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Acid rain and the carwash

October 11, 2010
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Recently, we had a customer come into the carwash and complain about blotches on his paint job. He wasn’t complaining about our wash or our facility, he was looking for information and answers about the “why” and “what.” He had an expensive car and was concerned about the discoloring and what it would eventually do to the paint job. He wanted to know what to do to clear it up and save the value and looks of the car.

The blotches weren’t big; in fact, if he hadn’t pointed them out to me, I wouldn’t have even noticed. He was the type of guy that took very good care of his car — you’ve all seen them at the wash, meticulously detailing their cars for hours on end.

The car was about one-year-old and a dark blue, almost black. If the car had been white, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to see any discoloring. He’d bought it used and it was dirty when he drove it off the lot. He hadn’t seen the blotches until he washed the dirt off at our carwash.

I told him about acid rain and the effect on paint jobs. I told him to hand wash and scrub the paint (no foaming brush) as best he could then put on a good wax coat. I explained the benefits of washing your car once a week (he didn’t need that lecture, but it’s my standard speal) and using a clear coat protectant with hardening polymer to help protect against acid rain.

I wasn’t really happy with my standard answer and decided to research acid rain to be better prepared next time.

What is acid rain?
A web-based search for “acid rain” listed an amazing 2,175,765 results. That’s mind boggling, isn’t it?

Acid rain, or more accurately, acid precipitation, occurs when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted into the atmosphere undergo chemical transformations and are absorbed by water droplets in clouds. The droplets then fall to earth as rain, snow or sleet. Acid rain is defined as any type of precipitation measuring a pH less than 5.

Acid rain not only affects the paint on cars. It can, and does, kill forests in some parts of the world including the United States. It affects everything outdoors including trees, vegetation, rivers, streams, lakes and man made structures.

Corrosion on the outer skin of the Statue of Liberty was caused partly by acid rain. In the 1980’s, the Government completed restoration of the statue with funds raised by private donations.

Not a recent problem
Acid rain has been around for thousands of years, with volcanic emissions (acid gases) being the principal natural cause. Nature may have caused acid rain in the past, but now mankind is the main culprit.

By analyzing layers of glacial ice, scientists have determined the amount of acid rain has increased due to the rise of man-made pollutants from the start of the industrial revolution.

Acid rain was first reported in Manchester, England in 1852. The term ‘acid rain’ was first coined in 1872 by Robert Smith who studied the relationship between acid rain and atmospheric pollution. Although acid rain was discovered in 1852, scientists didn’t begin to recognize or observe the phenomenon until the late 1960s. The 1990s brought increased public awareness following the report of a dead lake in New Hampshire.

Sulfur dioxide emissions are principally caused by fossil fuel combustion and industry (88%), volcanoes (9%), wildfires (3%).

Coal burning power plants are the major source of sulfur dioxide emissions. As a result, the United States has strict emission controls. This is not the case in other parts of the world. Industrial acid rain causes problems in the People’s Republic of China, Eastern Europe, Russia and all the countries down-wind.

Power plants in these locations have installed taller smokestacks to placate the local communities. This only delays the problem as the emissions are released higher in the atmosphere , and thus, travel farther. Some weather patterns like El Nino can move pollution half way around the world.

Internal combustion engines and jet engines must be a close second to the power plants. Acid rain on a car’s paint job is caused partly by the car itself. Ironic, isn’t it?

What effect does acid rain have on a car?
When acid rain falls on a car it does not initially damage the paint. As water droplets evaporate from the surface of the car, concentrated areas of acid are left behind on the paint’s surface.

The worse thing you can do is rinse the car off with a hose. Once the concentrated acids on the car are activated by water from snow, sprinkler system or rain, the acid begins to eat the paint.

This process occurs every time the paint surface gets wet. The water activates the acid again and it continues to eat the paint. If the acid is never washed off your car, it starts penetrating into the paint, becoming more concentrated each time the vehicle gets wet with plain water.

Each time this process is repeated, the damage is repeated. This is why acid rain damage takes the form of pits in the paint surface. It’s nearly impossible to keep a car dry all the time, so you’ve got to wash the acid concentrate off with soap and water.

How to save the paint on your car
The best advice I have for you is never take your car out of the garage. If you can’t do that, take your car to the carwash once a week and use the wax every time or, better yet, use a clearcoat protectant.

I had a sales lady at my house last week and she said she washes her car every two weeks or so and never uses wax. Instead, she has it waxed with a paste wax once a year. So in between wax jobs she washes the wax off about 26 times. Is there any of that paste wax left after about four or five washes?

We are in Wyoming, you know, land of clean air, sky and wide open spaces. We only have 500,000 people in the whole state. We have more antelope than people and more deer than antelope.

If every one of us Wyomingites had two cars, that would be only a million gas engines. I think there are only 5 or 6 coal fired power plants in a state with 97,914 square miles (9th largest). We can’t have acid rain, can we? So I asked the guy, “Where did you buy that car?” He said, “Out of state.”


Dennis Ryan has been in the carwash business since 1988 and the construction business for 40 years. At one time he owned and operated five self-service carwashes. Currently he owns and operates American Pride Carwash in Casper/Evansville, WY. He can be contacted at nayrsinned@msn.com.

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