Proper car maintenance in cold weather is a tricky beast to handle. On one hand, using water to wash your car when it's cold out can be a huge gamble. If the temperature is below freezing, you risk turning your vehicle into a giant ice cube. On the other hand, your car is much more likely to need a good cleaning during the winter months, as road salts and grimy snow can cause rust and other serious damage to your vehicle's exterior. We all know the serious effects of salt on your car, and how to protect your car from salt. Even still, some experts recommend cleaning your car as often as every other week during snowy weather.
Ultimately, the best strategy is to be mindful of when and how you wash your car in cold weather. Depending on your circumstances, you may want to just take your car to a professional, full service car wash rather than try to wash your car when it's cold by yourself. With the right knowledge and equipment, however, you can do what it takes to take care of your vehicle during the winter months, from preventative maintenance to a full-on deep clean.
Washing Your Vehicle Yourself
If you want to personally wash your car when it's cold outside, there are a number of measures you should take to make sure you aren't doing more harm than good. Your first priority is to do what you can to wash your vehicle in the warmest possible environment. If you have a garage that can be sealed off from the cold temperatures outside, that is one ideal location. If you must wash your car outside, try to do it in the late morning, just as the day is warming up. If you wash your car as the sun's going down, it's only going to get colder, and your car will freeze before it has a chance to dry.
Another extra step you should take is to towel dry as much of your vehicle as possible after you rinse it off. In the warmer months, this isn't a worry, as the higher temperature will simply cause the water to evaporate. During the winter months, however, it is more likely for water to freeze than evaporate. It is very important to note that if the temperature is below freezing, you must absolutely not attempt to wash your car with water at all. You can use dry rags to wipe down and spot clean dirty parts of your vehicle, but you'll have to wait until it warms up before you attempt a full car wash.
Taking Your Vehicle to a Car Wash
You may think that the best way to wash your car when it's cold outside is to just take it to professional car washes and have them handle it. Really, it depends on the car wash. For one thing, many car washes don't even operate during winter, which is actually good for you, as that means those car washes weren't equipped to wash cars when it's cold out anyway. Some so-called "full service" car washes don't take any measures to dry your car, leaving it vulnerable to freezing. Do your best to avoid these places.
If you are familiar with a local car cleaning service that takes extra measures to dry your car, then they may be well-suited to wash your car during the winter. For example, my local car wash is an automatic, no-touch facility that cleans my car with pressurized water, then blowdries it with strong bursts of air. After that, a couple attendants wipe down the vehicle with towels, making sure it's completely dry. If you have access to a car wash that provides that level of service, then you should be able to depend on them.
Regardless of which method you use to wash your car when it's cold outside, there's always a risk of ice forming or other issues occurring. There are a number of preventative measures you can make to lessen the risk of these issues. For example, make sure you drive your car around the block a few times before you try cleaning it. Once the engine is warmed up, it'll help prevent any liquid from freezing on the exterior of the vehicle.
When you're preparing to wash your car, use warm water. It will keep your hands a little warmer when you're scrubbing down your vehicle, plus it will go a little way toward keeping the car from freezing. By the way, make sure you use soap that is specially designed for washing cars. This is really a year-round tip for whenever you clean your vehicle, as household items like dish soap can do more harm than good in the long run by stripping the clear protective coating around your vehicle and exposing the paint to the elements.
Another useful measure is to drain your windshield wiper fluid, which you shouldn't be using in cold weather anyway. Instead, fill that container with a de-icing fluid which you can use to help clear up your windshield after heavy snowfall. Don't forget some other products to winterize your car while you're at it!
If you're attempting to wash your car in winter on your own, you'll want to make sure you don't freeze either! There's almost no avoiding that if you're washing the car, you're going to get wet. So make sure you dress in clothes that will keep you dry as well as warm, such as waterproof boots and latex gloves. You may need to come up with some creative layering ideas in order to strike the proper balance. For example, if your winter coat isn't waterproof, consider wearing a thick wool sweater under a rain jacket to keep yourself warm and dry.
If you're worried about getting wet, there are some options to consider that increase your chances of staying dry. Getting a power washer, for example, allows you to clean your car by shooting pressurized water at it from a distance, making it more likely you'll stay dry than if you just have a sponge and a five-gallon bucket of soapy water. Power washers can be pretty expensive, but they are worth the investment. It's also quite affordable to rent a power washer these days, giving you the opportunity to see how effective they can be.
If you don't have the proper clothing or equipment to stay warm and dry, you are better off not trying to wash your car when it's cold outside. You don't want to risk getting pneumonia just to keep your car looking nice, so in that case, consider seeking out professional car washes instead.