A little bit of soap and a whole lot of friction — this recommended ratio was apt for decades when describing the function of early automated carwashing. Today, the interaction between chemicals, equipment and vehicle surfaces has advanced immensely as wash science continues to evolve. Modern chemistry has proven to be integral in the popular and highly advanced wash tunnels and bays around the globe.

Astute wash owners have worked hard to learn the ins and outs of updated carwash chemistry, including education on advanced application equipment. Carwashes that overlook the importance of modern chemistry and fine-tuned application can expect diminished results along with increased customer dissatisfaction.

Thankfully, numerous resources stand ready to assist operators with the most pressing technical information for their upgraded wash tunnels.

Evolving chemistry

One area that showcases chemistry advances in today’s carwash tunnels is surface protection. The most effective vehicle protectants in the current marketplace offer customized product program lines for enhanced efficiency and results, according to Andrew Landa, director of R&D at Zep Vehicle Care. These new combinations of chemistry significantly improve vehicle appearance, surface protection and treatment via full lines of polishes, protectants and waxes.

A second aspect of chemistry that has evolved for the betterment of carwashing is environmental awareness and conservation. Landa points to the environmentally friendly and reclaim-friendly products that are now available. These chemical options are designed to be better for the environment and to conserve overall water usage. Also, ultra-concentrates are reducing waste and lessening the impact to the environment by miniaturizing chemical packaging.

Related: Top 4 benefits of using eco-friendly carwash chemicals

Dan Kramer, technical director with Stone Soap Co. Inc., states that the advent of more environmentally friendly products has enabled manufacturers to produce chemistry that foams better and cleans deeper than the previous generation’s offerings while being kinder to the environment. Most of these new chemical components break down rapidly in water treatment and septic systems and allow carwash facilities to meet tough new wastewater regulations as well.

“Many of these new products are also manufactured from plants rather than petroleum, increasing sustainability and reducing the reliance on foreign oil with its volatile pricing,” Kramer reveals.

Most popular options

Total body protectants are the most popular treatments among Kramer’s customer base. These products provide more than just a great “show;” they impart real and valuable protection to vehicle surfaces that can last up to several weeks.

Here, the chemicals’ active ingredients bond to the surface and cure to a hard, resistant finish. This finish provides a sacrificial surface that prevents environmental contaminants from reaching the vehicle clear-coat and degrading it, Kramer continues. Applied regularly, the effectiveness of the chemistry will actually increase. With each application of total body protectant, the layer protecting the clear-coat is renewed, and the time of protection is extended.

Landa also notes that the most popular modern chemical services in carwashes often include protectants. His list of prominent applications includes:

  • Lava foams with vivid colors that are showcased through the use of LED lighting
  • Carnauba-based, deep-shine waxes
  • Treatments such as triple foam polish, triple foam conditioners, total body protectants/sealants and drying agents that claim to contain polymer, silicone and/or carnauba
  • Soap-based foam curtains for wax products.

“An important aspect of these programs are new chemistry blends which produce appealing visual foam but still break very quickly,” Landa says. “These chemistries actually facilitate the beading and drying process of the vehicle.”

Pushing peak performance

To ensure peak chemical performance, the most important step is making sure wash chemistry use is balanced, Landa states. Being balanced means that the proper cleaning and finishing products are utilized in their respective steps of the wash process. Proper ratios ensure that the end wash result is a clean, shiny and dry vehicle every time.

An excellent example of chemistry balance includes the use of a triple foam soap that is intended for a wash’s front cleaning segment. If it is instead applied at the back end or finishing area of a wash, the vehicle will be difficult to dry. Using the incorrect type of triple foam will result in excess use of drying agent in an effort to output a dry vehicle, Landa notes.

Another area of chemical importance Kramer recognizes is water usage. “Most operators pay close attention to the dosing and usage of their carwashing chemicals, but they pay little heed to their water,” Kramer explains. “Proper chemical dosing depends upon a predictable level of water quality, pressure and flow.”

There are a few water factors owners should consider. First, as nozzles wear from use, water flow will increase and chemical concentration will fall below proper levels, according to Kramer. If a water softener is present but not producing water with zero grain hardness, foam levels may fall and cleaning will suffer. Finally, if high-pressure nozzles are worn, pressure drops may result in reduced cleaning.

To affirm that the injection equipment is functioning as designed, operators should also establish weekly checks of all chemical metering equipment. Kramer suggests that a procedure as simple as marking container levels on a weekly basis will alert the operator of unexpected changes in dosing. This will allow the operator to easily recognize and resolve any chemistry problems.

“For best washing results and to maintain cost control, carwash chemicals should be used at the levels suggested by the manufacturer,” Kramer says. “These products have been tested and proven to work to these levels.”

Common overuse issues

The phrase “too much of a good thing is wonderful” does not necessarily apply in the world of professional carwashing. Kramer explains that manufacturers design and label products for optimum results in the wash, and chemical overuse may cause numerous problems. Even though chemistry was applied, customers may be left with a less than clean, dry and shiny vehicle.

Here is one such example: Excessive foaming detergent may look great to the customer, but it may ultimately prove difficult to rinse away. This situation can leave white streaks or spots on vehicles and reduce the ability of the drying agent to shed water. Kramer notes that excessive dosing of a drying agent also retards drying rather than improving it. If vehicles are exiting a tunnel and they are not bone-dry, many operators tend to “turn up” the drying agent. This change may have the opposite effect desired and may produce wetter vehicle output.

Landa agrees, noting that streaks, spots and run-out trails will be visible if too much chemistry is applied. Overuse results in poor rinsing that leaves detergent residue and foam on vehicle surfaces. Further, if a wash is using reclaimed water, Landa warns that excess foaming of the reclaim system and/or excessive colored-water runout may make a customer think his or her vehicle has a radiator leak.

More best practices

When it comes to additional chemistry best practices, Landa turns his attention to carwash water. Water is one of the most important “product chemistries” of a carwash, and it is often overlooked and underappreciated. Questions an operator should consider involving chemistry and water include:

  • How hard or soft is the provided city water?
  • Is the quality consistent enough to deliver the clean and shiny vehicle customers desire?
  • Can a wash save money on sewer bills by installing a reclaim unit?

“Work with real water experts — reverse osmosis and water reclaim — to have them provide professional advice that will help you save money, make money and make your life easier,” Landa suggests.

Next, great chemistry maintenance practices are important, and they include minimizing open container evaporation by replacing bungs and caps. Landa states that employees and owners should label all secondary containers and follow all personal protection equipment (PPE) recommendations for each product to ensure safety. Finally, always work with a trusted chemical manufacturer or supplier to design a tailor-made product line that is optimized for each location.

Kramer reminds owners, managers and employees to always wear protective equipment when handling chemicals, even when moving a hose or dip tube from one container to another. Goggles or a face mask and rubber gloves are always suggested. Even a mild foaming detergent has the potential to irritate eyes, and other strong detergents may present even greater hazards.

Storage reminders

To avoid chemistry issues in the storeroom, Landa notes that chemical storage areas should include protection from extreme temperatures. Owners will want to insulate the container bottoms from cold cement slab contact. To stay organized, store like products in groups — e.g., low pH, high pH, solvents, etc. — and separate these groups per guidelines on the safety data sheets (SDSs) to avoid an adverse reaction if a spill of both groups occurs. Also, rotating the chemical stock is important to ensure proper storage.

“All chemicals should only be stored in their original containers with proper labeling in place,” Kramer concludes. “Avoid using secondary containers, pails, bottles or the like to store or transport small amounts of chemicals. SDSs should be readily available — not in a locked office — and kept current.”


Mark Martin is a freelance contributor.