Expect the Unexpected - June 2002

Expect the Unexpected Chemicals
Don't Always Act the Way
You Think They Should

By Frederick Cizauskas

When Cleaning Is Your Profession, You Often Have to Consider Outside Influences.

This can't be good for business, thought Mike as he inched forward with the heavy traffic. Orange barrels blocked off the right lane of the street while the construction equipment that was widening the road and laying in new sewers made the rest of the road shake. As he pulled into his self-serve wash he could see a note taped to the door of his equipment room. Written in marker it said, "NO SOAP." Thinking back to the day before, he should have seen this coming. His detergent looked a bit weak yesterday as he watched his customers' spray their vehicles. In error, he decided to let it go till tomorrow. Now he had a problem.

He headed straight for the hydro-minder diluting his pressure wash soap and immediately saw it was not drawing chemical. He took the unit apart and found it severely clogged with a white mushy build up. He wished his chemical salesman were here to see this. "Strike one," he thought and made a mental note to call him. With everything running well again and cars in every bay, his attitude changed and he left without a worry.

His good mood ended abruptly during dinner that evening when his neighbor called to report that he had just left the car wash and there was "no soap". A quick trip to the wash revealed that once again the hydro-minder manifold was clogged with the same white mushy stuff. The water was getting through but the chemical inlet was blocked. This time, Mike pulled the drum of soap out of position and replaced it with a new unopened drum. "Strike two," he thought as he promised himself that he would never buy that brand of pressure wash again.

His chemical salesman joined him the next day in his backroom to look at the defective drum of pressure wash soap. Mike was very surprised to see that the "defective" drum had no white fallout in it. The solution appeared to be clear, clean, and fine. They turned their attention to the new drum he had put in place the day before. The foot valve and hose from the hydro-minder were both clean and yet the manifold was already beginning to clog again. A look at his tire cleaner and foam-brush hydro-minders revealed the start of the same white mushy build up. At that point they both realized "the problem was somehow with his water."

With a phone call to the city Mike learned that the new water lines being installed in front of his wash were actually a repair to a much older system. The county water department was careful to follow federal safety standards in regards to the old leaded joints that the original line still had in place. In an effort to minimize lead contamination that could occur during construction, the water department had been adding a chemical to the water which made calcium fall out of suspension, thereby coating the pipes and old joints. The calcium coating that protected the public against lead was what was driving Mike crazy at his car wash. Less then a week later, the project was completed and Mike's work life returned to normal.

This true story of Mike's Car Wash is a prime example of how outside factors affect the way your car wash performs on any given day. As a cleaning chemical manufacturer we have seen many examples of the "unexpected" happen in car washes nationwide. It is the single-minded goal of every car wash to produce clean cars. When we fail in our efforts, the reason can be both new to us and unexpected.

These famous words from the 1992 presidential election hold true in the car wash business also. Each one of us strives to get the most out of our cleaning chemicals without being stingy or wasteful. But how do you monitor if you are using them at the right rate? Successful operators know what dilution ratio each of their products should be run at and they know how to check it on a regular basis. Experienced operators know not to trust chemical feed pump settings or hydro-minder tips without a way of verifying the results. With feed pumps, you should take the time to install flow meters. As pumps wear with age they can lose some of their efficiency. If you rely only on your pump dial setting you truly do not know if your pumping volume changes. Installing a flow meter will enable you to see with your own eyes if you lose performance.

Remember that with hydro-minders or any venturi dilution device the "metering tip" you use is only a guide. The viscosity (how thick the chemical is) changes the dilution ratio of the tip. Put in a 64 to 1 metering tip and your "thin" tire cleaner comes out at 64 to 1. Try it on your "thick" body soap and it comes out at 85 to 1. To truly know your use rate, try putting some of your chemical in a large measuring cup or container and let the device pull from it. Chart how much chemical you use on each vehicle. Run 10 or 20 cars through to determine an average use for the item. Now, when a problem occurs with your cleaning you can go back and reliably determine if your system is putting enough product on. We all enjoy using the most economical products that we can find, but watch for those sudden increases in economy indicating that to your surprise, you're hardly putting anything on at all!
One last word on dilution devices: Although good operators double-check them periodically, always use a pump or venturi device over manual mixing of chemicals. Our best (and worst) stories of chemical misuse come from employees trying to manually dilute products. With high employee-turnover rates and the fast pace of the car wash business, the chance is too great for error.

Some like it cold. And both can present major dilemmas. Few factors in the car wash business have as great an impact on cleaning (and problems) as does temperature. The vast majority of cleaning chemicals work better when warm. That's warm, not hot! A good operating solution-temperature is between 60º F and 90º F. Does that sound like your backroom? If you own a self-serve wash in Dallas, TX watch your products for separation due to heat. Be careful how strong you blend your presoak and tire cleaner. Dark oxidized vehicles, extremely hot from the sun, can fry in a second if your dilution rate is too strong.

Conversely, during the cold winter a tunnel operator in North Dakota should be careful to put his drums of cleaning products up on a pallet or platform and not on the cement floor. A cement floor at an outside wall can literally suck the heat out of a drum. We have measured drums of detergent that were 44 degrees in the top 5 gallons and 31 degrees in the bottom 5 gallons. Pumps have a real hard time moving 31-degree soap. As an outside influence, the temperature made a good drum of soap appear bad. In an ideal world we would all wash cars with very warm, very soft water with as little chemical as possible. That brings up our next topic, hard water.

If hot and cold present problems for the car wash industry, hard or soft (water) can be just as important. As outside influences go, soft water is a gift while hard water is a curse. In simple terms, hard water contains lots of ingredients beyond just the normal H2O. Hard water can contain items such as calcium; magnesium, iron, sulfur, copper, and aluminum just to name a few. Do not look at these items as if you are getting something for nothing. Make no mistake; you will pay dearly getting rid of them before they attach themselves to your customers' cars, or they'll drive up your chemical costs. When we receive calls from customers regarding spots on cars, the first thing we have them do is check their water softener or reverse osmosis system. One frustrated operator told us repeatedly that he was on soft, city water and hard water could not be his problem. We later discovered that the city switched over to a municipal
well temporarily while it made improvements to its public water system. This poor owner had to purchase a water-softening system for what ended up being three months of use. It is what you don't know that will get you every time!

Chemical use and hard water are linked at the hip. If it's not bad enough that you have to spend your hard-earned money on a water purification system, now add to it the cost of much higher chemical consumption. Hard water works against your cleaning chemicals. Therefore, you need more of it to get the job done.It is not unusual to see 30 percent higher chemical usage in hard water areas. Much beyond 30 percent and you're probably better off just purifying all of your water - not just spot-free rinse.

Your customers may be blaming you for damage they have done to their own cars.

Against your better judgement, you decide to let your 17-year-old son drive your new SUV to the dance next Friday. Of course he accepts his responsibility well and decides to clean it top to bottom first. He runs up at the local Discount Mart and buys "Hot Stuff Wire Wheel Cleaner" and "Atomic Degreaser" to clean under the hood. First he uses the acid based wheel cleaner on your custom aluminum wheels. With the wheels still red hot from his gas-pedal-brake-pedal ride to the store he torches them good as the chemical dries on contact. Next he applies the degreaser to the area under the hood, careful not to overspray onto the paint. However, he totally ignores the overspray going up onto the windshield that is frying in the sun. After a good rinse down he realizes what he has done. Your wheels look like they are covered in snow and your windshield has white spots all over it that cannot be removed with a chisel. After discussing this tragedy with his buddies, where do you think he is headed next? To some unsuspecting local tunnel wash where he can blame someone else! Sound far-fetched? Guess again.

As a car wash owner, common sense will tell you that if you have been using the same cleaning chemical for a while, it shouldn't all of a sudden react in such a way. Serious "out of the blue" complaints with no other complaints from other customers on that day are suspect. Do your homework. Try to reenact the circumstance to see if you can duplicate the results. If you cannot make your car wash put more white spots all over the windshield, it simply means that you probably didn't have anything to do with them getting there in the first place.

The following are actual real life stories of unexpected outside influences that are just waiting to ruin your day.

Out of nowhere, my drying agent stopped working. It is the same brand I have been using for years and I am in the middle of a drum. Why?

Check the pH of the car surface as it hits the rinse arch. If you have increased the pH or alkalinity of the surface, your drying agent will tell you. Maybe your presoak arch got turned up, or your part-time manager added some high-alkaline cleaner to your soap to improve the cleaning. You're better off having a slightly acidic surface heading into your rinse. Look for acid-based shampoos or a mild acid rinse before the drying agent. Get the surface around 4 to 5 and your drying agent will love it.

Make sure your dilution rate is correct. It wouldn't be the first time that someone tried turning it up so that they wouldn't have to towel dry cars. Remember - with drying agent, too little is better than too much. When you adjust, cut back first and run plenty of cars to see the results.

All of the sudden my touchless automatic isn't cleaning as well. I can't seem to remove the film and "eyebrows."

Gee, do you think the 40-degree drop in temperature had anything to do with it? Cleaning chemicals work best when warm. Cold diminishes their effectiveness. Turn it up and carry on. When the warm weather returns, don't forget to turn it down again.

My pressure wash soap stops working and I have to clean out the foot valve and hydro-minder tips too often. My customers get mad and sometimes try to get even by damaging my wash.

Get rid of the open-top drum that you blend your powder chemicals in. You experience too much open air contamination and evaporation, which makes your pressure wash soap dry onto the sides and eventually fall back into the drum. Throw away the broomstick you stir with and spring for an electric mixer that keeps your solution in suspension and working well.

I have a friend in the car wash business who gets almost twice as many cars from a drum of soap as I do. We use the same stuff, so what gives?

In addition to his soap, he is running 40 lbs. of air through a set of foamers and you aren't. A little air goes a long way when it comes to making bubbles. Put in the compressor, and the savings you will get from the chemical will pay for it in no time.

I can't seem to keep my dilution rate steady with your product. It starts out looking good in the morning but by noon I have to put in a new metering tip to get a good show. How come?

Your water pressure is dropping below 20 lbs. when the factory down the street turns on its scrubbers. You should switch to a chemical feed pump that does not rely on water pressure to work. Call your local water department to see if they can increase your supply.

My local water board threatened to close me down if I don't reduce the pH of the water I send to the sewer. Do you have something I can add to my pit from time to time?

Instead of using all high-alkaline cleaners in your wash, try switching some of them over to acids. The acid cleaners will reduce the pH of your wastewater and serve a useful purpose at the same time. Change your wheel cleaner from a high alkaline to a safe phosphoric acid version. (No hydrofluoric acid please!) If that is not enough to do the trick, change your traditional presoak to an acid presoak. Consider using a mild acid shampoo. Purchase your own pH meter and take measurements throughout the day to prove you are now in compliance.

There is no limit to the outside influences that affect your wash every day. As a cleaning chemical manufacturer we hear them all, from the funny and quirky to the downright dangerous. It is important that car wash operators have a good working rapport with their suppliers so that information can be shared and hopefully be put to good use. It is very easy to "blame the chemical" when trouble
presents itself - and sometimes, it is certainly deserved. When operators and suppliers work together, we don't get stumped too often.

Frederick Cizauskas is national sales manager for Wayne, MI-based Cul-Mac Industries Inc.

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