When it comes to personalizing cars, many drivers like to change up their wheels. The aftermarket is full of different options, whether it’s in material choices or a different aesthetic design.

But is it just about aesthetic choice? Do the different wheels impact how a car performs? As far as cleaning vehicles is concerned, paying attention to the small details is important. How a wheel changes the overall vehicle is, as a consequence, something worth understanding.

In fact, understanding more about this can help you to better understand your customers, their needs and their concerns. If car owners are going to lengths to customize their cars in this manner, positioning your services to meet their needs makes plenty of sense.

Alloy or steel?

When it comes to car wheels, there are two main options as far as materials go. The first is alloy wheels, typically made from the likes of nickel and magnesium, but most commonly made from aluminum. The other is steel. There are more specialized options, such as carbon fiber, but these often serve as specialized products for luxury, sporting vehicles.

Alloys are lighter than steel products, and this reduced weight is often favored by drivers looking to improve the acceleration, braking and other parameters. They can also often be better at dissipating heat, removing the strain from the brakes, compared to steel products. However, this lighter structure means they are often more likely to crack or break under extreme stress.

Steel, on the other hand, is often favored by car manufacturers because it is cheaper and easier to repair, since dents can be easily fixed. However, they often have a more simple, utilitarian design to them. This makes them a very practical choice, while alloys are ideal for people who either want to fine-tune their performance or simply improve the appearance of their vehicles.

Design challenges

Generally, steel wheels tend to have more simple designs, while alloys are more complex. From a hand-washing perspective, you may find that a given design can hinder your ability to clean the overall vehicle.

This is because it is also important to clean the brakes behind the wheel. At the very least, you should remove any brake dust that has gathered through regular use. When a wheel has wide open spaces, you can simply spray water through. Of course, easier access to the brakes also means that the brake dust is likely lining the various spokes and arches of the wheels.

Aside from access, wheels also serve a practical purpose when it comes to aerodynamics. Drivers may favor particular models — typically lightweight alloys — that keep air moving outside of the vehicle, rather than trapping excess air behind the rim itself.

Cleaning difficulties

Depending on the material, wheels should ideally be cleaned using different methods. For an automated carwash, this isn’t something that can be done but, then again, such systems also aren’t set up to use anything detrimental or harmful to the car. For a hand wash, however, this is the ideal opportunity to offer a clean that is tailored to the vehicle itself.

When it comes to learning how to clean alloy wheels, it helps to remember that there are different layers to take care of. At first, a sponge should be used very gently to avoid scratching the wheels while also removing the external dirt particles. This ensures the dirt doesn’t get rubbed in during the further stages — where dedicated products and washing formulas are used — as this can scratch and damage the wheels.

Related: Five tips for washing custom wheels

Wheel protection

Alongside cleaning, you also need to protect the wheels against further damage. Just like a car’s bodywork, there are layers of lacquer and protective coating on the wheels. This wears down overtime, and even cleaning itself can do this. Because of this, cleaning is also a good opportunity to re-apply these protective elements.

When it comes to alloy wheels, there are a number of lacquers and waxes that can be purchased. While this is a great opportunity to sell products to customers, this should also be placed on the wheels as soon after the wash as possible. Alloy wheels can chip and suffer scratches, and ruining the aesthetic of such expensive wheels will likely result in displeased drivers and unsatisfied customers. This is also important for maintaining the aesthetic, as the color layer will be underneath the most external layers of protection; if these layers wear down, the paint will start to chip.

What about the tire?

Naturally, when people come to your cleaning services, they’re looking for something that is both quick and effective. Consequently, there’s no need to remove the tire. Modern cleaning chemicals do not interfere with tires, and neither do they ruin the rubber compounds used.

However, the carwash is an area where drivers like to inspect the entire vehicle, at least as far as the external aesthetic is concerned, so it’s not uncommon to see customers washing their treads, checking the tire pressure or generally assessing the state of their combined wheels and tires.

There are, of course, also dedicated tire and wheel products, but these often aren’t as good for the wheels. With tires, many would argue it is not worth spending too much effort, as the external layer will simply be worn down through regular use anyway. That said, a hose and brush can still be used to remove dirt.

Seasonal variation

However, while on the subject of tires, it may be worth noting that steel, which is much more resistant to corrosion, is often used with winter tires. As such, it’s not uncommon to have customers that sport alloy wheels with summer tires, only to have their winter products fitted onto their steel rims. Because such customers have both types of wheel, car cleaning services have the opportunity to better educate them on the needs of each different type.

This also means that businesses have an opportunity to better protect drivers’ wheels in the winter. This is because the changing weather conditions need to be better addressed, as there is a greater chance of damage (especially for alloy rims).

As far as the weather goes, drivers need to protect against rain, snow and hail — the latter, of course, can easily scratch the car’s bodywork and wheels. However, even when it’s not hailing down, many roads will be covered in grit and other protective surfaces. Naturally, a car’s movement will churn much of this upwards, bouncing off of the wheels and risking further abrasion.

Not every driver knows this, of course, so this provides another opportunity for car care centers to offer additional services or education. The products used on your wheels need to be specialized to cope with the additional heat that wheels and tires endure — this is something regular car wax and polishes do not need to account for.

As you can see, a change in wheels does far more than change the aesthetic of the car. Many drivers know this, which is why they take great care to address the needs of their wheels: A change in quality here could impact how the car ultimately responds.


Joel Harley is a car enthusiast and mechanic for Oponeo. When he’s not working on cars, he’s usually offering advice on how to keep cars in their best possible condition. He believes a strong attention to detail can help any car look and perform as well as possible.