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Selecting & caring for carwash towels

October 11, 2010
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Over the last few years, innovations in towels and competition in the manufacturing world have led to an overwhelming amount of options in towels for carwash owners and operators. Choosing the right towels for the carwash, and knowing how to properly launder and maintain them, can sometimes be confusing.

This article will offer some of the advantages and disadvantages to different types and sizes of towels as well as advice on how to properly care for towels in order to prolong their life.

Terry towels
Cotton terry towels are by far the most popular towel in the carwash industry. Used mostly as a body drying towel, terry towels are available in a wide range of color, size, thickness, and quality. These towels are made of absorbent cotton, and have bulk to them, ideal for absorbing a lot of water.

Terry towels are available in many sizes, from wash cloth up to a large bath towel; however, the most popular size used in the carwash industry is 16” x 27” (also known as a hand towel). These towels can range in weight/thickness from 2.25 pounds per dozen up to 6 pounds per dozen.

The thicker the towel, the more water it can absorb. Thinner towels need to be changed out more frequently on the line because they saturate quicker than thicker towels. Thinner towels also tend to wear out quicker than their thicker counterparts. Some washes prefer not to use very thick towels because they can become quite heavy when wet. Many carwashes opt for a towel somewhere in the middle (3 or 4 pounds per dozen).

Breaking in terry towels
Unless you have purchased your towels used or pre-washed, you will need to break in your terry towels before using them at the wash. The duration of the break in period will depend on several factors.

First, if the towel was originally made for the retail industry, it will be treated with a substance called sizing. Sizing is a starch and silicone mixture that is put on the towels to make them stain resistant. This starch-silicone mixture makes the towel less absorbent, but once it is washed out, the towels will be very absorbent. You will need to wash these towels several times to rid it of the sizing.

Sizing can be broken down when the towels are washed in hot water for the first several washings. Towels should be washed a minimum of eight minutes with water temperature greater than 168 degrees.

An increase in the alkalinity of the water can also help to open the fibers and diminish the sizing during the break-in period. Your detergent representative should be able to help you find the right product.

The second factor as to how long it will take the towel to break in is the color. The darker the color, the longer it will take to break in because the fibers are saturated with dye. White towels are the quickest to break in because they do not contain dye.

The third factor is the thickness of the towels. Generally thinner towels are quicker to break in than thicker towels.

Washing terry towels
Terry towels can be washed with regular detergent, but should not be washed with fabric softener or bleach. Fabric softener reduces its absorbency. Bleach will break down the cotton fibers and cause the towel to lint. It is also suggested to use fresh water after each load, because recycled water will retain the lint.

Never wash old terry towels with new terry towels because the lint from the old deteriorating towels will catch on to the new towels. Empty your lint trap after each dry cycle.

Carwash owners in areas with hard water should consider a water softener or other water conditioning additives. High levels of acid and other minerals may contribute to an earlier deterioration of the towels.

Huck/surgical towels
Huck towels, also referred to as surgical towels, are an extremely popular towel for cleaning windows. They are also used frequently for detail work. Huck towels are 100 percent cotton and lint-free.

Unlike terry towels, huck towels are relatively thin so they can easily reach into the tight corners of the windows and interior. They also work well with all types of window cleaner.

Hucks are typically around 15” x 25”, but larger, thicker versions are also available. These towels are normally blue, but some towel distributors now offer white, green, pink, orange, and yellow.

Breaking in huck towels
Huck towels have a relatively quick break-in period. Some carwashes opt for recycled huck towels, which are already pre-washed and can be used right out of the box. New huck towels only need to be washed in hot water several times before using so they can soften and absorb. Heavier weight huck towels take a few more washings to break in because they are thicker.

Washing huck towels
Huck towels are machine washable and can be laundered with regular detergent. Some washes choose not to add any detergent, and just have the residual window cleaner do the work. In that case, the huck towels only need to be run through the rinse cycle.

Huck towels are very lightweight, so many of them can fit in the washing machine at one time, saving on energy costs. Avoid washing huck/surgical towels with terry towels.

Microfiber towels
Microfiber towels are popular for body drying, detail work, and especially window cleaning. Microfibers are available in a wide variety of sizes, colors, qualities, and styles.

Microfiber towels are lint-free and very absorbent, soaking up to seven times their weight in water. Microfiber traps the dirt in the towel, so the same cloth can be used for a longer period of time than with other towels.

Microfibers are also great at cleaning problem spots such as bugs, tar, and bird droppings often without the use of additional chemicals. Some washes prefer not to use microfiber on the body because they like the bulkiness of a terry towel.

Microfiber towels are most popular on the windows because they are not likely to cause streaks. Due to their construction and composition, these towels can clean windows, even without additional window cleaner.

Microfibers also can be used to trap dust off the dash. Other towels push the dust into the air, only to resettle on the dash later.

Breaking in microfiber towels
For the most part, you should be able to use a microfiber right out of the package. Some people do choose to wash these towels once, especially if they are a darker color. Washing once will remove any residual production lint that may have settled on the cloth during the manufacturing process.

Washing microfiber towels
Microfiber towels are machine washable and can be laundered with regular detergent. Avoid fabric softener because it will clog the fibers and negatively affect the performance of the cloth. Also avoid bleach because it will break down the fibers of the towel.

Microfiber should be washed separately from other towels, especially terry towels! The lint from a terry towel will adhere to the cloth very easily. Microfiber towels can be put in a dryer, extractor, or left out to air dry.

Prolonging the life of towels
The lifespan of your towels can be increased by keeping them separated. Many carwash operators have found that separating the towels by size and texture using a different color for each makes it easy for employees to keep towels sorted on a busy day.

Towels can also be coded by using a different color, size, and/or texture for each job, or on the various parts of the car. Keeping towels separated in different bins or buckets will help to avoid any residual chemical reactions. For example, the combination of chemicals in soaps, waxes and detergents may not mix well with window cleaning solutions.

For wiping dirty parts of the car, including wheel wells and door jambs, low cost rags can be used as opposed to old towels, especially if you are not changing the color of your towels between orders.

Having distinct containers for body, window, waxing, and grease towels will help to insure that towels are stored and washed separately. To make sure coding is effective, train your employees to know which color, size, and/or texture is used on each part of the vehicle. Properly washing your towels, and practicing separation will help to increase the longevity of your towels, and aid in providing your customers cleaner washed vehicles.

Valerie Sweeney is the marketing director at ERC Wiping Products Inc. in Lynn, MA. She has worked at ERC since 1995.
For more information please contact her at (800) 225-9473 or visit the company’s website at

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