How to keep your car sparkling clean, or not, during a drought

Jake Sands drives around town in a dirty light-blue 15-year-old Honda Civic. He calls it a symbol for water conservation.

Sands is one of about 14,000 drivers who have signed the #DirtyCarPledge from Los Angeles Waterkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization. They have mounted “Go dirty for the drought” stickers on car windows and promised not to wash their vehicles for at least 60 days. Sands last washed his in November.

“I clean the windows, but everything else is really dusty and has water marks,” Sands said. “My car is not a new Porsche. It doesn’t have to be in pristine condition.”

Car companies also are getting into the act. Toyota dealerships in Southern California have launched “The Wash Can Wait” program, in which customers can opt-out of the complimentary car wash that comes with a service appointment. Toyota dealers want to reduce car washes by 75% this month and next. The dealers say their program could save as much as 20 million gallons of water.

Not everyone wants to make a water-saving statement by driving a dirty car. There are plenty of waterless and low-water options for those who value water conservation.

Most car washes in Southern California recycle their water, so it’s much better to use them than wash a car at home, advises the Automobile Club of Southern California.

There are also waterless car wash products that spray on and towel off, said Megan McKernan, manager of the auto club’s Automotive Research Center. You typically see these products used at car shows inside convention halls as automakers work to keep display vehicles free of dust and fingerprints.

“Just because there is a drought doesn’t mean you can’t have a good-looking car,” said Mike Pennington, the consumer relations director at Meguiar’s, the Irvine car care products company.

Meguiar’s makes Ultimate Wash & Wax Anywhere spray bottle. It sells for $10 to $12 and can clean three to five cars.

Eco Touch and other companies make similar products.

All require the user to liberally mist the liquid onto a body panel and then wipe down with a cloth.

Pennington recommends using a microfiber cloth because it grabs the dust particles better than a cotton towel or rag. High-quality microfiber towels can be washed and reused.

But there are some cautions. “You need to keep an eye on what side of the towel is clean so that you are not dragging the particles back across the car,” Pennington said.

A California Duster — an auto-detailing product that looks like a small hand mop — also works for dusting off a car, said Allen Brown, a Ford Motor Co. paint expert. 

Modern automotive paint is durable and can easily withstand the dust and dirt vehicles pick up in everyday driving, even if it sits for a while, Brown said.

But bird droppings, tree sap and other liquids that drip onto a car should not be left on the paint for months at a time, Brown said.

Even with The Wash Can Wait dealer program, Toyota is “not advocating that people don’t take care of, or wash their cars,” said Greg Thome, a spokesman for the automaker.

Rather, the program is meant to give people an option to evaluate whether their car needs an extra wash and then opt out to save water, he said.

Officially, the owner’s manual in Toyota vehicles urges the “liberal” use of water when washing a car but doesn’t address cleaning intervals.

People can get their cars surprisingly clean with a bucket of plain water, a big sponge and some towels, the automotive experts said. Just wipe off the dirt and dry with a clean cloth.

But Brown cautioned that this approach also requires close attention to whether there is sediment and grit building up in the water. You don’t want to wipe down the car with anything abrasive.

The car care experts also agree that whether you clean your car regularly or only once every several months, a good wash and application of a liquid or paste wax every three to four months will protect the paint underneath all that dust.

“Wax makes the car even easier to dust off,” Brown said.

Fred Crane, a La Cañada Flintridge accountant, has an even simpler way to keep his 2014 Acura RDX clean.

“I got a good cover for it,” Crane said. “I cover it overnight and I cover it at work, and I don’t have to wash for a couple of months.”

The money he saves on car washes pays several times over for the cover, which he purchased for about $50 from Wal-Mart.

“The car cover is the answer you never see anyone use,” Crane said, “but it works like a charm.”

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