Car Rust: The Hidden Cost of a Dirty Car

Could avoiding the car wash actually be costing you? We’ll explore the long-term costs of car rust.

Father’s Day is Sunday! And though that means different things to different people, for many, there’s a connection between dads and cars. For me, as a kid, it was considered a privilege to wash the car. But as an adult … not so much.

If you’re like me, you don’t wash your car often enough. You mean to, of course — it gives you no pleasure to watch the neighborhood kids scrawl “Wash Me” into the grime. And unless you’re an entomologist, you probably have no interest in staring at the insects plastered to your windshield. But along with these daily indignities, is it possible that your laissez-faire attitude is actually costing you money?

Car rust: the high price of a dirty car

In the short term, not washing your car regularly won’t affect your expenses. It’ll have no effect on your insurance premium, for instance, and you might even save a few bucks by avoiding professional washes or do-it-yourself washing gear. But in the long term, you’re probably doing your car, and your wallet, a big disservice.

Obviously, an accumulation of dirt, dust, and other particles on the surface of a vehicle is unsightly. But the broader problem is that you’re driving around with a layer of grit perpetually scratching your car’s finish. The clear coat (the top layer of your car’s finish) is designed to protect the paint from dulling due to UV radiation and to provide a physical barrier between the paint and the outside world. Abrasive dirt is going to cause that barrier to wear down faster.

And dirt isn’t the only (or worst) thing that regularly lands on your car. Bird droppings, acid rain, industrial pollutants, sap from trees, and those aforementioned dead insects all damage paint over time. If these aren’t quickly removed from your car’s surface, either with a paint cleaning liquid or a clay bar (or both together, if necessary), it’s bad news for your car’s finish. Without a regular washing schedule, you’re giving these contaminants more time to do their dirty work, which could chemically damage your paint.

But paint damage isn’t just an issue of aesthetics. Your paint and clear coat are also defending your car against its most dangerous foe: rust.

How to avoid car rust

Rust, or oxidation, is the natural process of metals breaking down when they’re exposed to air. One scratch that gets through the paint and exposes the metal underneath is all it takes to get rust started. And once it starts, it’s not going to stop.

The speed at which rust consumes your vehicle can be greatly affected by the presence of salt, which electrochemically increases the rate at which metal corrodes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a salt that’s used to remove snow from the roads (a regular feature in colder climates) or a salt that’s in the air because you live near the ocean (as I do). Washing regularly is the best way to minimize salt’s effect and keep rust at bay.

And once there’s rust? Well, then you’ve got a potentially costly issue. While surface rust can be removed by sanding and repainting at home (which is certainly more complicated than a car wash), if it’s not caught in time, rust can penetrate deep into your car’s frame, damage its structural integrity, and even render it unsafe to drive.

Taking time to thoroughly wash the salt, dirt, and other particles off your vehicle can significantly decrease the risk of rust (which will help your car maintain its resale value). And washing your car means you’re more likely to spot visible scratches, dings, and other trouble spots. This gives you an opportunity to address minor blemishes on your car’s finish before you find yourself with serious paint damage (and help you spot other mechanical issues before you find out about them the hard way).

How often should you wash your car?

Experts say once a week is ideal. That’s frequent enough that if you accidentally miss a week, you won’t be sent into a rusty tailspin. And by making it part of your weekly routine (say, Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m.), it will be easier to remember.

Besides, isn’t it time the neighborhood kids started picking on someone else’s dirty car for a change?

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