Auto Laundry News - November 2011

Clean Wheels — Five Misconceptions About Achieving it Consistently

By Anthony Analetto

Turning out a consistently clean, sparkling wheel is often the differentiating factor between competing car washes in a market. It’s also a difficult task for a professional car washer and often the most misunderstood. Like many of the articles I write, this one was prompted by a recent conversation I had with a friend in the industry. For years, using strong acid-based wheel cleaners, this operator would periodically replace his tire brush, always in stainless steel to hold up to the acid. Seeing an order for an aluminum tire-brush machine, I asked him if he had placed his order correctly to which he replied: “I did — I’m finally off the crack.” The passion he had in explaining the process he went through to eliminate all labor, switch to easier-to-handle non-acid wheel cleaners, and improve the quality and consistency of his wheels made me realize there are many operators that could benefit by learning about his experience.


His customers are happier, his employees are happier, and he’s happier — and it all starts by dismissing the five misconceptions associated with getting a consistently clean wheel.

1. You Need to Wash Wheels by Hand
Labor in any part of the wash process, especially wheels, results in inconsistent quality, slower throughput, and unpredictable customer wait times. Consider what occurs at many washes today. The car enters the wash and wheels are sprayed with a pressure gun, cooling the wheel, which reduces the reactivity of the detergent to break the bond of brake dust to the wheel. Next, an aggressive acid-based wheel cleaner, corrosive to wash equipment, is applied to the wet wheel. Whatever cleaner doesn’t drip off the already wet wheel is instantly diluted before being immediately hit with a pressure gun again. The wheel cleaner, unless highly concentrated, does not have sufficient dwell time or physical agitation to do its job effectively. And the problem gets worse. As the day progresses, employees get more tired. As volume peaks, there is less time to spray each wheel. When you need to speed up the conveyor, you need to add more labor, and wash consistency and quality drop further. But that’s just the beginning of the problem. Hoses, cars, people, spinning brushes, and strong detergents are all shuffling around in a congested area. Management and training requirements to ensure safe detergent handling and operating procedures are adhered to skyrocket. And when things aren’t working, you need to throw more at it. More labor. More and stronger wheel cleaners. More problems — and more reasons to keep reading this article to learn how to break the cycle.

2. You Can Get a Clean Wheel Without a Tire Locator Switch
A tire locator what? This function, included standard with most modern controllers, tells the computer exactly where a tire is located in the wash process. Using a combination of an entrance photo eye and a tire locator switch, information is fed back to the computer to activate wheel-cleaning components accurately and for an extended duration. Getting clean wheels requires complete online application of an alkaline-based detergent, sufficient detergent dwell time with physical agitation, and high-pressure wheel cleaning for a five-foot travelling distance. The foundation of getting clean wheels every time online doesn’t start with some magical detergent or equipment component, it starts with having a computer setup to locate and track wheels throughout the wash process. I’ve been to many locations where people are still using treadles for chemical application running alongside an underutilized computer capable of tracking wheels. Without the ability to automatically adjust detergent application in relation to conveyor speed, or set high pressure washers to pivot and track wheels for prolonged contact, getting clean wheels online without labor is impossible. Once in place, a whole new world of possibilities for accurate and consistent wheel cleaning opens up.

3. You Can’t Wash Wheels Without Aggressive Acid-Based Wheel Cleaners
No doubt acid-based wheel cleaners are effective. However, burdensome training and management requirements to ensure safe handling, coupled with the fact that they can reduce the lifespan of car wash equipment have caused many operators to switch to alkaline-based alternatives. When used correctly, you consistently get a cleaner wheel, eliminate labor, and prolong equipment life, all by switching to a detergent that’s easier to handle and more user-friendly. It all starts with detergent application to maximize mechanical and chemical wash synergy.

Two feet after your photo eyes, you want to have a CTA applying a non-acid foamed wheel and tire cleaner. A single CTA is sufficient for conveyor speeds up to 80 cars per hour, but if you intend on exceeding that speed, you will need to have a second CTA applying the same non-acid foamed detergent 40 inches after the first, allowing the wheel to turn upside down for full detergent application. Avoid the mistake of “flooding” the car with water, which does little other than dilute the effectiveness of your chemistry. Next you will apply an alkaline presoak followed by a low-PH foamed presoak before the vehicle enters your friction-wash equipment area. Soap and mechanical wash equipment continue to agitate undiluted detergent for 8 to 10 feet or more, delivering the necessary dwell time before the high-pressure wash equipment strips road grime from the wheels.

4. You Don’t Need a Tire and Wheel Brush
Today’s tire brushes aren’t just for tires. With most designs having a brush diameter of 12 or more inches, they are designed to reach into wheels to agitate detergent and loosen road soil from wheels. Failure to agitate detergent on wheels with a sufficient dwell time spanning at least 96 inches, the average length of a tire brush, will not deliver a clean wheel. Operators concerned with more aggressive designs of polypropylene or nylon brushes can consider foam brushes available from several manufacturers — just make sure you have a tire and wheel brush in your wash.

5. You Don’t Need a High-Pressure Wheel Blaster
It is impossible to clean wheels without high pressure — not a few inconsistent seconds from an attendant with a prep-gun, but concentrated high-pressure cleaning that maintains contact with each wheel for five feet of travel through the tunnel. Provided you’ve applied sufficient undiluted foamed wheel cleaner and agitated for 96 inches of travel using a tire brush with a diameter of at least 12 inches, then 5 feet of cleaning from either a pivoting or tracking high-pressure wheel cleaner is enough distance to allow the wheel to turn completely upside down to reach all angles.


Having switched to alkaline-based wheel cleaners and automated wheel cleaning so long ago, I sometimes forget the daily struggle many operators continue to have managing labor and safe-detergent-handling procedures. There’s no free lunch. Getting a clean wheel without labor is a challenge that will require experimentation with non-acid detergents and CTAs that work best with your water and climate conditions. You may have to invest in or upgrade your tire brush to a newer design capable of reaching into wheels. And you’ll need tracking or pivoting wheel blasters capable of maintaining contact with each wheel for 5 feet of travel at your fastest conveyor speed along with a tunnel controller with a tire locator switch to run them. The payoff however is huge. Labor savings and longer equipment lifespan can be easily calculated. But having happier customers and employees with fewer headaches involved with safely managing acid-based wheel cleaners can be truly priceless.

Good luck and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 28 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at

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