Ceramic coatings have been used in industrial applications for decades. The term “ceramic” has been more or less borrowed because it describes materials that are characterized by their hardness, heat-resistance, and corrosion-resistance. Ceramic coatings were adopted for use on automotive paint in the mid-2000s. Since then, numerous companies have come out with “ceramic coatings” using various chemistries, and sometimes with lofty claims of durability.
All of the traditional protective “coatings” we are used to, like wax and paint sealants, have, as their core, organic resins, which are generally not heat and chemical resistant. We all know, for example, that a wax or sealant will start evaporating off the surface as soon as they are applied, and later are simply washed off after a number of car washes. There is nothing wrong with wax and sealant, by the way, just so they are being used and sold with the proper expectations regarding durability and protective strength.
A ceramic coating, on the other hand, is composed of inorganic materials that, when properly cured, become much harder than anything made up of organic resins. This gives ceramic coating its characteristic extreme heat, abrasion, and chemical resistance.
It is important to understand that newer products described as having “ceramic properties” or being “ceramic-infused” are not true curable ceramic coatings. A true curable ceramic coating must be allowed to set up or cure for several hours or days before it can provide full protection. Neither a simple “spray-on, wipe-off, and go!” product nor an application during an automatic wash is a true curable ceramic coating.
In fact, it is this distinction that limits the viability of offering a curable ceramic coating application at a car wash. A curable coating will require time and special conditions for proper application. However, there are newer, easier-to-apply, coatings available, and given certain precautions, a car wash can provide this highly profitable service.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what it will take to ramp-up adding ceramic to your service menu, let’s talk about how they work.
HOW DO CERAMIC COATINGS WORK?
In general, ceramic coatings are made up of several inorganic chemical components that, when combined, start out in a liquid form. Once the liquid is correctly spread onto the paint surface, the molecules rearrange themselves as a result of being exposed to air, and the liquid converts or transforms into a solid. As the ceramic hardens, what is created is a highly organized repeating three-dimensional pattern of molecules that are held together with super-strong chemical bonds. The result is a transparent crystalline or glass-like super-thin film or “shell” that is super-strong and super-hard. Super!
The fully-cured ceramic coating has two main properties: (1) it is impermeable to chemicals and other environmental contaminants, thus sealing the paint from the environment, and (2) it is super-hard, actually requiring sandpaper to remove. It takes a very long time for a properly applied ceramic coating to wear off.
Contrast this to traditional automotive wax and polymer paint sealant, which can act as a sacrificial layer against the elements but evaporate quickly and are mostly washed off the car after a few washes.
WHAT A CERAMIC COATING WILL AND WON’T DO
It is important for the car wash owner, sales staff, detail technicians, and the customers to completely understand what a ceramic coating will and will not do, so that it can be properly marketed and sold.
What a Ceramic Coating Will Do
It will be virtually impervious to insect acid, road salt, acid rain, and car wash chemicals. It will help prevent micro-scratches and paint oxidation. It will enhance gloss and depth appearance in the paint surface. It will have hydrophobic properties in that it repels water and will not mix with water.
A coated vehicle will be easier to clean because the coated surface is so smooth that contaminants simply have nothing to stick to. Thus, there is less grime build-up between washes, and what’s left is just barely holding onto a super-slippery surface. It consequently washes off with minimal chemicals and minimal agitation. Less agitation means less washing scratches!
Remember that all of these claims assume that the coating has been properly installed and is properly maintained.
What a Ceramic Coating Will Not Do
It is not scratch-proof. It will not make an oxidized, heavily contaminated, or heavily scratched paint surface look good. It will not eliminate vehicle paint care forever. It will not last forever. It will not completely prevent accumulation of environmental contamination, but there will be far less, and what does stick is much easier to remove.
HOW MANY COATS AND WHY?
To the naked eye, a clearcoat paint surface looks “solid” and impermeable. On a microscopic level, the surface is actually full of peaks, valleys, pock marks, and tiny holes. Automotive paint is permeable (porous) to microscopic contaminants. An example of this would be the unfortunate situation in which a detailing technician uses an inappropriate solvent like lacquer thinner to wipe something off the side of a car, and even though the chemical is wiped off immediately, the area may eventually discolor because the molecules of lacquer thinner penetrate the pores of the paint.
The fact that the paint surface is uneven is why it is typically recommended to apply two coats of whichever ceramic coating you are using. The first coat will fill in all the microscopic imperfections in the paint surface. The second coat goes over the top of that now-sealed surface, adding physical strength, visual depth, and enhanced gloss. The second coat usually goes on easier and faster.
After two coats, the benefits of added coats diminish rapidly. Because the coating surface is so smooth, third and fourth applications really have nothing to hold onto, and most of the coating applied during these additional coats is wiped off during the towel-leveling step in the process.
WHAT YOU NEED TO OFFER CERAMIC COATING
Although I am about to list the ideal conditions for applying a ceramic coating, please keep reading as there are ways around this.
Ideal conditions for applying a ceramic coating:
• Temperature and humidity-controlled closed bay
• Vehicle paint completely washed, clayed, polished, and prepped, with all paint imperfections remediated
• Plenty of time for technicians to work (no rush)
• Vehicle stays in the enclosed bay for 24-48 hours
The above will produce the best results for ceramic coating, but obviously, these are quite onerous for virtually all car wash situations — even for some high-end detail shops.
Let me tell you from experience that I have applied high-end coatings in direct sunlight, on windy and dusty days, highs in the 90s and lows in the 50s, with final results that are reasonably good. Moreover, there are ceramic coatings available now that go on quickly and come off quickly and easily, making it much easier for the trained technician to apply a ceramic coating.
At a minimum, a shady location will probably work. It’s best to avoid temperature and humidity extremes, but with practice and slight modifications to procedures, application success can be achieved in many conditions. You will need to work closely with your supplier on choosing a ceramic coating that can be applied in the conditions that you have.
Typically, coatings that are designed to be applied out-of-doors are not as durable because they have less active ingredient and more “transfer” ingredients that make it easier to apply without impact from ambient issues. Thus, you may have to adjust durability claims that are made to the customers.
Your detailing technicians will probably need at least a day’s worth of training on ceramic application, as well as cars to practice on — like their own vehicles. The main problem that occurs is what some call “high spots,” or blotchiness, or simply just strokes of ceramic that did not get properly wiped off during application. Once the ceramic has cured, these mistakes are permanent, requiring sanding and buffing to remove. The biggest benefit of a ceramic coating, then, is at the same time it’s biggest potential problem — they’re so darn hard!
Half the job of offering ceramic coating is selling it properly. Describing exactly what it is and what it can and can’t do is critical to managing customer expectations. Also understand that ceramics do not necessarily hide any imperfections that are already in the paint, so it is critical to make sure the customer is happy with the way the paint looks before the ceramic goes on. I usually walk around the car and point things out. Some customers don’t care about or can’t even see micro-scratches, for example. Others want the paint to look perfect.
This is where the optional step of polishing the paint comes in. If the customer wants imperfections removed, this must be done before applying the coating. Some operations include one or two steps of polishing (which could take one-to-three labor hours) in their ceramic package.
Others charge extra only when polishing is requested or needed.
Another consideration for ceramic is the aftercare. First, most ceramic coatings do not fully cure for 24-48 hours after application, even though the vehicle may be drive-ready in a couple of hours. So, it is best that the coated vehicle stay out of weather for that time. No water (washing or precipitation) should touch the coated surface for 48 hours, as this can lead to permanent water spots.
Moreover, it is a falsehood that once you have a coating, you don’t ever have to do anything to the paint. For optimal results and durability, coated vehicles need regular maintenance, typically an annual service, toensure that the coating is still valid and re-activated. The annual service includes a thorough wash, clay and “touch-up” of the coating on areas that receive more wear and tear. Many companies that offer ceramic coatings have products specifically designed for this regular maintenance package.
So, once you’ve coated the vehicle, you now have also created a built-in regular customer that will also pay for the maintenance service.
Another ceramic coating offering that is much easier to work with is glass treatment. Compared to working on the paint, it is quite simple to polish the glass and apply a hydrophobic ceramic coating designed just for glass, making wipers virtually unneeded.
This can be a tricky area. If you want to offer warranties with your ceramic coating, it is recommended that you work with a manufacturer that offers a third-party warranty program, so that you don’t have to be involved with claims issues. Offering a warranty can make the product more attractive and also increase the value.
But warranties are certainly not necessary to have a terrific ceramic program. Any legitimate ceramic manufacturer will have ample online documentation available to you and customers about the efficacy of the product. Also, more and more consumers are independently aware of the benefits of ceramic coatings.
Ceramic coating application can be a lucrative offering for a car wash. There are, however, a number of considerations to evaluate before jumping in. With patience, informed decision-making, technical training, and on-site testing, a car wash can legitimately consider adding this service.
Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.