On The Wash Front

Fallout Damage - Airborne Pollutants Affect Paint Finishes

By Sharie Sipowicz


With today’s clear-coat paint finishes, fallout damage has become the number one challenge for detailers. No matter how creative the automotive paint manufacturers have become in developing paint finishes that are more durable, maintain their shine and luster longer, and require less maintenance, none of them has developed a paint finish that is resistant to the harmful effects of airborne pollutants.
While this is good news for detailers, it is bad news for the motorist. For the detail industry, it means on-going business. But for the motorist, it means a big expense to have the damage repaired at a detail shop or worse, having the vehicle repainted at a body shop.



There are three categories of fallout:

Acid Rain
Acid rain occurs when chemically laden clouds have their pollutants washed to earth by rain or snow.

Airborne Overspray
This includes paint, tree sap, concrete sealers, pesticides, and effluents from manufacturing plants.

Metallic Fallout
Among the culprits are metallic flakes from rail cars as they roll over the steel rails, particles from foundries, under-burned ash from industrial furnaces, and even metal flakes from internal combustion engines. This type of fallout is the most difficult to remove because it attaches to the paint when the particles begin to rust.
When the metal flakes are exposed to any kind of moisture such as rain, dew, etc., the process of rusting begins and this penetrates the painted surface allowing the metal flakes to attach to the surface.


Before you can correct the fallout, you must follow a process. In this case:

• Determine what is it you are trying to remove.

• Know what type of paint finish you are working with.

• Choose the proper chemical and/or tools for removal.

• Establish the procedures for removal and repair.

The best way to discover what type of finish the vehicle has is to use a battery-operated, 30X power, illuminated paint magnifier. You can purchase one for about $20. 
The magnifier will usually allow you to see clearly what is on the paint surface.
In addition, this magnifier will allow you to see any other paint-finish problems such as scratches, checking, and pitting.


Acid rain will damage the paint in one of two ways: either chemicals in the water droplets themselves burn the paint, or the droplets evaporate in the hot sun, burning the chemicals right into the paint. In this case, the sun’s rays make a water droplet a powerful magnifying glass, which is why even plain water will damage a paint finish.
Generally, you cannot just wash or wipe away this type of damage. In order to remove acid rain, you first need to wash the surface with an alkaline cleaner to neutralize the acid in the pollutants. If you do not neutralize the acid, it will remain on the surface causing problems even after the correction has been made. After the acid has been neutralized, correction can be done with a compound and buffer.

Should this not work, try a heavier compound. If this does not work, the finish will probably have to be wet sanded.

While I do not advocate detailers doing wet sanding, if you do decide to do it, follow these suggestions:

• Soak 1,500 grit sand paper in water for at least 30 minutes.

• Always use a sanding block.

• Sand in two different directions: north/south and east/west to remove the damage evenly.

• When finished, buff with a compound followed by a polish.


Most airborne overspray can be removed from the finish without sanding or even buffing. However, without the paint magnifier, mentioned earlier, it is difficult to tell if the overspray is on the surface or has etched into the paint.
It is unlikely that these types of contaminants will eat into the finish, but exposure to sun over time will make them hard as a rock and very hard to remove. That is why you must educate your customers to come to you right away if any type of fallout has affected their car.

To remove airborne contaminants follow these simple steps:

• Wash the vehicle with an alkaline product that will not streak the paint.

• Next, dissolve the fallout. Many times, if you know what it is, a chemical supplier can tell you what will work to dissolve that type of fallout. For example, shampoo will not dissolve asphalt, but a solvent-based remover will.

• In the past, if the fallout could not be identified, detailers would try everything in the shop until they found something that would take it off. Now there are clay and clay towels. These are revolutionary products. With their special adhesive properties they lift most overspray off of a painted finish like a piece of tape lifts lint off of clothes. All you have to do is spray the surface with water or soapy water for lubrication and take a piece of clay or a clay towel, and rub it over a small section of the affected area. Use the paint magnifier to see how much you have taken off. Continue until all contamination is removed.
Should this not work, you can try solvents or abrasives and, finally, wet sanding. These are last-resort solutions, however.


The worst fallout is metallic fall-out because it causes the most damage. Again, before proceeding on a repair, use the magnifier to determine if you are dealing with metal. Rubbing your hand over the surface is not enough, as sun-dried overspray can feel like metallic flakes too.
Again, wiping or washing with cleaners will not remove metallic fallout. If it has been on the surface for a long period, you will see a small brown circle around the area. This is rust, and may be removed by wiping with solvent. However, the metal flakes remain in the paint.
To eliminate the metal, it is recommended you use a fallout-remover product to break the bond between the metal and the rust. Since most of these products contain oxalic acid, many detailers simply purchase the powder themselves, dilute it and cover the vehicle in towels soaked with the acid mix (15 to 30 minutes) to dissolve the rust and release the metal.
The surface is then washed with an alkaline shampoo to neutralize the oxalic acid. Sometimes this procedure has to be repeated more than once.
Always check the surface with the magnifier to see the success you are having with any step. After successful removal, you may find a small crater left in the paint film. This can be sanded with the finest grit paper and then polished.


To avoid fallout, do not take your vehicle out of the garage, or take a car cover with you everywhere you go. You might even wash your car every day.
Some companies claim their wax or sealant will prevent fallout damage. These claims might be true for overspray, but no wax or sealant has been formulated that is impervious to a raindrop full of caustic chemicals. Metallic fallout will attach itself to the finish, waxed or not. Sometimes the metal is not wet when it lands on the paint and it burns the finish on contact. This is seen in pockmarked glass.
When dealing with fallout, remember to identify the problem first and then choose the least aggressive removal method.
With fallout removal, do not be afraid to charge for your time. Removal is a science that takes skill and time. The motorist’s alternative is expensive repainting.


Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at sharie@detailplus.com.


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