If you’ve ever sought professional help to get your car clean, you may have spotted two different kinds of signage. One of them says “Car Detailing Service” and the other says “Car Wash.” You might have wondered about the difference between these two ideas. You might have even thought car washing was all the same, but one uses a fancier word for it.
Detailing and Washing — Two Different Concepts
The truth is that these two are not the same. They are two services of quite a different order, and in this article, we will explore what exactly “detailing” involves, and what sets it apart from traditional car washing.
So, what exactly is car “detailing”?
The best way to understand car detailing is to think of it like a heavily upgraded version of car washing. It involves a systematic approach in which every part, of the interior and exterior of the car is gone over (usually with specialist equipment) to both clean and restore the look of the car to something very close to how it looked on the showroom floor.
As a service, detailing goes back at least one hundred years, so it’s not exactly “new” per se. It is fair to say, however, that it has recently come into its own as a commercial sector. IBISworld estimated that in 2020 the car wash and auto detailing sector was worth about $13.3 billion. A cursory search on Google or Yelp for “car wash near me” typically yields many results. Among them will be some who distinguish themselves as offering “detailing.”
To understand the difference, you need to look at several factors. We will explore those in more detail below. In short, the most important difference is in the level of closeness and professional skill involved in each. A detailing is closer to restoration, whereas a wash is simply an exercise in removing dirt. The cost to detail is also typically greater, and sometimes significantly greater.
Main Differences Between Car Wash and Detailing
The main features of car detailing service and how they differ from that of a regular car wash can be split into categories, namely: the steps and processes involved, the time taken to detail, the cost to detail, the difficulty in doing it yourself, and how common the service is.
Car detailing involves many more steps than a regular car wash. Where the latter involves a more “blanket” approach in which all parts are cleaned together in broad strokes and sweeping rinses, the former is more careful and considered. The car detailer understands each part of the car and how it differs from the others. They are familiar with the particular contours, corners and lines to follow with their equipment, which allows them to focus on every part individually.
A detailing is first a careful wash of each section of the car, both inside and out. Next will come extras like polishing, waxing and close vacuuming. Every corner is covered, every button, switch, panel, casing and pane of glass receives special attention. This creates a lot more steps to complete. Starting with a hand wash of the exterior, it may then move to exterior waxing, interior carpet and upholstery detailing, removal of dings and dents, cleaning of the undercarriage, ozonation (odor removal) and even a full cleaning of the engine bay.
The time taken for detailing is, therefore, far greater than ordinary washing. When you go in for a car detailing service, you are investing time as well as money. The car wash might normally take you just 30 minutes or so, perhaps a bit longer if there is a line. You may spend up to an hour doing it if you do all the work yourself. Detailing, on the other hand, can take anywhere from two to four hours depending on the state of the car when it arrives.
As we said, the goal behind detailing is restoration of the car’s state to how it looked in the showroom. It isn’t simply about removing dirt, but uplifting the entire look to a whole different level. That takes time to achieve, so detailing is typically a longer process than simple washing.
A detailing will set you back more than a car wash. Groupon claims that “the average cost of a basic vehicle wash is about $10.” For most of you out there that probably sounds about right. It comes out even cheaper if you do it yourself, of course. Detailing, on the other hand, will cost more. You can expect to pay $100 for a pretty normal detailing service, with the cost going up for each “level” of service. Some models when detailed to the maximum level can take upwards of two days to complete, and come with a bill in the thousands of dollars.
Detailing is not just about cost to the customer, though. The price difference reflects something else that sets detailing apart from washing, and that’s the added value that detailing brings compared to washing. When you restore a car to pristine condition through detailing, you are helping to retain resale value, improve the overall aesthetic and even apply better protection that will help the car stay in better condition. A wash offers none of these advantages.
To successfully complete detailing yourself is a tricky task. Many of us from a young age have experienced hauling a few buckets, sponges and chamois cloths out to the family car to give it a wash. We also wash our clothing and dishes, clean our homes and even give our pets a bath. Washing is second nature to us. Detailing, on the other hand, brings a new dimension of skill and technique into the mix.
To complete detailing, you’ll need some additional tools, or at least some additions to the tools you have. For example, all those extra attachments on your vacuum you’ll have to learn to use properly, and you need to master the process of applying wax coats and more. Furthermore, you’ll need to gain more detailed knowledge of your car’s individual parts, sections and needs. You have to be aware of which products are suitable for which surfaces — e.g. no ammonia-based products to clean your car’s interior, especially the touchscreen display — and much more.
“Car wash” is 10 a penny compared to detailing. While high-level car detailing services are becoming a somewhat more common sight, you’ll still get more hits for regular car wash when you do that search “car wash near me.” The detailers are a kind of subgroup that exist within the car washing community. They will present themselves as higher level, more experienced and very often offer mobile services that come to your home to do the work. That’s all part of the premium you pay for detailing over a regular car wash.
In the End, it Still Comes Down to Time and Money
Ultimately, the discussion of car washing vs. car detailing comes down to two fundamental questions; the first about time and the second about money. Detailing is more work and more process, which ultimately takes more time. The natural result of that is more value and therefore more investment required. The rise of car detailing is perhaps a reflection of our own standards increasing over time, as we yearn for greater and greater levels of service to make our lives that much easier and better.
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