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Better living through chemistry

October 11, 2010
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With much advancement in technology, carwash owners and operators have the opportunity to operate their washes at a level unfathomed by their forefathers.

Believe it or not, cars were at one time pulled by their bumpers through the wash, as people with mitts washed them along the way. The term “mitters” is still used today to identify the material that washes the tops of cars in automatic washes.

Much advancement has been made in the chemical arena of carwashing, mostly in polymer technology, according to Jason Welch, microbiologist at Spartan Chemical Company, Inc. “Polymers create water sheeting action and change the surface tension to allow water to dry off and provide a spot-free rinse,” Welch said.

Mind the clearcoat
In the past, vehicle paints were made of thick lacquer and virtually buffing a layer of paint off the car was practiced at one time to reveal a fresh, new layer below. Nowadays, vehicles are covered with a thin layer of pigment over which a layer of clearcoat finish is applied. One must be careful to not be aggressive with the wash and buffing process.

Taking good care of vehicles includes using the proper soaps and chemical solutions to achieve the desired result of a clean and shiny car.

Soap advancements
According to Laurie Sherman, co-owner of Blendo Systems, LLC, the most interesting new product category that detergent companies have introduced recently is the total-car protectant. These products incorporate new polymer chemistries to protect and shine all surfaces of the vehicle in a long-lasting way.

Matthew Stansell, sales associate at Arcadian Services, agrees. “These [total car-care protectants] are the hottest thing right now in the carwash industry,” Stansell said. It appeals to operators because they can offer extra services to customers and generate higher profits.

“Anything chemically that carwash owners can offer through another arch or through their equipment to upsell, are the driving points in the chemical market,” added Stansell.

Rick Martens, senior chemist at Lustra, said the use of total-car protectants usually involves a one-step process. “As a rule, it is one of the last chemical applications in the carwashing process,” Martens explained.

In this process, the product bonds to the vehicle surface, functioning as a clear coat protectant. Chemical components protect the surface of the vehicle from harmful UV rays, bird droppings, acid rain and hard water spots.

Hydrofluoric acid
Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is a highly toxic and corrosive solution of hydrogen fluoride in water. It is known to dissolve glass by reacting with the major component of most glasses: silicon dioxide. In its original form, it must be stored in polyethylene or Teflon containers as it is unique in its ability to dissolve inorganic metals and semimetal oxides.

“It is a very dangerous chemical for employees and even hard on carwash equipment,” said Martens. Despite all these factors, it is known in the chemist’s world as a weak acid but is still corrosive and poisonous.

“The use of this chemical is not a new problem but has been on and off in the carwash industry for quite a while,” Martens explained. This chemical, and its precursors like ammonium biflouride, can be found in some detergents. As soon as products with ammonium biflouride are diluted with water or come in contact with water, HF is formed.

If this is such a harmful and dangerous chemical, why is it being used? According to the chemists we spoke to, HF is used because of its corrosive capabilities. This chemical can be found in wheel and wall cleaners, in some pre-soaks, and in touchless washes.

New research is being conducted to replace the chemical. “We have products that work very well as replacements to HF and have made great advancements in the touchless arena,” said Martens.

Arm yourself with questions
Determining what kinds of chemicals to use can be an overwhelming process. Doing your research and arming yourself with the right questions before speaking to a chemical supplier will help alleviate headaches. “Make sure the manufacturer has a good reputation and is quality conscious,” said Martens.

According to Stansel, looking for the right company to support your needs is the number one precursor to selecting chemicals. Don’t be afraid to get on the phone with chemical manufacturers and ask lots of questions. Customer service and sales associates are specially trained to provide support, assistance and viable solutions.

Making sure you have local support is also vital. If you can, try contacting other owners and operators in your area to learn from their experiences, trials and errors. In the end, your level of comfort with the provider and with the chemicals will ensure your success at the wash.

Kristen Wesolowski is managing editor of Professional Carwashing & Detailing® magazine. If you have a story idea, article, industry information or question you’d like to see addressed in the magazine, email Kristen at:

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