Pros and cons: soft-touch vs. touch-free carwashing - Professional Carwashing & Detailing (2024)

Most folks lead hectic lives — balancing work and personal responsibilities can sometimes be overwhelming. Whether they are battling traffic during the morning commute, shuttling kids back and forth from soccer games or heading to the great outdoors to do a little camping, their vehicles’ cleanliness is compromised on a daily basis. While the majority of car owners would love to pamper their rides with a nice, long hand washing and thorough personal detailing, they simply do not have the extra time to spare. They opt for the convenience and value of an automatic carwash to keep their automotive investments looking good.

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Scores of people day in and day out rely on the usage of automatic carwashes that utilize cutting-edge technologies to keep their vehicles in tip-top shape. Very few drivers have the time to hand wash their vehicles themselves, and detailing operations that offer hand washing services can be pricey. Luckily, there is a plethora of automated carwashes readily available. Consumers needn’t drive very far in order to find a place where they can quickly and conveniently clean their vehicles. Of the automated carwashing options available, many consumers and carwash owners find themselves wondering which of the two main types of systems is better for vehicles: soft-touch or touch-free carwash systems.

Times have changed

Automatic carwashes have become a mainstay in everyday American life. Carwashing operations have existed since shortly after the first horseless carriages appeared on the dusty byways of the early 20th century. In those days, carwashes were relegated to a few able bodies equipped with buckets of soapy water and sponges. For a few cents and a little elbow grease, a vehicle could be treated to a good old-fashioned hand washing. Those were simpler times; much like the vehicles we drove and the highways upon which they were driven, the carwashing industry has come a long way.

Related: A brief history of American carwashing

The first fully automated carwash appeared in Seattle in the early 1950s and contained many of the features still in use today. It took a while for automated operations to gain popularity; throughout the 1960s and 1970s, hand washing operations were still a popular choice for consumers. As more and more hands-free operations sprung up across the country, the technologies associated with automated carwashing improved, and many different methods of employing those technologies were developed. Among these methods are two main types of systems: soft-touch and touch-free. Most manufacturers provide equipment that employs both methods.

Soft to the touch

Soap is a cleaner, but equally important is the lubricating qualities. These lubricating qualities of the soap ensure not just cleaning, but eliminate the possibilities of damage. Soft-touch carwashing entails the usage of lightweight closed-cell foam and supple felt cloth filled with soap and water to clean vehicles. The system’s gentle materials glide across the vehicle, spreading the soap and water solution over its surface. Contaminants are loosened and lifted away with the help of computer-controlled pressure and RPM settings.

A continuous deluge of soap and water saturating the closed-cell foam and felt cloth ensures that surface debris is removed from the vehicle and is not transferred to the next vehicle in line. When the application of soap is completed, a low-pressure rinse using clean water removes the suds from the vehicle’s surface. A drying aid is typically applied, and the vehicle makes its way through a forced air dryer to finish the process.


  • Soft cloth makes physical contact with the vehicle, often providing a more thorough elimination of dirt and debris.
  • Crevices and other hard-to-reach spots that are often overlooked and missed by touch-free washes are more likely to be reached.
  • Haziness that can oftentimes be left behind by dust and pollen is more likely to be fully eradicated by a soft-touch wash.


  • Cloth strips can often be applied too forcefully, resulting in damage to a vehicle’s mirrors, molding, antenna or other loose parts.
  • If a vehicle is not properly emulsified before the cloth strips make contact with the paint, scratches may result from dirt and debris being ground into the vehicle’s surface.
  • Soft-touch washes require diligent maintenance in order to keep cloth strips performing at an effective level. Cloth that is not maintained properly will not provide a thorough cleaning and can even damage a vehicle’s surface.

No touching allowed

Touch-free carwashes are totally automated, just like their soft-touch counterparts. However, unlike soft-touch washes, touch-free operations do not utilize any type of foam or cloth applicators during the cleaning process. Vehicles are treated to their own personal showers, courtesy of high-pressure washers. Sensors aid the washers’ ability to follow the vehicle’s contour and effectively cleanse every inch of it. As technology continues to improve, the sensors used in touch-free carwashes become more precise in their capabilities.


  • Vehicles are not physically touched by anything other than cleaning agents and water, reducing the risk of any part of the vehicle being damaged during the cleaning process.
  • Pinpoint technology means minimal water waste and fewer negative environmental impacts during the cleaning process.


  • Tougher dirt, grease and other organic and inorganic contaminants may not be thoroughly removed.
  • Cracks, crevices and other hard-to-reach areas may not be reached adequately.
  • Computerized systems must be maintained in order to keep equipment running efficiently as well as accurately.
  • Use of harsher chemicals to enhance cleaning may also lead to damages to some paint finishes.

Choose wisely

Advances in technology have led to our ability to maintain clean vehicles without having to spend countless hours meticulously hand washing them. The availability of automated carwashes continues to expand, and more and more drivers rely on these operations to maintain the cleanliness of their vehicles.

Both soft-touch and touch-free carwashes provide their own different sets of pros and cons. In order to maximize the pros and minimize the cons of each type, only the best, most state-of-the-art technology must be used to outfit a carwash. While one’s choice between soft-touch and touch-free methods may remain open for interpretation, the choice to utilize equipment from a trusted company is a no-brainer for those looking to achieve success within the industry.

Tom Hobby is the president of AUTEC Inc. AUTEC is a manufacturer of automatic carwash equipment headquartered in the U.S. Learn more about AUTEC by visiting its website:

Are you looking for more information on friction versus touch-free carwashing? Be sure to check out our video interview on the topic below.

Pros and cons: soft-touch vs. touch-free carwashing - Professional Carwashing & Detailing (2024)


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