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What is a Two-Bucket Car Wash: Why You Should Do it!

A two-bucket car wash is a particular method of washing a vehicle that involves using two separates buckets during the cleaning process.

One bucket is used for the application of shampoo and the other bucket is used for rinsing the cloth or mitt after it has been used. This method is the preferred method for many experts because using two separate buckets for washing and rinsing prevents cross-contamination. 

Cross-contamination – when used in the context of washing a car – is the re-application of dust and dirt onto a recently-cleaned surface.

If you are using a microfiber cloth or wash mitt to apply car wash soap to a dirty car, the dirt will be picked up by the cloth as you drag it across your vehicle’s surface.

Using the bucket in which you have filled both water and shampoo to also rinse your cloth will allow the dirt picked up by the cloth to contaminate the once clean water with soap. The more you use the same bucket, the dirtier the water and soap mixture will become. 

What Do You Need for a Two-Bucket Car Wash?

Despite what you may have heard or thought, washing your car effectively, efficiently, and inexpensively is not that difficult. This is especially true when you realize how many materials you can re-use several times over. Here is what you will need:

At Least Two Buckets

two bucket car wash

The main focal point of a two-bucket car wash is the minimum of two buckets you will need. Most experts recommend five-gallon buckets, but you can use larger ones or smaller ones depending on the size of your vehicle.

Be prepared to change the water if necessary. Some professionals even recommend using the three-bucket method which just adds a third bucket exclusively used for the wheels and tires. Doing this is beneficial, but it is not necessary if you are trying to keep it as simple as possible.

You can buy inexpensive buckets from almost any hardware store or even gas station. Also avoid spending money on overpriced gimmicks. These Home Depot "Homer" Buckets have lasted me what seems to be a lifetime.

Microfiber Cloths/Cleaning Mitts

Microfiber cloths or cleaning mitts are what you will use to apply the soap to the vehicle. It is important to use microfiber cleaning cloths because regular towels and paper towels are much coarser and can scratch your paint just like dirt from cross-contamination.

These are available at any automotive store and most retail locations. Often, you can even find them in packs of three, five, or ten.

Cleaning mitts are usually a little more expensive, but they are usually thicker, hold a bit more cleaning solution, and are easier to handle. Regardless of which you buy, you should be able to wash them for multiple uses. 

I personally opt to use Microfiber towels. These towels from Chemical Guys suffice, however you could opt for whatever is least expensive. Companies often package towels/mitts alongside cleaning products for additional savings.

Car Wash Soap

Dedicated car wash soap is a must. Other soaps like household cleaners or dishwashing detergents are not designed for car wash paint and can do even greater damage than cross-contamination can.

Car wash soaps can usually be found wherever microfiber cloths are. Usually, not a lot is required to do the job, so you should get multiple washes out of just one bottle. Most range from five or six dollars a bottle to upwards of twenty per bottle, and there is no shortage of options to choose from.

A Drying Towel

Another key ingredient to the two-bucket method is the drying towel. Again, this will need to be a microfiber cloth or automotive wicking towel as regular household towels are rough and can scratch your paint.

Even though drying your vehicle is not necessarily part of the washing process, it does ensure that whatever you have washed stays clean and free from residual water stains.

Grit Guards

bucket grit guard

Grit guards are not essential to the two-bucket washing method, but like the third bucket in the three-bucket method, they could go a long way to make sure that your wash is as effective as possible.

Grit guards are circular plastic inserts that go into your bucket and trap residual dirt at the bottom. They also keep your wash mitt away from where the dirt settles as the bottom. These just add an extra layer of protection against cross-contamination.

I'm a big fan of Meguiar's products and their grit guard is relatively inexpensive in comparison to most options.

A Water Supply

No car wash would be complete without a water supply. A hose is the easiest way to get the necessary water to you and it allows for easy pre-washing and rinsing, but you will need to fill your buckets, regardless of whether or not you have a hose.

How Do You Perform a Two-Bucket Car Wash?

The two-bucket car wash method is straightforward, though it does take some practice to ensure that a thorough job is complete. There are three main steps to a two-bucket car wash:

1. Prep and Prewash

Before getting into the two-bucket wash itself, you will have to gather everything you need, get it all ready and perform a pre-wash of the vehicle.

Prep includes getting your buckets filled, adding the car wash soap to the washing bucket, putting extra microfiber towels or wash mitts in a handy location, and filling your separate rinse bucket.

After you have set everything out and you have all the extras you need, you will need to pre-wash your vehicle. This is basically a low-pressure rinse of your car to remove the loosest surface dirt so that you don’t end up scrubbing that into the paint right off the bat.

This is pretty easy to do with a hose or even a pressure washer, but if you do not have a hose you can always fill your rinse bucket a few times and wet down your car.

If you do this, remember to refill your rinse bucket again before starting the wash.

Note: Even if you have a foam lance and/or foam cannon, you should always pre-rinse the vehicle.

2. Two-Bucket Wash

two bucket wash

Once the prep work is done, you can get to your actual two-bucket car wash. Working from the top down, you will use your wash mitt or microfiber cloth to soak up the water-soap mixture and scrub your vehicle. Work on small sections at a time in overlapping up-and-down or side-to-side motions rather than circular motions. Once you have completed a small section, rinse your wash mitt and repeat until the entire vehicle is clean. 

Completing small sections at a time ensures that no spots are missed and that as little dirt as possible is translated to the clean wash articles. Don't be afraid to complete smaller sections at a time and rinse your washing cloths more frequently, depending on how dirty your vehicle is.

Be sure to also rinse the completed section of your vehicle after washing it to get rid of any soap that might still be clinging to the surface. This is also easier done with a hose, but you may do this with the rinsing water you have by splashing it onto the section you have just cleaned. You can also use your cleaning mitt to rinse the section of the vehicle, but be sure to rinse your cleaning mitt yet again before moving on to the next part of your vehicle. 

3. Dry

To cap off your two-bucket car wash, you will need to dry off each section that you washed. It is recommended that you wash your vehicle in shady areas to prevent premature drying and water stains as a result. Drying your vehicle before a natural “air dry” can occur will prevent any cleaning you have done to be undone by Mother Nature.

What are the Benefits of a Two-Bucket Car wash?

There are many different ways to get your vehicle clean. You can wash your car yourself with the soap and water, you can take it to a car wash, you can take it to a professional, or you can even try the “just hose it down” method.

Some even go as far as to park their car outside during a rainstorm. Naturally, some methods are better than others. The two-bucket car wash method is what professional vehicle cleaners and detailers use, and it has four main benefits over other methods.

1. Efficiency

Automated car washes are designed to be efficient and be as good for the environment as possible (they aim to waste little water). This is great and efficient, but they do not always do as good a job as you might be able to do on your own.

When you hand wash your vehicle using the two-bucket method, you can get up close and personal with your vehicle. You can see the spots that you missed and focus more attention on the areas with extra dirt to make sure that every part of what needs to be cleaned is actually cleaned. 

Additionally, automated car washes can be expensive. Most offer “packages” or levels of washing that you can choose. Some can be as expensive as six or seven dollars for the cheapest package and upwards of fifteen for the most expensive options.

Going to the automated wash every week can be convenient, but it may not be as efficient for your budget as getting the supplies yourself and being able to reuse them.

2. You Get a Cleaner Vehicle

As a result of what we mentioned above, automated car washes are meant to clean your vehicle as a whole. They are better at cleaning your vehicle than if you were to just take a hose and spray down your car.

Using one bucket with shampoo can be a little better, but this poses a cross-contamination risk. The two-bucket method focuses on keeping clean materials clean and keeping what is dirty away from everything else.

3. It Prevents Damage

Using only one bucket to both wash and rinse your vehicle can be much more damaging than you realize.

As soon as you complete the first section of your vehicle and throw your cloth back into the bucket you are using for your water and shampoo, you begin to cross-contaminate your working environment.

As you continue to wash your vehicle, using the same water to wash and rinse the car, you are essentially placing the same dirt back where it was in the first place. The difference is that you are now scrubbing the water, shampoo, and dirt onto your vehicle’s paint.

The scrubbing motion causes the small dirt particles to scratch the paint surface and wear away the clear coat. Washing your vehicle frequently increases the chances that extensive damage could occur and the speed at which this could happen.

Going to an automated car wash can have the same results. Those that use spinning brushes can look great as they appear to scrub away the dirt, but they could be doing the same damage you would do when you choose to use the same bucket to wash and rinse your vehicle. The dirt particles can act like sandpaper and eat away at your clear coat.

4. Convenience

The last major benefit is the convenience of being able to wash your car at home. Some may not be able to do this depending on where they live, but washing your vehicle does not require that much extra space.

If you have the materials you need, you can wash your car whenever you want without having to go anywhere. You can also learn how to competently clean your car using the two-bucket method without having to seek professional washers and detailers who may charge a lot of money.

Why Should Use the Two-Bucket Car Wash Method?

There are many reasons you should use the two-bucket car wash method. Not only is it inexpensive, convenient, and easy, it is also the most effective way to wash your vehicle.

You can achieve professional-level results without damaging your paint by using this method if you put the time and practice into it. Even if you do not want to spend the time or money on the best car wash soaps and washing materials, you can easily make your car shine and remove any harmful dirt and grime that accumulates.

Final Thoughts

You can wash your car in a variety of ways. Taking it to the automated car wash can be quick and effective but can also be expensive and damage your paint.

Hosing your car down is quick and simple, but it does almost nothing to actually clean your vehicle.

Using soap, a bucket, and water is only effective until you have to rinse your vehicle or until you move to clean the next section of your car.

The two-bucket car wash is the most effective, most cost-efficient, and most successful way to clean your car the right way. Having seen what the two-bucket car wash is, it should be easy to see why you should do it from now on.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
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