On the Wash Front - November 2006

Wheels and Tires — Five Steps
to Getting Them Clean

By Anthony Analetto

Face it. It doesn’t matter whether your base wash package is $3 or $15 — every customer who enters a car wash expects to leave with a completely clean car. This means all vehicle surfaces, including wheels and tires.

In a perfect world, customers would appreciate the additional detergent, labor, and equipment costs associated with removing excessive brake dust. Unfortunately, most do not. Unlike mud, bird droppings, and bugs, fewer customers seem to accept that cleaning wheels warrants an extra charge. It’s a difficult situation. Customers complain that their car looked better before it was cleaned. At least then it was evenly dirty. Now it has brown and black marbled tires and wheels with tiger striping or entire sections missed.

It’s a common practice to offer a separate wheel service or include it in higher wash packages. There is a valid argument that this can increase your overall ticket. On slow days at a full-serve wash — with well-trained greeters alerting customers of the problem before they enter the wash — I entirely agree. Regrettably, as things get busy, it is rare that every customer with dirty wheels will receive a personal recommendation to select a higher-level service. No matter how politely you do it, explaining to a complaining customer that they should have selected an extra wheel-cleaning service after they have already washed is a disaster. Most customers will complain by not coming back. Unless you have a stellar greeter-training and management program, it is better to clean every wheel at a full-serve wash to at least 90 percent completely clean. At express-exterior and flex-serve sites where customers are greeted by a computerized attendant, it is — in my opinion — mandatory. Optional wheel-cleaning services or package upgrades that can be purchased should include extra detergent or high-pressure cleaning to get wheels and tires 100 percent clean.

So how do you get completely clean and shiny wheels every time without resorting to manual labor? One size doesn’t fit all. Chain speed and road-grime type will impact the equipment type and the quantity you need. Faster speeds require more equipment and more detergent. Best results are achieved with careful pre-soak application and a hybrid-wash process. Combining both friction and high-pressure wash equipment is vital for getting a consistent product for all wheel types. The good news is that there is plenty of effective equipment on the market to do the job without manual prep and labor. Below I’ll outline the five areas you will want to consider.


The most successful CTA (Chemical Tire Applicator) configuration includes two CTA applicators on each side of the vehicle spaced 40 inches apart. Ideally, each applicator sprays a vertical bar of detergent from the top of the highest part of the tire to just above the floor. The first applicator will completely cover the wheel and tire with detergent as it passes. At 40 inches, the wheel has turned 90 degrees regardless of conveyor speed. The second CTA will activate an application of detergent at a different angle to ensure complete coverage as it goes by. Conveyors running below 45 cars per hour can get away with one CTA. Using a dual configuration is essential to get clean wheels at faster chain speeds.

I also recommend foaming the detergent onto the wheel. Foamed detergent will cling to the surface, which increases dwell time. It also allows you to see complete wheel coverage. No amount of equipment will produce a clean tire and wheel without a complete and accurate application of detergent. Being able to visually confirm application is essential to delivering a consistent product.


This brush offers alternating bands of short dense bristle to scrub tires and long soft bristle to wash wheels.
In this brush, bristle is replaced entirely and a high-density closed-cell-foam material is used instead.

Never underestimate the importance of a black tire to your customer. It’s difficult to achieve this by washing at home, and it is a compelling reason to use a professional car wash. Getting clean black tires without a rotating tire brush is nearly impossible. They are safe, reliable workhorses that should be included in nearly every conveyorized car wash. The problem is that for years they have always featured a short aggressive bristle design that did a fantastic job on tires but completely avoided wheels. That’s all changed.

Two new tire brush designs have recently hit the market, extending the capability of a tire brush to safely reach into wheels while still cleaning tires. The first category uses alternating bands of short dense bristle to scrub tires and long soft bristle to wash wheels. These brushes offer excellent cleaning performance. They have become particularly popular with express-exterior operators to complement high-pressure components used to clean wheels. At these washes, it is common to only activate wheel blasters for top wash packages due to the low base price. This practice works well because customers who pay more see more wash action and get a cleaner car for their money. The problem is that although the profit margin for the base package does not permit spending the utility expense to activate the high-pressure pumps, customers still expect clean tires and wheels. Upgrading a standard tire brush to a new alternating bristle design dramatically improves wheel cleaning without adding overhead.

The second category is also a variation on the standard tire brush. These products replace bristle entirely and instead use a high-density closed-cellfoam material. Like bristle, these brushes also demand careful attention to proper use of soap for lubrication. Many operators are hesitant to introduce bristle into their wash where it may contact painted surfaces. Foam technology offers an effective alternative.


Many washes incorporate a short side brush that is 18 inches or less and angled to clean lower vehicle surfaces. Placement and material selection can increase the capability of these washers to clean both rocker panels and wheels. First examine placing these washers at the beginning of the tunnel, where the car is most heavily coated in detergent. They can frequently be mounted under mitters and on top of tire brushes so as not to require any additional tunnel length.

Once properly lubricated with soap, the wash material can be changed from cloth to either a closed-cell foam or bristle. Both materials can be run at a higher RPM to deliver the necessary strength to loosen stubborn brake dust. Careful control of lubricity is essential to avoid any potential for damage. Some of you may be wondering why I would even consider the use of bristle, a product that has been practically banned from car washing for years. Simply put, when it is used properly, it works very well. Will it become a popular option? The jury is still out — but bristle definitely seems to be rediscovering a role in professional car washing. Operators are realizing that cloth, foam, textured material — and yes, even bristle — each has its place in a tunnel. Mixing wash media and motion is critical to getting consistent cleaning results.


You can loosen it, dissolve it, and agitate it — but to consistently clean every wheel, you must flush the dirt away. Detergent and friction are necessary but high-pressure blasters are required to get a good result. Pivot, oscillate, track, and spin. Many options exist to blast pressurized water to the wheel — and everything relates to getting solid impact with the longest possible contact time. How much power you need is related to conveyor speed and how fast the wheel passes. As with friction-wash media, you also want to mix the types of impingement to guarantee removal of all road grime for a wider variation in rim types and sizes. That means using different nozzle types and motions sized for your conveyor speed.


You’re not finished yet — what about the shiny tire? If you’ve done the first four steps correctly, you should have a clean black tire. Putting on tire dressing without cleaning the tire is like putting on dirty clothes after a shower — it just doesn’t finish the job right. Several automated machines are available to apply dressing. The chemical and equipment technology varies, but the applicator will either wipe or spray dressing on as the vehicle passes. With high labor and chemical cost, it will almost always pay off to perform this service online.


The two most noticeable aspects of a clean car are clean wheels and shiny black tires. Failure to deliver on either aspect will turn customers away from your wash. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the technology exists to get excellent results — every time — without the need for manual prep and labor. Good luck and good washing!

Anthony Analetto has over 25 years experience in the car wash business and is the chief operations officer of SONNY’S Enterprises, Inc. 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 via e-mail at aanaletto@sonnysdirect.com.

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