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Why does my car constantly leak at the car wash?

If a vehicle leaks inside a high-pressure car wash — but at no other time — is it an automaker problem or a car wash problem?

Published February 27, 2012
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Eric Lai answers readers’ auto questions every week for Wheels

Q: A previous column raised a question about a vehicle sunroof leaking as it went through a ‘no touch’ car wash. For the record, the Canadian Carwash Association would like to challenge the information that appeared in the article.

Car wash equipment manufacturers work with all the major automakers to ensure that the majority of vehicles they build can be professionally washed. They call this the “car wash envelope” and they look at such things as tire width, rims, trim, how low a vehicle is, width and height, and any other items that would not be carwash-friendly.

More: Why you should keep your car spick and span

More: The most extreme car wash you’ll ever see

They also look at water pressure. All car wash manufacturers build equipment that is well within vehicle manufacture water pressure specifications; the same cannot be said about home pressure washers. Leaking sunroofs are not a professional car wash problem, if it were, be assured that the industry would be working with manufacturers to find a solution.

A touchless car wash is designed to produce water flow at a range from 350 PSI at 80 gpm (gallons per minute), to 1,250 PSI at 40 gpm, far less than most home power washers. Home power washers can be rated at 2,000 PSI at 1.5-2.2 gpm. These washers can certainly strip paint away — especially with zero degree or turbo nozzles. Industrial power washers are even higher, ranging up to 9,000 PSI.

In every type of wash situation, loose paint and rust will likely be dislodged. Professional car washes are specifically designed to provide the most efficient wash possible without any damage to the vehicle. Car wash equipment manufacturers routinely work with car manufacturers to ensure that vehicles receive the best wash possible.

A. Jorge de Mendonça, Executive Director, Canadian Carwash Association

A: For 19 years, I drove a 1990 Jeep Cherokee, bought new. The vehicle had no leaks — except inside “no touch” car washes. There the (fully intact, soft, flexible and tear-free) door seals would give way under direct high-pressure spray, as the doors were being washed, and water dribbled in wetting the seats and floor. Conversely, no leakage occurred when using soft cloth washes or when driving, even in heavy rain.

As for present-day vehicles, an online search finds forums for virtually every auto manufacturer abound with tales of water leaks when using a high-pressure automatic car wash, particularly on convertibles and vehicles with sunroofs.

Whether or not leaks are “supposed” to happen in “no touch” washes, the fact is: in real life, they do and, apparently, fairly often.

So, if a vehicle leaks inside a high-pressure car wash — but at no other time — is it an automaker problem or a car wash problem?

With the automaker denying that a defect exists, the car buyer may have to ask a small claims court judge to make that determination.