How to Wash Your Car at Home in Winter

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Winter weather and road salt can wreak havoc on your car. Protect it by washing it — even in cold weather!

In colder parts of the country, salt is often applied to road surfaces to help keep them free of ice. While the salt makes winter driving safer, it can cause corrosion on your car. Fortunately, you can fight back against the rust by frequently washing your car, thus removing the salt from the underside.

Of course, in freezing temperatures it can be a challenge to wash your car — after all, the water is likely to freeze! But there are techniques you can use to make a winter car wash at home successful.

How Often Should You Wash Your Car In Winter?

Experts typically suggest if you drive in areas where salt is frequently applied to the roads, washing your car every 10 to 14 days is advisable to minimize the chance of corrosion. If at all possible, try and wash right after big snow storms to help get that salt off.

How Do I Wash My Car at Home in Winter?

Try and wash your car on days when it’s over 40 degree F. That way, it’s unlikely that water will freeze on the car, making door locks and windows inoperable.

Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com, suggests lowering all car windows slightly after washing so you can wipe water from the edges of the glass so the windows won’t freeze shut. If you have a long spell of sub-freezing temperatures forecast, however, it’s good to start your car and drive it around for a while and warm up everything before spraying down the car. Also, wash during daylight hours so the sun can help dry the surfaces.

Be sure to use plenty of clean water and spray off the loose dirt and salt, concentrating on the undercarriage of the car. This way you can get rid of the majority of the salt before trying to wipe it off. If you’re comfortable jacking up your car to reach the undercarriage better, go ahead, but be sure to do so safely and always use jackstands.

Choose a high-quality car wash detergent. Never use dish soap, because it can shorten the life of your paint. Use the two-bucket method of washing — one bucket for soapy water, and one for rinse water. After each swipe of a dirty car, rinse your filthy sponge or microfiber wash mitt in the rinse water to get all the grit and salt off before dunking it in the soapy water.

Wash your car inside your garage if you can. Reina says any water you spray could easily freeze on your driveway, creating a slip hazard. You could put down salt to minimize the chances of freezing, but then you’ve just reintroduced salt to the car you’re removing it from.

Can I Wash My Car At Home Without a Hose?

Of course, in the winter it’s not always easy to get running water outside. In the case of my home, there are no hose bibs in the garage protected from the elements, so running a garden hose could potentially lead to frozen pipes inside.

There are several products on the market specifically formulated for car washing without water. One highly-regarded product is Swift Wipe Waterless Car Wash from Chemical Guys. This product can be sprayed directly on a dirty car and wiped off, removing dirt, dust and salt from the painted surfaces. It’s safe to use on glass and chrome, although you’ll want to clean your windows with a dedicated glass cleaner to minimize streaking.

It won’t do much for caked-on salt on the underside, however. So if you don’t have access to a hose, it’s a good idea to spray down the underside of your car at a self-serve car wash on occasion. Just be sure to bring towels and dry your car quickly after the wash so your doors, trunk, windows or fuel cap don’t freeze shut.

Can You Wax Your Car in Winter?

Waxing your car is a great way to protect it, but most car waxes will not be easy to apply when the temperatures drop below 55 F. It’s best to do a thorough job of cleaning and waxing your car before the winter weather hits, to make sure you protect the paint for the nasty months to come.

Chris Tonn
A lifelong Ohioan, Chris grew up around classic rusty sports cars from Japan and England. He's been covering the automotive industry for nearly 10 years, and is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). A family man, Chris drives a Chrysler minivan, and uses his rusty old Miata as a shelf, until the day it is uncovered as a priceless barn find.