By on September 26, 2012

Scott writes:

Dear Sajeev,

Recently I took my 1999 Toyota Camry (2.2L 4-cylinder) to a touchless car wash with underbody sprayers. This was a car wash that I used often, so I had good luck with it until this one particular day. Prior to getting it washed the Camry ran fine all afternoon, including during the wash.

However, after I left and drove about a quarter-mile down the road, the car acted funny–running rough, no power, etc. This happened sporadically, so one second it would “act up” and then it would run normally for another half of a mile and then “act up” again. As I was trying to nurse the car along to get me back home, the check engine light came on and the hiccups became more frequent until it ran poorly, period (the entire trip, from car wash to my house, was about four miles in stop-and-go traffic with speeds up to 30 MPH). Conveniently the engine stalled just as I parked it in my driveway. Long story short–I had to get it towed and the mechanic had to replace both ignition coils. Was this just a matter of coincidence, or was there a possibility the car wash somehow affected my vehicle?

Thanks in advance for the help.

Sajeev answers:

This is pretty scary: it’s a conspiracy by the automakers to damage the sterling reputation the Camry’s durability! I’ve never heard of this problem with livery drivers (in regularly washed Panthers) so I suggest you find the nearest Mercury Grand Marquis for sale and BUY IT…SON!

I’m realizing that I need a Panther Super PAC: I’d make a difference in our society!  Hey, if Colbert has one, why not the Crown Victoria?

But I digress. It’s unfortunate that water vapor does this, but it is true. One of the cars in the Mehta garage is a Mercedes buyback because of this exact problem. Or was. But that’s not the point: power washing is bad for electrics, but older motors with older rubber bits are susceptible to even a bit of vapor from regular car wash use.

Let’s make this simple: odds are your Camry needed a FULL tune up (plugs, spark plug wires, fuel filter etc.) anyway, and the magic powers of water vapor was the last straw.

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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21 Comments on “Piston Slap: a Camry Car Wash Conspiracy?...”


  • avatar

    I agree on the Panther Super PAC, hell a Panther Party would be better though…

  • avatar
    200k-min

    Up here in the rust belt I’ve noticed that the guys that really baby their vehicles and make they last never use the automatic car washes. They go to the DIY places in the dead of winter and use their driveways in the summer. I’ve done that just because I’m a cheap b@stard and I think it’s a better wash, but I can also say I’ve never had a problem like yours.

    • 0 avatar
      indyb6

      Automatic car washes = swirl city on your paint. Rust belt or not, anyone who cares about their paint does not take it to an automatic car wash, or even the “hand wash” places.

      If it is a dark colored car, the swirls induced by improper wash techniques and general apathy for perfect paint are painful.

      I’m sorry, I’m a car detail nut.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        So as a car detail nut, what is the best way to mitigate a swirl problem such as you described? Triple wax coat?

      • 0 avatar
        saabaru

        I feel your pain, Indy. In my days working in car rental, I’ve seen all sorts of stuff done to those poor cars just to get a little dirt off, from scrubbing a car dry, to using laundry detergent when the car soap ran out…
        I think the best bet is to use clean mictofiber towels to both wash and dry the car by hand, with no more pressure than a garden hose.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    “it’s a conspiracy by the automakers to damage the sterling reputation the Camry’s durability!”

    It’s about time, too. If you can’t join ‘em, kill ‘em…I whole-heartedly approve!

    (yeah, yeah, I’m kidding – kind of – wink-wink!)

  • avatar
    dts187

    I’ve always tried to avoid any kind of high pressure wash (exception for my old oft-muddy beater truck). Soft hand wash and gentle rinse for me.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    One of my co-workers bought a one year old 2006 Chrysler 300. It ran fine until he had it about six months when he took it to a car wash that also washes under the car. After that, he had all sorts of electronic problems with the car that the dealer tried to fix under warranty by replacing a bunch of control modules. They finally called in a field engineer who found the problem. Water had gotten into a connector loctaed near the bottom of the firewall and corroded the contacts. After the connector was cleaned and resealed, the car ran like new. That was the last time he had the undercarriage washed.

  • avatar
    pleximax

    I have a 2007 Saab 9-3 2.0T which I bought new, and almost since I bought it, whenever the temperature in the morning is between around 50F and 60F it takes anywhere from 2 to 10 attempts to start the car. Happens only in the morning 2-3 attempts if its been 50-60F and less humid, but if its has rained heavily overnight it will take upwards to 10 attempts (still between 50-60F). During winter, I’ve had the car covered in snow for 5-6 days and it started on first attempt, have had it 100F-plus humid temperatures for a couple of weeks, starts on first attempt. Only the combination of 50-60F plus humidity makes it hard to start the car in the morning. Had it checked under warranty (when Saab was still alive) several times, but nothing to be found. Once I get the car started in the morning, all subsequent starts are fine, even though they are done just a few seconds after 3-10 attempts thingy.

    Anyone here experience anything similar?

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Use high pressure car washes with the under-spray feature weekly. Only once, about 25 years ago, did a car run roughly on exit. It cleared up within a couple of blocks and never recurred. Put it down to a fluke.

    Agree with others here. The plugs and wires were probably the originals and on their last legs.

  • avatar
    SuperACG

    So how DO YOU properly clean the undercarriage??

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      A fast highway drive in a heavy spring rain works great! I occasionally go for a drive in those conditions solely for that purpose.

      I also hose down the underside with the garden hose when I’m washing in my driveway. I suppose that doesn’t really work in the winter, when it’s needed the most in heavily salted regions.

  • avatar
    dolorean

    I’ve used the touchless car washes frequently in the winter months, mainly to get into those areas of the under-carriage that may have a build up of caustic material left by clumps of dirty snow and mud. I find it amazing that a car wash would suddenly cause this problem but not driving highway speeds during a fierce thunderstorm or large snowmelt.

    Something else I’ve noticed. I seem to be the rare driver that shuts off his car while inside the wash. I hate the thought of wasting gas just idling inside a carwash and never had a problem with starting afterward. Wonder if that makes a difference?

  • avatar
    notapreppie

    The crank angle sensor on my wife’s 2004 Santa Fe did this until I replaced it this year. The insulation on the wires had deteriorated to the point that they just crumbled when I started working on it.

    Easy and inexpensive fix, though.

  • avatar
    brettc

    My wife’s 1994 Cavalier had a problem where the car ran like crap every time it rained. I went to Autozone and bought new plugs and wires and the problem was solved after replacement.

  • avatar
    RedTuna

    The Toyota 2.2L 5SFE (and the 3SGTE) in an MR2 is known to running poorly when there’s water in the spark plug well due to a loose spark plug wire boot. Typically happened after washing the engine. I’m thinking the same thing happened to Scott’s 5SFE Camry.

  • avatar
    ChandlerAZguy

    I have the same issue with my 2010 Prius at a local car was that sprays the under carraige. It will run roughly and sputter all the way home. The next morning its fine…


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