, the excess moisture will be wicked away when it passes through the mitter curtain.

Foaming and scrubbing mechanisms

The next step on your car-washing journey will take you to the foamer. Comprised of varying ratios of soap, water, air, and sometimes a colorant, every car wash has its own house recipe for foam. Once your ride has been thoroughly coated, you’ll be taken to the scrubbers. These cloth-strip columns spin rapidly to wipe away grime. They’re washed regularly to prevent them from collecting debris that could scratch your car’s paint job. However, if you’re car is going to get damaged at any point in the process, it would happen here — so check out these preventive measures you can take.


Automated car washes feature high-pressure jets that spin rapidly to clear away foam and debris. In areas with snow and salted roads, some car washes feature upward-pointing jets to clear salt and road grime away from your vehicle’s undercarriage. And when we say that these are high-pressure jets, we aren’t kidding — sometimes, these nozzles shoot water at up to 1,000 pounds per square inch. That’s more than powerful enough to knock a person down. Since this process uses a lot of water (typically 300-400 gallons), many carwashes capture and recycle water after each wash. Your car’s secondary rinse, this time with clean water, will come from the rinse arch.


The spray-on wax used in an automated car wash is different from the wax you’d apply by hand. This unique wax can work on glass, chrome, plastic, metal, and rubber. While it’s not quite as protective as traditional waxing, it’s much less time consuming — and it’ll still do a good job of hiding scratches, protecting your car’s paint, and giving your vehicle a brilliant sheen.

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After one last rinse, your car will be ready to go into the dryer. Some car washes spray a fluid on your vehicle to hasten the drying process. Regardless, all car wash dryers blow warm air to help get the bulk of the moisture off your vehicle. Fully automated washes use more forceful blowers to fully dry the exterior. However, if the facility employs attendants to help dry your vehicle, the dryer will only get off the bulk of the moisture.

Want to learn the best way to wash your car at home? Check out our handy guide.