Tools and materials for the job
The list below contains all the tools and materials necessary to wash a vehicle’s exterior. Depending on the type and condition of your vehicle, you may need all or just some of the items we’ve mentioned.
- Pressure washer. Cars should be cleaned with low pressure, so light and medium-duty pressure washers are ideal, but any type of pressure washer is suitable as long as you use it correctly.
- Soap, foam cannon. Your soap should be specifically formulated for use on cars. If you want to apply soap using your pressure washer’s detergent injection system, it must also be pressure washer safe. However, most car wash soaps aren’t approved, so you’ll probably need a foam cannon for application.
- Wash mitts. You can use any type of wash mitt, towel or pad as long as the material is microfiber. You’ll need at least two, but it’s helpful to have three or four for availability.
- Drying towels. Similar to above, you’ll want microfiber drying towels, and you’ll need at least two but it’s helpful to have more.
- Water buckets, grit guards. Even using a pressure washer, you’ll still need two water buckets for soaping and rinsing your wash mitts. Grit guards are technically optional, but we recommend them to keep your water clean as you wash.
- Safety gear. Pressure washing can cause injuries, so you’ll need safety glasses, enclosed shoes, gloves and full-length clothing.
- Detail spray, tire shine (optional). If you want to preserve your results after pressure washing, consider using a detail spray and tire shine. These solutions improve appearance while maintaining the integrity of your paint, tires and other exterior materials.
- Wheel cleaner, scrub brush (optional). If your wheels are known to get pretty dirty, consider using a wheel cleaner to dissolve brake dust, road salt and other tough wheel grime, along with a scrub brush for added force.
- Undercarriage cleaner (optional). If your undercarriage is known to get pretty dirty, consider using an undercarriage cleaner. This pressure washer attachment rolls underneath your car and has multiple upward-facing nozzles.
- Broom (optional). If you have a truck, you may need a broom to sweep the bed before you begin pressure washing.
Steps to pressure wash a car
If this is your first time using a pressure washer, learn the basics in our article, How to Use a Pressure Washer. When you’re ready, continue with the steps below to pressure wash your car.
- Prepare your car. Park in an open area with no direct sunlight, if possible. This prevents the natural heat from drying your car early, causing water spots. Make sure your doors, windows and sunroof are completely closed. If you have a truck, use your broom to sweep out any loose dirt or debris in the bed.
- Fill your buckets. Secure your grit guards in each bucket. Fill one bucket with plain water and the other with a mixture of soap and water (use the recommended soap-to-water ratio for your specific product).
- Start your pressure washer. If you haven’t already, put on your safety gear. Set up your pressure washer by connecting your garden hose and accessories and filling your detergent tank or foam cannon, then start it.
- Wash the exterior. Divide your car into five sections: wheels, roof, front, middle and rear. In that order, repeat this step one section at a time. At all times, pressure wash at a distance of 2-3+ feet from the surface to avoid damaging paint, windows and other fragile exterior parts. Rinse your wash mitt in the water bucket between sections (use a new mitt after the wheels).
- Connect the 40° nozzle and pre-rinse the current section with plain water to remove any loose dirt.
- Connect the 65° nozzle or foam cannon and apply soap.
- Soak your wash mitt in the soap bucket for a few seconds, then start washing. For wheels, scrub the rim inside and out. Use your wheel cleaner and scrub brush for assistance, if necessary. For paint and windows, wipe in side to side motions with gentle pressure. This prevents swirl marks and other paint damage caused by microscopic surface contaminants.
- Connect the 40° nozzle and rinse the soap from the section using plain water.
- Dry the car. Use one drying towel to absorb any pooled water on your roof, hood and trunk, then continue. Start with the roof, then move to the body, drying from front to rear and top to bottom. Use new towels as necessary to prevent streaks.
- Apply details (optional). Apply your detail spray one section at a time in any desired order, coating your paint, windows, plastics and any other approved exterior materials. Before detailing the wheels, use your tire applicator to apply tire shine.
Frequently asked questions about pressure washing a car
Some of the most common questions about pressure washing a car are answered here. If you need additional help, you can reach out to us at any time. For questions about specific products, we’re happy to offer advice, but depending on the question, you may receive better information contacting the manufacturer.
Is it safe to pressure wash a car?
Pressure washers can strip paint, etch glass and cut through plastic, posing an obvious threat to most parts of a vehicle’s exterior. Still, it’s completely safe to pressure wash a car with the right methods. Mentioned earlier and summarized here, simply use the right nozzles and don’t spray too close to the surface (not closer than 24” or more for higher-powered units) or hold the stream in one place for too long.
Can you use car wash soap in a pressure washer?
This depends on the product. Generally, car wash soaps should not be used in a pressure washer because they create too much foam, which can damage the pump. However, some car wash soaps create less foam. These products may be acceptable, but for safety, they should explicitly state their approval for pressure washer use.