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Wheels of fortune

October 11, 2010
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Wheel cleaning and tire dressing over the years have become the number one extra service sale in tunnel carwashing and wheel cleaners and tire dressings are the number one category of product in auto care at retailers nationwide.

With this thought in mind, it should be the number one selling service we can sell at carwashes and detail shops.

Regionally we see that many tunnel carwash business (especially urban ones) do very high numbers in tire dressing and that many operators include wheel cleaning in all of their wash packages.

From steel to aluminum
Wheel cleaning became more important than ever as vehicles moved from painted steel wheels with black wall/whitewall tires in the 1980s to today’s very common alloy/aluminum wheel and black wall tires. Twenty-five years ago, the whitewalls would get scrubbed and typically given enough cleaning to make the steel wheels, wire wheel covers and full wheel covers look good as new.

At the same time the industry adopted the new wheels, also came new braking technology that included anti-lock brake systems, stronger more powerful brake calipers and better brake pads. Because of all of this new technology, brake dust became a BIG problem.

Brake pads are made up of a variety of metallic and non-metallic additives including ceramic and metal. Add that friction to cast iron brake rotors and “voila” — black wheels.

As wash operators and detailers were always aware, a clean car with dirty tires and wheels is “like wearing a tuxedo without polished shoes.”

So why does the customer want to have the wheels cleaned and tires dressed? Of course so the vehicle looks better. Also some of them have found out the hard way, once brake dust has been on a wheel for way too long it is nearly impossible to remove.

As a wash operator or detailer, we know that with regular cleaning the wheels and tires will look better and last longer. With the advent of the no-end-in-sight aftermarket wheel and tire business, we now have an even larger audience to offer these easily done and profitable services to.

You can dress them up, but…
Now we can move into the realm of dressing. Dressing vehicle tires makes them look better and changes the entire look of the vehicle. In all of my years of carwashing and detailing, the tires being done right really makes the vehicle look right. When it comes to selling this service remember that it is one of the only tangible services that you can offer with the wash services.

When washing the vehicle either by hand or in a tunnel, what matters is that the consumer can see a difference in the vehicle. For example, if you’ve ever offered a standard wash (wash/dry) or a mid-range (wash/foam polish/ underbody/dry) at the end of the wash, the two vehicles will just look the same. However, add wheel cleaning and tire dressing and BAM! Whole new look on that brand new ride or old bucket.

Education should be the most important aspect in selling any wheel or tire service. If you’re a carwash, make sure the service advisor knows exactly what the services are and how they are performed. If you happen to be a detail shop, same deal goes, but you may have more time to explain what is going to be done.

Choosing the right chemicals
When you choose what type(s) of chemicals to use, understanding what type of cleaner works best on which type of wheel or tire can make a tremendous difference.

For proper wheel cleaning, they should be cool to the touch. If not, putting chemicals on a hot wheel can stain the wheels. Rinsing the wheels down may require using a strong solution, but the cooling is worth the effort. Have you priced out a repair on new wheels?

Chrome and steel wheels have always cleaned best with acid. I know there is a lot of concern, but this just happens to be the truth. There are concerns with these types of chemicals due to the dangers they could be to employees and the wheels. However, there have been huge strides in non-acid wheel cleaner technology that work great on all wheel types. Make sure you are getting technical assistance from your chemical provider on the proper solution for your need(s).

Reducing stains
With painted, cast or machined alloy/ aluminum wheels, the better chemicals are non-acid alkaline wheel cleaners with buffering agents to reduce the staining problem.

Polished wheels without any clear coating protective coating present the biggest challenge. They must be carefully cleaned as not to oxidize the surface and should never have acid applied to them.

Tires are a simpler breed, using an alkaline or high-pH cleaner will emulsify the nastiest of dirt from the tires and really clean them up for a better application of tire dressing. I know some old-school guys that like to use a bleach type cleaner, but that just “bleaches out” around the white letters and whitewalls and doesn’t look too great after a while.

Solvent vs. water based
Dressings are the big deal now. Solvent based or water based? Hand applied or machine applied? Spray on or wipe on? A lot of questions for doing a simple service. I prefer in tunnel applications to use a machine where it is possible to avoid missing vehicles and control costs. When it comes to applying dressing by hand, I never spray, it always seems to get all over the nearby vehicles, and that’s just no good.

To tackle the type of dressing, use one that you like on your customers vehicles. Most of us dress our tires so often that we never truly get an honest result. Water based dressings have come a long way and with the cost of solvents going up every day, it may be your only choice.

To make the real carwash dollars add up, offer a service for just wheels and tires that you can market to all of your customers, those two items may be the reason they came in for a wash anyway.

Happy washing!

Steve Sause is the director of technical services, Vehicle Care, at Simoniz USA Inc., based in Bolton, CT. For more information, visit:

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