If you're the kind of driver who has been spending more and more on car washes in the last few years, you may be thinking of cutting back on all that expensive detailing now that money is tight. I talked with a few car wash experts about what you really need and what really pays off in car washing.

The average car gets washed four times a year, says Mark Thorsby, executive director of the International Carwash Association, which, to no one's surprise, recommends a more frequent cleaning of once or twice a month. Car owners have always had a wide range of what they consider the acceptable level of cleanliness and care for their cars.

Many mix-up the at-home and professional cleaning, depending on the season and occasion. They may get the car cleaned after winter or before a wedding. And a few only begrudgingly go only as often as they take themselves to the dentist or doctor-once a year.

"On the other extreme, we have customers in the real estate business who are washing the car every day because they're picking clients up," says Bruce Milen, owner of Jax Kar Wash, a collection of Detroit area car washes that his family started in 1950, with a downtown car wash that was open 24-hours and cost $1. His operation offers a kind of frequent washer program for these obsessive cleaners: for a flat yearly fee they get unlimited washes.Some believe doing a simple wash, including the undercarriage, more often does more to maintain the car's shape than any of the high-end treatments.

"If you're in the under $35,000 [vehicle value] category, you're wasting your money" getting the full-service wash all the time, says Dana Schaeffer, the director of business development in Woburn, MA, who also works with the Bearing Burners Car Club of Massachusetts. "For the daily driver, the finish on it is not meant to be perfect."

Classic car collectors tend to overwax their cars, she says. One good, professional wax will get you through a season, she says. A wax is real wax, she says, but a polish is just wax-like. And she'd let new cars be for a few months, too.

Each season presents its own difficulties. For the summer months, it's hot oil and tar on construction projects, tree sap, dead bugs and bird droppings.

The heat makes all these chemicals react much quicker with your car's paint, Thorsby says.

"There's all that stuff in addition to rain, collecting crud in air, so-called acid rain. When it dries you see the spots," Thorsby says. "If you don't get that stuff off your car in 24-36 hours, it will begin to have a chemical reaction with the surface of the vehicle."

If you let a bird dropping sit on your car in 90 degree weather for a week, you're likely to still see the spot even after you wash it, he says.

Milen has seen customers have to get oil sanded off their cars -- an expensive proposition -- because they let it sit too long.

The most important time to get a car washed is in the winter if you live in areas with lots of snow and salt. That includes the undercarriage.

Still, if you live somewhere like New England, it's a losing battle, Schafer says.

Even though Schaeffer is a skeptic about the need for constant washing and waxing, she does believe it's worth it to get a full-service cleaning once a season. That includes waxing by hand and buffing it out with a machine, something a novice could rub off the paint trying.

"There really is a difference," she says. "That's why you leave it to the professionals."

Milen agrees the hand waxing is really the ultimate car treatment.

"There's nothing that takes the place of a handwax," he says. "That is the best you can have. But it's not practical to have it done at every wash. It lasts 6 months or so."

He also recommends a new-fangled product Rain-X, which used to be used to bead rain off windshields but now is used on the entire car as a protective coating. It costs about $3 to $4 and lasts a few weeks, he says.

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