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My Water-Saving Three Bucket Car Wash

Updated on August 17, 2014
volvo 240 car washing tips
volvo 240 car washing tips

Washing your vehicle is an essential part of owning a car. Unfortunately, it uses an excessive amount of water, and companies are all too ready to take your money for automatic or self-serve car washes. That's one reason why many people opt to wash their cars at home. However, there's a catch.

The average at-home car wash uses between 80 and 147 gallons of water, according to government statistics and an independent study conducted by Massachusetts-based Lycott Environmental Services. Automatic car washes fare slightly better, but they still use between 32 and 70 gallons per vehicle. Then, you're paying extra for wax and all that jazz. Self-service wand car washes are even more efficient. A stack of quarters delivers between 12 and 18 gallons of water, and more if you decide to feed the machine again.

This excessive use of water drives me crazy, and it drives other people crazy too, especially when droughts deplete municipal water supplies and drain reservoirs. My mom lived across the street from an old couple that was really into excessive car washing, like at least once a week. Not only that, but they hosed down their driveway almost everyday to remove bird droppings and whatever else had accumulated there—in the past 24 hours. It was too much!

While most of us aren't this crazy with the garden hose, there are better ways to wash your car with less water. My three-bucket method is great even if you don't have a hose or live in an apartment where water pumps and hoses aren't available.

Time required: 1 Hour

Difficulty: easy

Cost: $5


  • Car washing liquid with carnuba wax, or laundry detergent
  • Car wax
  • Old rags or towels


  • A car washing brush or large sponge
  • A mop bucket or pail


1. Assemble all supplies, including your car washing liquid, wax, rags, brush and a bucket full of water.

2. To gently soften and loosen dirt, pour one bucket of water over the car, starting on the roof, letting the water trickle down the windows. Then, apply the remaining water to the trunk, hood and doors. (Skip this step if adhered debris is minimal)

3. Add a 2 oz of laundry detergent (about 1 shot glass) or car washing liquid to your bucket of water. If using car washing liquid, such as Rain-X, follow instructions on label. For me, this was 6 ounces per bucket.

4. Apply soaping water to car, using a brush or sponge. Brushes, traditionally designed for use with a hose, hold less dirt. Sponges may actually trap dirt and damage your car. Start by soaping up the roof, hood and trunk, then do the sides of the car, and finally the hubcaps. If the car starts to dry, just wet down these parts again. By the end, nearly all of the soapy water should be used up.

5. Fill the bucket again to rise the car. Start with the roof, let the water trickle down the windows and finally do the hood, truck and sides of the vehicle. If necessary, fill the bucket again until all traces of dirt and soap are removed.

6. While you let the car dry, tackle the interior. Shake out the mats, vacuum the carpets and wash the inside of the windows.

7. Finally, apply wax or polish as directed. Use a paste wax, or take advantage of new spray-on products. I've had great results with Maguire's. Turtle Wax Express is also good, but requires more elbow grease.

8. To complete the process, wash the exterior of the windows. For this you need an applicator or rag and a squeegee. I use an eco-friendly solution of 1/4 cup white vinegar, 2 teaspoons of dish liquid and 1.5 cups of hot water. Put in a spray bottle, apply, let stand for a minute and squeegee off. Works great. Personally, I haven't purchased name-brand window cleaners in 10 years.

9. Relax with a cold drink. After all this work, you deserve it! That's how to do a three-bucket car wash. Even if you use a fourth bucket, it's still only 10 gallons or less.

Do you know someone who wastes water? What's your favorite method for keeping your care clean! Share your tips and stories here! I would love to hear them.

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