What is the contribution a chemical product makes to your detail business? Bottom line: profit. Chemical purchases make up a large percentage of a detailer’s monthly expenses and, if managed properly, a business can make more profit. Understand that the chemical business is quite competitive and, if you are alert, you can use this competitive market to your advantage, working one supplier against another to get your business.

You should maintain a reasonable inventory of chemicals so you can always have what you need and take advantage of volume discounts that suppliers offer.

One of the things you want to do in your marketing to customers is educate them on the quality of the chemicals you use. Certain well-known brand names can give you a competitive edge over the competition.

From a detail point of view, always using the right chemical for the job is important to effective cleaning. Always look at dilution ratios when purchasing chemicals and be certain the chemical works for you at that dilution rate. Some chemicals that offer a 20:1 dilution rate take more chemical and a longer time to do the job. As a result, you lose any benefit from a lower price.


For most applications, high-quality, concentrated cleaners will work. This is especially true when the chemical is used with hot water. Hot water, at 140°F and above, can double the effectiveness of cleaning chemicals. The heated water also softens greasy and oily soils, making them easier to clean. Cold water can have the opposite effect on grease and oils, and may cause them to harden.

One of the most important factors in selecting a line of chemical products is how well that product works for you. Will it clean quickly and effectively in a wide range of conditions? If the answer is “no,” then the product probably will not do well for you and your workers.

Safety is another important consideration. Many chemical formulations that clean quite well are also very harsh and can cause injuries to you and your workers and/or damage certain types of surfaces. In many instances, use of these harsh chemicals may violate safety regulations, especially if appropriate personal protective equipment is not used. If you want a more-gentle chemical, ask the salesperson to wash their hands in the chemical right out of the container to demonstrate the product’s gentleness. Never ask them do this with a harsh chemical.

Yes, price is an important selling point, but the value of the chemical can counter price. If your current product is concentrated and a salesperson wants to sell you one that calls for more dilution, you need to determine if you can use less of that product to do the job. If you can see that it takes one-half as much of your chemical to do the job for only 133 percent of the price of the other product, you will enjoy real savings.

Other, less immediately tangible savings can be gained as well. Look for an extended warranty, a special coil warranty (if the chemical has water softeners that reduce scale), a guaranteed trade-in, or discounts for regular purchases. Some distributors go so far as to provide free equipment to large-volume chemical users, such as metering devices, extractors, or chemical dispensing tanks.

You can reduce chemical costs by blending your own chemicals, either from drum packs or from raw components. However, mixing your own chemicals brings up some sticky liability problems, so check with local authorities and your insurance carrier.

Although many cleaning needs can be met with a single concentrated chemical product, in some cases special products may be required. Do not use degreasers to clean carpets, vinyl, leather, or even wheels. Make sure your supplier has carpet shampoos, leather cleaners, wheel cleaners, etc.


Acids are the most commonly used cleaning chemicals for wheels. It is recommended to not use acids since they present safety issues for you and your employees, and can cause damage to customer vehicles and to your equipment as well.

Muriatic acid will clean mortar off the painted surfaces of a vehicle. However, great care should be taken in using muriatic acid solutions on paint. The softer the surface, the weaker the solution should be. A strong solution may cause discoloration of the paint.

Acid solutions used for aluminum cleaning are called aluminum brighteners. These solutions remove stains from aluminum surfaces and restore the finish by actually attacking and removing a thin layer of the surface. Aluminum brighteners generally contain components other than acids, including surfactants and organic solvents to facilitate cleaning. When used to clean truck trailers, aluminum brighteners readily remove diesel smoke stains, oily and greasy soils, carbons, and resins.

Acid should not be applied to new aluminum wheels as damage or discoloration is likely to occur. A truck trailer should have been in use for at least six months before acid cleaning in order to protect against discoloration or damage. When applying acid, windows and mirrors should be protected or glass may be etched. Care should be taken that the aluminum brightener does not splash onto painted surfaces. Acid should be applied from top to bottom in sections. One section should be finished before starting the next. Aluminum brightener is usually available in concentrate. Generally, a solution of 15 percent of the concentrate is suitable for most cleanings, including trailers.


Most vehicle washing can be done and done well with a mild, concentrated wash detergent. In some cases, you may want a wash solution that has strippers if you are going to buff, polish, and wax the vehicle.

To remove asphalt requires the use of a solvent or blend of solvents. The solvent compound is applied using a sprayer and should be allowed a good amount of dwell time (five minutes or more) to soften the asphalt.

In some cases, the use of solvents may present safety or environmental problems. Check with the manufacturer and follow all precautions. Like most specialty cleaning chemicals, solvents should not be used unless they are absolutely necessary to do the job.

Caked-on grease or carbonaceous soils on an engine and engine compartment require special treatment. It may require an engine degreaser containing solvents to soften these soils for removal. It is important that any special cleaning compound for caked on soils be biodegradable to prevent disposal problems and for safety considerations.

This article is not intended to be a final answer on chemicals, but offers some random thoughts for you to consider.

Bud Abraham is a 40-plus-year veteran in the car wash and detailing industries as a manufacturer, distributor, operator, and consultant. He was a founding member of both the Professional Detailing Association and the current International Detailing Association and their first executive director. He conducts seminars on detailing at industry events and consults worldwide.