Having the right chemistry is important for most things in life, whether figuratively or literally. For carwashes, chemistry is an essential component in the equation for optimum productivity.

To ensure high-quality results, owners and operators must keep in mind an array of important considerations, including the chemical type and amount needed, impacts from outside sources on performance as well as proper safety procedures and employee training.

Chemical selection

The type and amount of chemical will vary from region to region, location to location and, often, even process to process. No all-in-one chemical is available for every specific need a carwash may require, especially if multiple services are offered to customers.

“Our industry is not a one size fits all,” explains Craig Celentano, vice president of distributor development for Qual Chem. “The details of amounts, low or high pH and the best process will be determined by the desired results of the operator and with some help [from] a qualified [chemical company representative].”

Finding the right chemical may come down to trial and error. However, general best practices can be followed to help carwashes select the best chemical for the job at hand.

“[Carwash owners and] operators first need to determine what combination of performance variables are required to meet their own personal goals and then talk with their solutions supplier to understand what product options are available,” says Doug Marquis, assistant vice president for Lustra Professional Car Care Products, a division of Cleaning Systems Inc. (CSI).

He continues, “A properly trained and experienced chemical technician will be able to explain what chemical product options are available to meet the operators’ own criteria, [as well as] evaluate what equipment variables might come into play and affect the intended outcome.”

Regardless of the chemical type, one constant all carwash owners and operators should consider is quality.

To determine if a chemical is of high quality, Marquis suggests evaluating the following factors:

  • Technical expertise of the chemical formulation
  • Quality of the ingredients used in manufacturing
  • Consistency of the manufacturing process.

“Reputable chemical manufacturers should have highly experienced chemical formulators on staff. They should purchase materials from globally recognized raw chemical supply companies and have material testing systems in place,” states Marquis. “[Furthermore], they should ideally be [certified by the] ISO (International Standards Organization) to ensure they have manufacture control and measurement procedures that are stringently followed.”

Nevertheless, an effective product is just one of many components necessary to achieve excellent chemistry. Considering the impacts from outside influences, such as water quality, temperature and storage, is just as, if not more, important for accomplishing a high level of performance, which affects the quality of the chemical and, in turn, the overall quality of the carwash.

High-performance recipe

The type and quality of a chemical are important for any carwash; however, no matter the product, if the environment of the carwash isn’t up to par, the overall performance of the chemical won’t be either.

“The operator, with help from his [or her] chemical provider, should evaluate the overall cleaning and drying capabilities of the facility,” says Ryan Cook, director of distributor sales and development for Diamond Shine® Car Wash Solutions.

Cook suggests carwash owners and operators determine the cleaning “recipe” needed to produce a “clean, dry and shiny vehicle,” adding, “Chemicals in a carwash typically do not stand alone, and all applications must be considered when determining the right recipe.”

Ingredients will vary for every location when crafting a recipe for chemical success. However, Cook reports carwashes should consider the carwash equipment, the cleaning environment, water quality and local soil challenges.

In terms of local soil challenges, Tony Vertin, CEO of Ver-tech Labs, asserts that carwash owners and operators need to identify the types of soil specific to their locations. He advises that carwash owners and operators should keep in mind whether they are cleaning the typical transportation soil comprised of oil, grease and dirt, or if they are in an area in which clay, silts and fine sands are predominant.

He continues that seasons also play a role in soil type. “During winter months, there may be salt from roadways that needs to be neutralized and cleaned off a car, and in spring months, bugs and organic matter may [be] predominant,” notes Vertin, adding that many manufacturers develop products for specific soils, seasons and other similar conditions.

“Work closely with your chemical sales representative to identify what products are best suited for the carwash location and are titrated properly to ensure [the right amount of chemical] is being used for optimum cleaning performance,” suggests Vertin. “Titration of chemicals is one of the best ways to manage cleaning performance and monitor cleaning costs.”

Another important way to manage performance, as mentioned in Cooks’ recommended cleaning recipe, is water quality.

The role of water

Poor water quality can lead to more chemicals needed during the wash process as well as higher costs, says Vertin.

“Good water cannot only improve performance but can [also] influence the cost per car [with regards to] products,” states Celentano. “Cost and performance can be affected by as much as 25 percent.”

So, how can you ensure high-quality water? The first step, according to a recent article featured in Professional Carwashing & Detailing’s 2015 Special Water Issue, is to test the water. Knowing what is in your water sets the foundation to achieve the quality you need.

After a test is preformed, obtaining balance is critical, informs Cook. “With water quality, finding the right balance is key [for] consistently good results,” he shares. “Finding a specialist to help refine a wash’s water portfolio is one of the best investments an operator can make.”

This “balance” may fluctuate depending on the unique needs of a carwash. Cook reports some chemicals may work better with warm, soft water, while others might adequately perform in cold, hard water.

Although water quality plays an essential role regarding chemical performance, experts interviewed for this article also assert time and temperature (and in correlation, storage) are also fundamental aspects.

Temperature and storage conditions

Chemicals can come with expiration dates, so carwashes must consider the “best by” dates, if relevant, when storing products to limit waste and maintain a high level of performance.

Likewise, extreme temperatures can diminish the effectiveness of a product. “Storage of chemicals in extreme weather conditions can damage the product,” says Vertin. “While chemicals are manufactured to tolerate a wide range of temperatures, extreme heat or cold can result in separation and/or chemical degradation.”

Also, if left to the outdoor elements, chemicals can freeze during winter, states Marquis, while direct sunlight can negatively affect certain materials used in several carwash products.

To help reduce or eliminate poor performance caused by inadequate storage, store chemicals indoors at a consistent and appropriate temperature. And, adds Celentano, make sure the drums and containers are kept off cold floors.

Once proper storage measures are in place, owners and operators must make sure all employees properly handle the chemicals before, during and after application.

Safety fundamentals

For safe chemical handling, Celentano offers the following tips:

  • Have a strong Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) program in place.
  • Implement employee training programs.
  • Limit the number of personnel who handle the chemicals.
  • Have all the proper safety gear and materials available in the area.
  • Above all, maintain training, supervision and enforcement of safety requirements for all workers.

“Every carwash employee should be trained in the proper handling of chemicals,” asserts Cook. “There are now excellent online training programs available that are cost-effective and provide that important service. It is also up to management to follow through on those best safety practices.”

Moreover, adds Cook, every chemical used should have a phone number on the container label for 24/7 help in case of an emergency.

However, safety goes beyond simply making sure chemicals are handled properly. New innovations at the product stage are leading to safer products overall. “Credible chemical manufacturers today will have environmental and user-friendly protocol in place to ensure the products they manufacture are safe for everything long term,” says Marquis. “I recommend working with a company that has a ‘green system’ or is associated with a recognized green organization. Responsible companies will operate with transparency on this issue and provide lists of potentially dangerous ingredients and whether they are or aren’t included in the products they sell.”

Furthermore, Vertin reports some products are formulated for cleaning performance in carwashes utilizing reclaim systems, adding that they are packaged in 15 gallons, which increases the working area in the chemical rooms, makes chemical handling easier for employees and requires less packaging. “A key safety feature is the use of a closed-loop system with an insert extending to the bottom of each 15 gallon drum,” says Vertin. “Switching products out requires the employee to only switch the cap to a fresh drum.”

Chemistry innovations

Safety enhancements are not the only chemical advancements circulating through the industry. More carwashes are incorporating aromatic fragrances and colors, which enhance the wash experience for their customers. Incorporating these “attractions” can help grow and retain a strong customer base.

“Chemistries, colors [and] scents [are all] being used to upsell consumers by providing the extra incentive and ‘wow’ factors that … go above and beyond the typical ‘clean, dry, shiny’ mantra that the industry has [known] for years,” says Marquis. “Being able to use chemistry to separate a site’s wow factor from the competitor up the street can often [be] the difference in the consumers’ purchase decisions. You always have to hit the key components: a clean, dry [and] shiny car for a comparatively competitive price; but after that, the frills can make the difference.”

Vertin adds that a customer’s experience beyond a visually clean car can influence his or her decision to purchase extra services as well as the overall perceived carwash value. When selecting a fragrance, Vertin advises owners and operators to be subtle.

“Carwashes should focus on pleasant, subtle fragrances. Enough fragrance should be in the products to drift out of the bay/tunnel so others in line, or nearby, will smell a fresh carwash,” he continues. “Carwashes with overpowering scents could be perceived as cheap.”

What’s next?

In addition to increasing the overall customer experience by incorporating sensual attractions, such as fragrances and colors, Vertin believes the future of chemicals will bring continued progress in the ability to safely clean vehicles while relying on lower amounts of friction to accomplish a task.

Marquis concurs, adding that the future also holds more development in chemical technology and efficiency as well as advancements in pumping, metering and tracking systems designed specifically for the carwash industry.

After all, concludes Celentano, “Chemical [manufacturers] share a common mindset with operators: to produce products that create clean, dry and shiny cars; because that’s what our customers expect.”