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A quick lesson in quick cleaning

October 11, 2010
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The wash process in an express wash takes place very quickly, sometimes in less than 90 seconds and in under 100-feet of equipment. Not only that, but at most facilities this entire process is done without hand prepping or hand drying, placing the cleaning burden squarely upon the equipment and chemicals. With conveyor speeds of up to 140 cars per hour, there are great demands on the wash chemicals to perform up to their maximum.

The exit end
To select the proper chemical and dilution ratio for your wash, you should begin the process at the exit end. In order to produce the clean, dry, shiny car that customers expect, we have to ensure that the vehicle reaches the blowers with the correct surface pH and that the body is free from any detergent carryover.

Balancing your chemical applications is essential to achieving that result. If too much alkaline pre-soak is used in the wash, traces left on the vehicle will counteract with the drying agent resulting in a poor water beading and drying. If excessive amounts of foaming shampoo/detergent are applied, the same situation is likely to result. And, finally, traces of detergent on tires will prevent tire dressing from properly adhering and may reduce shine.

Water: The most important chemical
The most important chemical in your wash is water. Yes, water is a chemical and its quality and temperature have a direct impact on the final product.

Water hardness (calcium and magnesium deposits) interferes with detergent effectiveness, reduces foaming and leaves spots after drying. If your water hardness is 3 to 4 grains per gallon or less, the water is of sufficiently good quality to produce a high-quality finished vehicle.

Water with a hardness in excess of 5 grains or above should be treated with a water softener to reduce the level of hardness to zero. This will greatly enhance the effectiveness of pre-soaks and tire/wheel cleaning chemicals and produce higher levels of foam at lower levels of shampoo/detergents and triple foam.

The temperature of your water has a significant effect on the effectiveness of your heavy duty cleaners, pre-soak and tire/wheel cleaner in particular. As a general rule, for every 18ºF that you raise water temperature above 70ºF you double the effectiveness of the detergent.

While heating your water helps cleaning, overheating water can destroy detergents. The maximum temperature you should heat your water to is 120ºF. Temperatures above that produce little additional cleaning effectiveness and may interfere with cleaning.

The other chemicals
Now that the quality of your water has been addressed, we can begin examining the rest of your wash chemicals. This first application is usually an alkaline (high pH) pre-soak that attacks and loosens oily soils. The concentration of these products varies between manufacturers, so you should begin by using this product at the mid-range of recommended ratios. Most chemical manufacturers and suppliers offer titration kits that will aid in determining the dilution ratio of the product being applied to the car.

Most alkaline pre-soak chemicals can be applied as light, wet foam. This free-flowing foam will attack and loosen oily soils wherever they come into contact. The key with alkaline pre-soak is to insure that it reaches every area of the vehicle.

In addition to the standard V jet arch, many washes are using floor mounted spray bars to cover both the front and rear of vehicles. Strong detergent solutions that do not reach all areas of the vehicle will not make up for poor coverage.

Tire & wheel cleaning
Tire and wheel cleaning can be done by applying a dual-purpose detergent or by separate applications of a wheel cleaner and tire cleaner. There are only a few seconds for this chemical cleaning process to take place, so these products must be both fast acting and easy to rinse.

Customers are more aware of wheel and white letter tire cleaning than ever before, so operators should apply these products at the strongest recommended dilutions. Nothing can spoil a customer’s perception of your wash faster than the sight of poorly cleaned wheels or dirty white letter tires.

Many wheel and tire cleaner applicators foam the product onto the wheel and tire for longer contact times. Be aware that excessively dry foam will prevent the solution from spreading easily and covering the wheel and tire resulting in reduced cleaning, even at strong concentrations.

Shampoo/detergents are applied with foaming arches and may also be applied directly to friction materials. The most popular shampoos used today are pH adjusted.

In addition to the “wow” factor of the foam, these acidic shampoos provide lubrication for your friction material, loosen particulate soil, remove mineral based soils and lower the vehicle’s surface to a pH that is ideal for triple foam conditioners, waxes and drying agents.

Most of these detergents are used at ratios above 1 to 200. If your wash applies shampoo/detergent to the friction material in addition to the foaming arch, care should be taken to insure that only enough shampoo is being applied to provide lubrication to the friction material. Excessive amounts of shampoo/detergent may prove to be difficult to rinse and may cause problems with vehicle drying.

Triple foam is an exciting process for wash customers. In addition to the brightly colored and fragrant foam, high-quality triple foam products include natural carnauba wax, silicone or a combination of both. Many triple foam products are low pH in nature and aid in the drying process.

It is important to use these products at their recommended dilutions because overly strong concentrations may cause body seams to become packed with this foam. Overuse may result in failure to completely rinse the triple foam from the vehicle’s seams and may cause your dryers to blow the foam out onto the customer’s clean car.

How to get a faster water break
As the vehicle proceeds into the rinse section of the wash, the true value of fine tuning the wash process becomes clear. Rinse aids, clearcoat protectants and total body protectants work best when the vehicle surface has a slightly acidic pH.

If you use the correct pH, you will achieve a faster water break, better surface adherence of the clearcoat and total body protectant and more complete drying. The key to using rinse aid, clearcoat protectant and total body protectant is to use them at the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Contrary to common belief, overuse of rinse aid does not produce a better result, it may do the opposite. The job of the rinse aid is to cause water to run off the vehicle surface. If your vehicles are breaking slowly or not at all and you notice a milky look when the rinse aid hits the surface, your first action should be to cut back on rinse aid.

Too strong of a concentration of rinse aid actually prevents water from breaking and running off the surface. If detergent had not been rinsed from the vehicle prior to the application of the rinse aid, water breaking may be slow or non-existent. Turning up the rinse aid will not help this situation, you must be sure that the vehicle is free of any detergents before the application of rinse aid.

Clearcoat protectants and total body protectants can now be applied to the vehicle, depending upon your packages. These products are engineered to bond immediately to vehicle surfaces so it is imperative that all traces of detergents have been removed from the surface. The best clearcoat and total body protectants cannot perform at their maximum effectiveness if the vehicle surface is not completely free of detergent residue.

Drying and fine tuning
The final steps in the wash process are tire dressing and drying. Tire dressings bond best to tires that are clean and free of detergents. If detergents are not completely rinsed from tires, the dressing will not “stick” properly and its shine will likely be diminished. Excessive use of tire dressing will not improve shine and may even lead to slinging the dressing onto the vehicle as it leaves your site.

Drying is the final process in the tunnel. If your vehicles are not coming out as dry as you think that they should, know that the blowers may not be to blame. Only when you have completed your review and tune-up of your wash process and chemicals can your blowers be properly evaluated.

Whether you apply your wash chemicals with hydrominders, chemical pumps or water driven injectors, using the right product in the right place at the right dilution is key to achieving a fast, clean car.

Dan Kramer has been the technical director at Stone Soap Company for the past 19 years. In addition to his product related responsibilities, he holds classes and seminars at the Stone Soap Company Training Center and at various locations on behalf of the company’s many distributors. He can be reached at

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