This time of year, my car gets absolutely filthy. I live at the end of a long dirt road and after months without rain, even driving five miles an hour kicks up a huge plume of dust that settles all over my bright red Toyota. Every once in a while I’ll use the squeegee at the gas station to get rid of the worst of the buildup on my windows, but I’ve long left the body of my car dirty because I assumed it wasn’t possible to wash my car in a way that would be ecologically friendly.
Living in frequent drought conditions like I do, the thought of wasting gallons of water on an aesthetic exercise just seems silly, even though I know buildups of grime aren’t great for my paint job. After enough friends mocked me about the state of my car, though, I decided that maybe it was time to do some research and see if it was possible to have my cake (clean car) and eat it too (clean AND green car).
Here’s what I found out:
For one thing, my first instinct was right: the hose job at my place is not the way to go — and that’s even with a hose that I can turn on and off at the sprayer. Garden hoses pump out around seven gallons of water a minute, and that’s a heck of a lot of water, most of which turn into runoff when you’re washing a car on, say, that Minneapolis concrete driveway. That runoff can end up in the water table, or take the path of least resistance right into a creek or river, where it can cause problems for fish, plants, and other critters.
I could reduce the amount of runoff by tightly controlling the water I use and washing my car on grass or gravel for natural filtration, says Ask Umbra at Grist, but I’d still need to think about the soaps I’m using. Harsh industrial cleaners are not the way to go; environmentally-friendly biodegradable soaps are strongly recommended so they can break down quickly in the environment. As for window cleaners, vinegar and old newspapers works a treat — and doesn’t leave unpleasant chemical traces behind.
Better yet, and this one surprised me, I could go to a car wash. Car washes use water more efficiently with their high pressure hoses and timers. Furthermore, they collect and either recycle or treat their water before releasing it, because they’re required to do so and have had plumbers install greywater recycling systems. Instead of just running off into the wild blue wonder, that filthy water is safely managed when I go to the carwash … plus, they have those awesome giant vacuum cleaners.
There’s another option, though, and that’s waterless car washes.
Round up some soft, absorbent rags to wipe down your car, with a little touch of your favorite eco-friendly homemade cleaner. Choose an all-purpose cleaner without abrasives, and while you’ll need to use a little elbow grease, you will be able to lift that dirt away. There are also some commercial water-free carwash products available.
For stubborn stains and caked-on dirt, you may have to use some advanced cleaning tricks. Try applying cleaning spray and letting it sit for 10-15 minutes before scrubbing it away, and our old friend peanut butter can be great for really stubborn buildups of sap, gum, and mystery substances. While you’re at it, you can refresh the inside of your car with a mixture of lemon and olive oil where you’d normally use Armor All — and if you have mysterious odors trapped in the upholstery, try vacuuming, sprinkling with baking soda, letting it sit for half an hour, and then vacuuming again.
Whether you hit the car wash or go waterless, apparently you can clean your car and still feel good about yourself in the morning!
Photo credit: Patrick/Flickr.