Should I go for an engine wash or engine detail?

What's the difference?
by Manskee Nascimento | Nov 15, 2017

As a fellow car care enthusiast, I want to shed light on the topic of cleaning your engine and knocking out old habits that don’t belong in maintaining a modern mill. We shall guide you through two options and leave everything else to your good judgement. 

Option 1: Engine wash

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The common way to get that motor cleaned up is with an engine wash—a popular service given by most car wash shops. It’s pretty affordable (P100 to P500) and usually takes an hour or less to accomplish. The pressing question is, is this method safe for your car?

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Well, the idea of hosing down a bare engine with pressurized water does worry me, especially when dealing with today’s tech-filled engines. Though some decent shops tend to cover areas like the computer box, ignition coils, distributor, tranny vent, battery terminals, fuse box, airbox intake, etc., it isn’t a guarantee that water won’t creep into these sensitive electrical/electronic parts and cause damage, corrosion or hamper performance. Issues may arise immediately after or even months down the road.

For those of you who have enough faith to pursue an engine wash, here’s a guideline:

Prepare the following items:

1) Environment-friendly/citrus-based spray degreaser

2) Microfiber towels

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3) Small soft nylon brush and toothbrush

4) Small trash bags to cover electrical/electronic parts

5) Electrical tape for securing plastic bags

6) Pressurized water spray with adjustable nozzle

7) Blower

8) Detailer spray

9) Protectant

Note: Consult the dealership, manufacturer or owner’s manual with regard to electronic/electrical parts inside your engine bay that may be affected by water. Knowledge of your mill’s layout and parts will give you the upper hand on how to safely approach the job.


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Whether you’ll be heading to a car wash to avail of the service or doing it yourself, first ensure you or the shop has the aforementioned items and that proper preparation be strictly performed to avoid water contamination of sensitive parts.

After covering electronic/electrical parts, begin by dusting/loosening dry dirt or dust with a soft nylon brush on all parts it can reach followed by spraying degreaser on areas with caked-in dirt, grease or carbon build up. Avoid spraying degreaser on your belts.

(Note: For old vehicles, it’s okay to disconnect the battery as an added precaution. For modern automobiles, disconnecting the battery may disable some operational features which will require resetting at the dealership.)

Allow degreaser to settle and loosen all the gunk for a few minutes, followed by spraying these areas down. Use the toothbrush for the tougher stuff, especially in tight spaces. Ensure that spray nozzle is adjusted to create a more gentle, less concentrated stream of water. The rule of thumb is if your hand could handle the pressure without any discomfort within six inches of the nozzle, you are good to go.

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The old practice of some shops is to use harsh soaps and solvents such as kerosene or gas to clean out the engine. In addition, they hose the engine down with way too much pressure. Honestly, I find these methods highly risky and can cause adverse effects on some parts. Strong solvents can also make plastic or rubber portions prematurely fade and become brittle.


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Once you’ve sprayed off all that gunk, it is time to dry out your engine. With a clean set of absorbent microfiber towels and a blower/compressed air, draw out moisture from all areas before removing parts covered with plastic bags. To finish off all areas, use a detailer spray followed by protectant for rubber and plastic trim. This step prevents water stain accumulation on both painted areas and composite materials. When cleaning the uncovered sensitive areas, spray detailer onto the towel first then wipe down thoroughly and carefully. Always be aware of your engine’s wiring and electrical connectors. Treat these bits very gently.

When the job is done, start your car (and pray) to make sure it’s in good running order.


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Option 2: Engine detail

This method of cleaning an engine is something I’ve employed for many years and is a waterless process. Though it takes more time and patience, the risk involved with a wash is greatly reduced.

In addition to having the materials mentioned in the wash, minus the plastic bags, tape and pressurized water spray, include a powerful vacuum, vinyl gloves and cotton buds to your list.

After putting on gloves, work your engine slowly and surely one small section at a time until every nook and cranny is detailed. Carefully vacuum surface areas as you dust with a dry paintbrush. For the tight spaces your fingers and brushes can’t reach, the cotton buds should be more than capable of doing so. When detailing overlapping components and parts, soak a towel with detailer and wipe down. Use the degreaser only when the detailer spray can’t hack it.

Of course, same as with the wash, there will be parts completely out of reach and sight. There is really nothing you can do about that unless you graduated from Hogwarts or take apart your engine (not recommended). The final step is dressing your plastic and rubber parts with protectant.

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(Note: You can also purchase belt dressing such as the one made by WD-40 to protect and lengthen the life of your belts after a thorough detail has been done.)

If you ask me, I would always go with the latter. My daily driver’s engine bay is proof of this. Some really good detailing establishments offer this service, but with a higher cost (approx. P1,000 to P2,000) as it is a true labor of love. I highly recommend you do it yourself as it will give you a sense of pride and make you more knowledgeable of your car. It will save you money, too.


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PHOTO: Manskee Nascimento
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