Since the early 1960s, many people in the carwash industry have taken an abstract view of wash chemistries as if the subject is almost perfunctory to the daily cycle of “wash units sold” and the making of loyal repeat customers, which is the bread and butter of any successful retail operation.

There are many reasons why traditional carwash chemicals have been in use for many decades, including that they are cheap to manufacture, appear to do a serviceable job of removing the most typical automotive soils and, above all, foam dramatically. The most difficult soils to remove — namely lubricants, road tars, chewing gum, dried food and beverages, bird droppings and, to a lesser degree, adhesives, fuels, inks and a variety of coatings — are routinely removed by these cleaners/degreasers, solvents and acids.

Most of these products date back to older generations before the advent of modern biobased surfactants and solvent alternatives. Some older formulas did their work as powerful oxidizers by removing paint and metal surfaces one micron layer at a time. The damage they did to elastomeric surfaces, such as
gaskets, tires and seals, was much more readily evident with powdering or oxidation appearing almost immediately. These same chemistries were used not just for the automotive industry, but also for the aviation and marine industries.

The damage caused by some traditional cleaning products can be permanent and cumulative. Dulled or oxidized paint, crumbling rubberoids, flacking paint and metal corrosion are all largely the result of such chemical use or misuse.

And, the chemical damage from traditional sodium-based cleaners goes even deeper. Various wash equipment,
including plumbing, hoses, reservoirs, holding tanks, pumps, sprayer nozzles, blowers, textiles, drainage systems, gaskets, seals and even concrete or ceramic tile, ceiling materials, glass and other wash system elements can also be degraded in much the same way.

Related: Modern carwash chemistry solutions

The available alternatives

There are readily available alternatives today. Since 1998, there have emerged, largely through the efforts of the USDA Biopreffered Program (a product of the First and Second USDA Farm Bills of the mid-1990s promoting farm-sourced industrial chemicals), a variety of hardworking, aqueous-based cleaning and degreasing formularies that are competitively priced and effective.

These chemistries tend to be “biobased” (plant oil derived), non-ionic in nature (do not impart a surface charge) and are non-aggressive to the cleaning surface itself. They are generally alkaline and anti-oxidant in nature, do not contain sodium salts in solution and use much more sophisticated plant-based solvents, buffers, fatty acids, saponifiers and even foaming agents.

Generally referred to as alconolamid surfactants or organic solvents, they do not clean by oxidizing the paint or metal surface but rather by changing the polar attraction of surface soils so that they become miscible in a (usually warm) water and cleaning formulary solution.

In this manner, they literally push the fats, greases, oils, lipids and proteins (the binding material of 99 percent of all automotive soils) away from the cleaning surface, where they are trapped in the wastewater stream and carried away to filtration systems that allow the cleaning chemistry to be reused for days or even weeks before they begin to biodegrade naturally.

These new chemistries may also include fragrance, color and be foam-modified. Other advantages of biobased cleaning/degreasing chemistry include:

  • Non-aggressive to cleaning surfaces
  • Long-term storage, up to several years in unopened containers
  • Non-toxic
  • Non-flammable
  • Antioxidant by nature
  • Highly filterable and recyclable
  • Temperature-stable in repeated freeze/thaw cycles
  • Non-reactive with other chemicals
  • Competitively priced
  • No disposal restrictions.

Most will comply with California SCAQMD, REACH, CEFAS and EPA Safer Choice.

These products have been proven in industry, transportation and appearance applications for over 25 years and are gradually becoming the standard of excellence for carwash operators everywhere. Specialty biobased aqueous formulations are made for all detailing applications, including: engine and automotive parts cleaning; chrome and glass cleaning; general purpose exterior and interior washing; upholstery and carpet cleaning; wheel and tire appearance; and shop and tool cleaning applications.

Related: Choosing the right chemical

Know your chemicals

There are some 120 manufacturing sources for alconolamid or biobased, aqueous cleaning and degreasing chemistries and specialty products in all 50 states, Canada and the rest of North America.

To become better informed about surface damage and environmental toxins, operators are advised to learn about their product selections’ formulas and their effects on vehicles and the environment.

Ask for and read the manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) to determine surface and environmental reactivity of chemical substances. Almost by definition, unless the chemistry is organic (related to plant sources), then it may degrade automotive surfaces.

Ultimately, the most important advantages of using biobased cleaners/degreasers, biobased solvents and specialty chemicals are that they will help the operator save time, money and effort while improving the quality finish and the bottom line.

Related: The chemistry connection


Kim Kristoff is the founder and president of a biobased manufacturing company called GEMTEK Products, based in Phoenix, Arizona. Kristoff regularly writes chemical technology articles for numerous trade publications in the automotive, aviation, rail and marine fields. GEMTEK supplies cleaner/degreasers, lubricants, solvents and specialty chemicals to transportation, industrial, oil and gas, agricultural and other commercial applications. Please visit www.gemtek.com for details. To contact Kristoff, email kristoff@gemtek.com or call 602-265-8586.