How to Wash Your Car in the Winter

By Lori Straus

When it comes to the winter, Canadians tend to divide themselves into two groups: those who love the outdoors despite the freezing temperatures and those who hide indoors precisely because of those temperatures. Both groups have one thing in common, though: neither wants to wash their vehicle in the winter. However, good car maintenance—even in the winter—can extend your vehicle’s life.

Salt and Moisture: a Rusty Combination

Winter comes with a lot of forms of precipitation: snow, slush, rain, ice rain, and sometimes even hail. On warmer days, that precipitation will melt, run down the sewers, and disappear. Normally though, it freezes. To improve winter driving and decrease everyone’s chances of an accident, municipalities salt the roads. If the temperatures are too cold even for salt, they’ll use sand instead.

All of these products will accumulate on your car, and even seep into your vehicle’s mechanisms. Before you know it, you’ll develop rust on your vehicle that, without immediate attention, will cause you long-term problems.

The best way to prevent that from happening is to regularly clean your car in the winter.

Cleaning Your Vehicle in Your Driveway

One word: don’t. Your city will either have a by-law against washing cars in your driveway or against what can go down the sewer. Our sewer systems are intended for water, not oil and other chemicals that can be released while washing your vehicle. You may have to pay a hefty fine for washing your vehicle in your driveway. So, I repeat: don’t wash your vehicle in your driveway.

Car wash in winter - a man washes his carSelf-Service Carwash

Pick warmer winter days to wash your car, if at all possible. Depending on where you live, this might mean -15°C or +2°C. Once the weather gets below -20°C, the water will likely freeze too fast for you to fully dry it off. (Though you will find some people online who claim that they have successfully washed their car in colder temperatures.)

As you drive to the carwash, turn on your heat and window defrost to high. Just don’t turn into a raisin yourself. This should help keep your vehicle warmer a little longer while you wash it so that water doesn’t freeze as fast.

Clean the Exterior Panels

Working in sections, rinse your vehicle with the wand and then dry it off immediately. Do not use any scouring pads or other abrasive materials or products. Because of the cold temperatures outside, the protective coatings on your vehicle will most likely scratch. This will expose the underlying paint and materials to rust, and then you’re back to the original problem you’re trying to prevent.

Clean the Doors and Wipers

When you wash around your doors and the wipers, thoroughly dry off all seals. This will prevent them from locking shut. Lift the wipers away from your windshield and open the doors as you dry. Leave everything in these positions until you’re done, so any small amounts of water still have time to evaporate.

Clean the Wheels and Undercarriage

When you wash your wheels, get into every nook and cranny possible. The same goes for the undercarriage. These areas collect the most sand, salt, and slush that, if left on too long, can cause serious damage to the mechanisms.

Automatic CarwashDirty car

If you don’t mind spending the extra few dollars, just use an automatic carwash. Not only do you get to stay warm inside your vehicle, but the car wash will dry your car with air blowers. Just drive a little more slowly as you go through.

Don’t Wait Until Summer

Many people fear that washing their vehicle in the winter will create ice around the seals and lock the doors shut. Others just don’t like the thought of standing in the cold to wash their vehicle. Whatever your worries about washing your car in the winter, picture the future rust bucket you might be driving if you don’t. It pays to keep your vehicle clean in the winter, even if it means some slight discomfort.