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Soft Touch vs. Touchless Wash

At Full Service Car Wash, I have often been asked which is better: soft touch or touchless car washing? To answer this question, one must consider two factors from two different perspectives: the car wash operator's and the car wash consumer's. Both relate to how effective and safe each method is. Before I discuss which method is preferred, it is important to understand how each system works.

How Soft Touch Works

In soft touch car washing, very soft and lightweight closed cell foam and very soft felt cloth is flooded with water and a mild soap that provides lubrication. This combination of soft material and soap/water solution makes contact with the surface of a vehicle. This process, with the help of computer-controlled pressure and RPM settings, mild pH detergents (similar to hair shampoo), and soft touch material, break the electro-molecular bond the surface contaminants have with the vehicle’s exterior. Centrifugal forces combined with the constant flooding of soap and water on the closed cell foam and cloth make sure dirt and debris are removed from the vehicle’s surface, and not transferred between vehicles. Following this process, low pressure water is used to rinse the remaining soap/water solution off of the vehicle. The vehicle then has a hydrophobic “cold wax” solution applied to aid in drying and is then sent through a forced air dryer.

How Touchless Works

In touchless car washing, also called the Hi/Lo method, a very high pH alkaline soap or “hot” chemical is applied to the surface of the vehicle. After allowing some dwell time for the alkaline solution to “cook” on the car, a very low pH acid is applied to the surface over the high pH alkaline. More dwell time is then allowed for a better chemical reaction to take place. These chemicals flip the polarity of the electro-molecular bond the dirt has made to the surface of the car, attempting to loosen it up. High pressure water is then used to blast the loosened dirt particles off the surface of the vehicle. Like the soft touch washing process, the vehicle then has a hydrophobic “cold wax” solution applied and is sent through a forced air dryer.

From the Operators’ Point of View

From an operators’ point of view, touch-less car washing has some pros. The operation is simple. Despite this fact, these car wash operators need to be part-time chemists to get the best performance out of the system or hire someone to do this for them. Changes in outside temperature affect the chemical cleaning process. Chemical ratios must constantly be monitored and tweaked. The chemicals used in touch-less washing, if applied too strong, can and will damage the plastic moldings and trim as well as strip away most protectants and waxes that had been applied to the vehicle, causing dulling of the finish. If too little chemical is used, the car won’t come out clean at all. Maintenance is also less on touch-less equipment, because of fewer moving parts. There is also a customer perception that a touch-less wash does not “touch” their vehicle, therefore there is no chance of any damage happening to their vehicle using this method; however, this perception is changing.

From the Customer’s Point of View

Despite these pros of operational ease for the owner, there are cons involved with touch-less washing for the consumer. Cars do not come out as clean with touch-less washing methods. Customers who use touch-less washes will also need to wash more often because, with no sealants on the vehicle and a dull finish from harsh chemicals, dirt will accumulate faster. This is actually seen as a pro for operators in our industry. Not making physical contact with dirt particles means that there is no way to remove all of the contaminants from the surface of a vehicle. If left on the surface of the vehicle, these contaminants such as bird droppings, carbon/metallic brake dust, and acid rain will damage a vehicle’s finish.

What the Industry Knows

Reputable car wash operators in the industry know that soft touch systems clean the best and safest. The correct way to wash fine china is by submerging it in mild soap and water and gently agitating it with a soft cloth, then using a soft cotton towel to dry it. This is exactly the wash process of a soft-touch car wash system (although hand cotton towel drying is not always offered.) Maintenance in this washing method is higher, and operating costs are greater for the owner, but there is no better way to effectively remove the contaminants from the surface of a vehicle. The customer’s vehicle will also stay cleaner longer because waxes and sealants are left intact on the finish because no harsh chemicals are used.

What the Customer Knows

There has been a long-standing perception by customers and some operators that soft touch wash systems can scratch or damage a vehicle's finish. Even some auto manufacturers state in their owner manuals that only touchless car washes should be used. Today, this could not be further from the truth. These perceptions stem from very old style car wash systems that used nylon bristle brushes to clean vehicles. In those old systems (we are talking 60s, 70s and 80s), damage was common. Those systems do not exist anymore and have been replaced by the effective and safe soft touch systems of today. Many gas station car washes are now converting to soft touch wash systems because customers know their car will be cleaner and are demanding this method. Industry data also shows facilities who have side by side touch-less and soft touch washes on site have more traffic through the soft touch facility.

Conclusion

Full Service Car Wash only operates soft touch car wash systems at each of our four locations. Our car care facilities also add two extra steps in the washing process: The first is a manual hand prep by employees to remove large debris that may not be removed in the automated washing process. The second is a hand towel dry that removes the remaining water from the vehicle that the forced air dryers cannot completely do. We have been using these methods along with automated soft touch washing to build our business over the last 30 years by safely cleaning millions of cars in the greater Milwaukee area. We owe and are committed to providing our customers with the best and safest car wash services. In short, if there were a better, safer way to wash a vehicle than the soft-touch wash system, we would use it.

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