Every car wash in every part of the country has had the customer who comes back around after a visit and blames the car wash for scratching their car. You know it wasn’t the car wash; we know it wasn’t the car wash, but how do we convince the customer it wasn’t the car wash that scratched their car?

Do you know how much money car washes pay to repair damages to vehicles that wasn’t really caused by the car wash — just so they don’t anger the customer and get a bad review online? Too much, for sure. Now don’t get me wrong, if we damage a car and it was the fault of our equipment or staff then by all means we should be responsible to pay for the repair, and compensate the customer with some free washes for his time and aggravation. But in so many cases, the car has previous damage that the customer was not aware of. The customer comes through the car wash and immediately assumes the car wash did it. One of the best ways to avoid getting blamed for damage to a customer’s car is to educate the customer.

But before we can expect you to educate your customers regarding what your car wash is capable of doing or not doing, you must educate yourself. It’s all science, baby:


I have had numerous conversations with car wash chemical manufacturers including Mike Ilacqua from Trans-Mate Car Wash Chemicals whom I recently asked to help explain the important part car wash cleaning chemicals play in safely washing cars. Here is what he told me:

We need to look into the chemistry of car wash chemicals as it relates to safely emulsifying soils on your customer’s cars. The first thing we must look at is the soils we are removing and the surface of the car it is being removed from such as glass, painted surfaces, and plastics. Different raw materials clean different soils on different surfaces. The type of equipment (high pressure versus cloth or neoprene) will determine the proper detergents for safely cleaning the vehicle.


Touchless detergents must clean a vehicle without the use of friction, which means the detergent is doing most of the work in the wash process. Traditional touchless chemicals need to be more aggressive by adjusting the pH of the solution. With the use of buffering agents, chemical manufacturers can gently clean the soils off the car without otherwise damaging the areas of the vehicle such as etching the glass or discoloring painted surfaces or plastics.


Detergents used in cloth and neoprene systems are usually more foaming detergents designed to work in conjunction with the friction of the material to clean the car. To safely clean vehicles with cloth or neoprene, the detergent should contain ingredients to lubricate the cloth or neoprene so the soils are gently lifted into solution, float in suspension, and are rinsed away. These lubricating properties also reduce the risk of the cloth grabbing parts of the vehicle.

Mike went on to tell me that car wash detergent manufacturers use many raw materials specifically designed to safely clean and dry cars. Remember to purchase your car washing chemicals from a manufacturer that specializes in the car washing industry. This will ensure the intent of developing the product was cleaning cars, taking into account all the unique properties needed to clean and rinse the car safely. I want to thank Mike Ilacqua for his help on this article.


Next, let’s talk about the equipment. Most car wash systems are repetitive: they perform the same task car after car, day after day. If something goes wrong with your equipment, it would do damage to more than one car. Equipment cannot malfunction and damage one car, then repair itself and wash the next hundred cars with no issues. And if it did, it most likely was not the fault of the equipment at all. If your van brush grabbed a mirror and pulled it off the passenger side of just this one car, but washed hundreds of cars before and after with no issues, we can be sure the car’s mirror was already loose.

When a customer blames the equipment for damage to their car, I first inspect the equipment. Is it operating properly? Then I watch the equipment wash some cars. Are the cars coming out clean and dry with no damage? If so, then I am sure it was not the fault of the equipment.

A common complaint is a scratch that starts and ends on a car door. In a friction wash the cloth moves in one direction and begins the wash process at the front of the car. If there were something wrong with the cloth, or the brush had a foreign object in it, the damage would be from front to rear along the whole side of the vehicle. It cannot wash the car fine, put a small scratch in the door then go back to washing fine again. So educate yourself to what your equipment can and cannot do and this will help you be more confident when talking to your customers about the damage they think your car wash did to their car.

Just because the car owner says the scratch was not there when they drove in does not make it your fault. So many times a scratch can go unnoticed under the dirt and never be seen by human eye until that car is sparkling clean and now shows everything. So, being able to convince the customer that your equipment is functioning properly, the way it should and is washing car after car with no issues, shows that this damage did not occur in your car wash.


Teach your attendants to spot prior damage at the wash entrance and point it out to the customer. Everyone has phones with cameras these days. Have them take a photo of the damage. That documents the date and the time and proves the damage was there before the car went through your wash.

Video cameras have been a huge help to many car washes. They have close-up, high-resolution digital cameras now that show even tiny marks and blemishes on a car’s surface. If you spot a car with a loose bumper or fender, explain to the customer that it may get damaged and that your company cannot be held responsible for it because there is pre-existing damage to the car already. Or, be safe and do not wash the car. The wash revenue is not worth a piece of fender getting pulled off in the tunnel and possibly damaging your equipment as well.

Wipers and antennas are known to create challenges at the car wash. Tape them, bag them, remove them, but never offer to try to repair a loose fender or bumper with duct tape so that a car can go through your wash. In most cases once you offer to work on it, if the bumper still gets damaged in the wash, you own the problem.


Years ago, car washes all over the country were pulling off the rear bumpers off Ford Taurus cars. The bumpers showed no signs of damage — they looked fine. Yet, when the cars went through a cloth car wash the bumper covers got pulled off. There was a defect in the way the bumper cover was mounted to the car. Car washes paid thousands of dollars replacing these bumpers, and some car washes put up sign saying they would not wash Ford Taurus vehicles.

Then there were the damage-prone mirrors on the Pontiac Grand Am cars. There are many more examples from the past; we have problem cars at present; we will have problem cars in the future. So be aware, stay connected through your local, regional, and national car wash associations to learn about peer experiences. Talk to other car wash owners, and see what vehicles they have had problems with. In the end, your customer will have more confidence in your system and you will save money and your reputation.

Chuck Lundberg, a 25-year car wash industry professional, is presently general manager of Clean & Green Car Wash of Marlborough, MA and owner of Independent Car Wash Consultants of NH. Chuck has served on the board of directors of the New England Carwash Association. You can contact Chuck via e-mail at clundberg99@gmail.com.