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Cloth choices for your carwash

October 11, 2010
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A clean car is the result of a carwash operation that has properly balanced chemical solutions that loosen the vehicle soil and mechanical activity that removes the loosened soil so it can be flushed from the vehicle's surface with water.

Mechanical activity, in most modern facilities, is provided by either a friction producing material such as cloth, foam or other materials, or by water sprayed at the vehicle under high pressure.

Many believe that the most efficient wash process combines both a friction producing material and high-pressure blasts of water.

Cloth in the industry

The full-service, soft-cloth wash has been the industry standard since the mid-to-late 1970s.

According to the International Carwash Association's (ICA) Study of Consumer Wash Attitudes and Habits, the carwash patron feels that a soft cloth wash is better and safer than other methods.

Cloth has been proven through testing to enhance the luster of the painted finish without micro-grooving the vehicle's surface (better known as hazing).

However, all cloth wash materials are not created equally. As with most products, there are different grades and qualities of cloth wash material.

Most of the cloth wash materials used in today's wash processes are a blend of two materials — polypropylene and polyester.

The quality and wash characteristics of a particular cloth material depend upon a number of factors:

  • The blend ratio of the polypropylene and the polyester;
  • The weight of the material;
  • The fineness of the fibers and how porous the material is;
  • Density and surface texture; and
  • The material's flexibility.

The combination of all the above factors dictates how the wash material will perform in the wash process.

If an individual operator were looking for a long-lasting wash material, weight and density would be important factors with the higher weight and density products providing a longer wash life.

The downside of the higher weights and densities is a louder wash "slap" noise when the material contacts the vehicle.

An operator looking for a fast break-in period for a new cloth would look for a larger fiber and a more coarse texture. Cloth with these characteristics will usually clean better than a smoother textured product; however, the operational life will likely be shorter.

Closed-cell foam

New wash materials such as the closed-cell foams have been introduced to the industry over the last decade. Originally installed on friction in-bay units, the foam material products are widely used on conveyor systems today as well.

Generally, foam wash products are co-polymers and closed-cell meaning they do not absorb water.

Each manufacturer varies their foam formulas to provide their own desired qualities such as cell structure, tensile strength, density, surface texture and appearance.

These qualities are engineered to maximize cleaning performance and service life. Like cloth, the density and surface texture affect how the material cleans.

Tensile strength and the foam's elongation characteristics affect the life of the product as well as how it interacts with the vehicle surface and accessories.

Cloth vs. foam

Compared to cloth, foam products are lighter in weight, and have smaller fingers or cuts, which results in a more gentle contact with the vehicle and in most cases a quieter wash process.

Like cloth, foam serves the same function of removing vehicle soil already loosened by the application of chemical solutions and presoaks.

Foam wash materials also require that a lubricating product be applied to the vehicle's surface because the closed-cell structure tends to generate more friction with the vehicle's surface than does a cloth wash material.

The lubrication relieves the surface tension between the foam wash material and the vehicle's surface. Without the proper lubrication, unwanted damage to vehicles can be expected because of the foam's aggressive nature.

When foam is used with the proper lubrication and cleaning solutions, and when the wash equipment is operated at the proper revolutions-per-minute (RPM), operators can expect a quiet cleaning process that delivers an exceptionally clean vehicle.

Operators have reported reduced damage claims for:

  • Antennae;
  • Mirrors;
  • Wipers;
  • License plates; and
  • Trim removal.

Some manufacturers have reported less wear and tear on equipment because of the lighter weight of the foam products.

Overall, foam wash products have been very well-received by operators that have used them on their rotary side and top washers. Less favorable results have been reported for use of foam on mitter washers, again due to the lighter weights.

Wash material selection

Before an operator selects the type of wash material to use, an evaluation of the facility should be completed.

Be sure to ask the following questions:

1) Is the wash a full-service operation where the customer is removed from the vehicle during the wash process, or an exterior operation where the customer remains in the vehicle during the wash process?

This is an important consideration when choosing what wash materials will best fit the site and the customer base.

2) Is there proper or adequate application of cleaning and lubricating solutions in the wash process?

While important, regardless of the wash material used, the use of closed-cell foams make adequate cleaning and lubricating solutions a requirement. Without their use, foam products will both under-perform, and may result in unwanted vehicle damage.

3) What is your competition using?

Analyze your competition to determine if there is an advantage to be gained by the selection of your wash material.

Is there an advantage to be gained by converting to the wash product used by a successful competitor, or by converting to a product not currently used in the local market to provide customers with the latest in technology?

4) Should you consider blending materials?

Consider the possibility that no single material may be the only answer. You may find that a blend of materials is the best solution.

Regardless of what materials you select, consult the manufacturers of the wash materials and your chemical supplier to make sure that the wash material and the wash solutions are compatible.

Always install the materials according to the manufacturer's instructions, and your customers should enjoy clean, dry, and shiny vehicles at your facility.

W. Herschel Kilgore is director of sales and marketing at NS Wash Systems. Over the past 30 years, he has been an equipment distributor and carwash owner/operator.