In today’s highly competitive car wash market one of the more difficult decisions operators need to make is selecting the best chemicals for their wash. Since that decision requires the working together of many factors along with the chemicals, it is not an easy decision and one that must be made with great care. It seems like the chemical market lately has seen several shifts in ownership of name brands, the addition of several new players, the growth of private labeling, and even local blending done by distributors. All this adds up to complicating the decision operators have to make in their choice of chemicals. The bottom line is operators need to make their choice as empirical as possible — use what works best for them at a cost they are willing to pay. Those operators that are able to put together accurate usage along with achieving optimum results will fare the best in selecting their chemicals.


In a car wash, cleaning and drying are codependent. If a car is not clean, it is impossible to achieve optimal drying. In the eyes of the customer a clean car must also be a dry car. So, in effect, the drying process begins with the cleaning process, and the perception of a clean car starts with a dry car. They are inexorably linked. Whether your wash uses friction or is touch free, the first step you must take is to work on cleaning the car to make sure your equipment is functioning as it was designed to operate. Make sure the nozzles are not clogged or have lost their pressure or cleaning angle due to age. Make sure your friction media is clean and in good operating condition. Check your pumps, injectors, and mixing devices to ensure proper application of your chemicals. Remember, this is not a one-time activity but must be done on a regular basis. The last thing you want to do is find out your wash is not performing properly by being informed by unhappy customers.


If your equipment is in good working order the next critical step is the selection of your chemicals. Perhaps the easiest way to ensure that your chemicals work together is to buy all your chemicals from one source. If you are buying from a local distributor they should be able to ensure product compatibility. If you are buying from warehouse distributors that carry many brands and buy all the same brand you should also be reasonably safe that your chemicals are compatible. If you have any question about possible problems, you can always contact the manufacturer for guidance. Caution must be taken if you are mixing brands.

A quick word about using low-pH products: Most operators are aware of the dangers of using products containing the Fluoride ion. The most common names of product with the Fluoride ion are Hydrofluoric Acid (HF) or Ammonium Bifluoride (ABF). Today the Fluoride ion may be present in some wheel cleaners, presoaks, and wall/equipment cleaners. The potential dangers to employees and equipment are listed in many places so I won’t go into any great detail other than to advise that if any products you are using contain either of these ingredients, make sure you are taking the proper precautions to prevent any problems they might cause.


When considering compatibility you must ultimately look at the entire process, but first you should check on the three basic areas of your wash process: cleaning, extra service products, and drying. If you are a hands-on guy that does it all by yourself make sure you are doing what is right to enhance the cleaning/drying ability of your wash. Most equipment is designed to do a good job and in general most good chemical products available will clean and dry cars, but unless they are set up and applied properly you will not get the best possible results.


The first place to check for cleaning compatibility is in the back room. Telltale signs include chalking of the products on the side of tanks or clogging of lines, injectors, or nozzles in the wash. Just because you are not using a powder blend does not mean you are protected from this problem. Incompatible products can cause the chemicals to “fall out” in solution. Another issue can arise if youare heating your chemicals. Overheating the chemicals can cause the solution to separate, diminishing or eliminating product performance. If you are heating your chemicals over 125 degrees you may be diminishing their ability to clean or perform as they were designed.

After ensuring things are all right in the back room, it is time to look at the wash in action. Incompatibility can show up in several ways. The first is foaming or non-foaming. If you notice a drop in foaming when changing products or even dilution ratios, you may very well have a compatibility issue. The other area of concern would be how clean the vehicles are getting. Not all alkaline (high pH) products like each other as well as do all acidic (low pH) products. In addition, if there is a compatibility issue your alkalineand acidic products may not work well together either. Here is where your ability to manage your own chemicals is put to the test.

Extra Services Products

One of the more difficult tasks in maintaining compatibility is with your extra services products. The two most commonly used products for triple foams are foaming detergents/conditioners or foaming polishes. You should make sure you know which you are using. A word of caution here: Conditioners and true polishes do not play well together. If you decide to switch from one to another make sure you thoroughly clear the chemical lines and mixing devices to avoid what is commonly called chemical “snot.” Some manufacturers may call a detergent/conditioner a polish while most distinguish between the two. If you are unsure, one way to tell is that there is usually a significant price difference between the two. A foaming detergent/conditioner is basically a colored soap with a fragrance. While they may provide a good show and be cheaper than a polish, it may not rinse well, will not add any protection or shine to the vehicle, and may inhibit drying. A true polish will have a good show with a fragrance, add to the protection and shine, rinse well, and enhance drying ability. A true polish usually costs as much as 20 percent to 25 percent more than a foaming detergent/conditioner. A good alternative is a low-pH conditioner, which costs less than a polish and will enhance drying but not significantly add to the shine or protection of a vehicle.

In addition to the traditional sealants/clear-coat protectants, most chemical companies offer a super sealant. The new super sealants offer better shine and protection as well as improved drying because they contain water-soluble polymers that work in a similar fashion (to a lesser degree) as a paint-sealant application. Since the polymers contained in these types of products are water soluble, they all tend to be compatible with almost any wash setup.


As I previously stated, how well you are able to dry a vehicle depends a great deal on how clean it is. With most traditional drying agents there should be no real compatibility issue. However, keep in mind two important factors. Unlike most other products you use in your wash, traditional drying agents have a “window.” Using too much or too little can both cause poor results. Secondly, drying ability is greatly improved if the surface pH is either neutral or acidic. Ideally, if you are using both an acid and alkaline presoak the resulting surface pH should be close to neutral or slightly acidic. If you are using two applications of an alkaline pre-soak, it is essential that the vehicle be thoroughly rinsed before the protectant/sealant is applied to reduce the concentration of your surface alkalinity or, in the case of a friction wash, the use of a low pH or neutral shampoo is important.


Here are some quick tips to making sure your chemicals are compatible and are producing the best results possible at an acceptable cost.

• Reducing the temperature of your pre-soaks/cleaners may require additional chemical or dwell time to maintain cleaning.

• In a touch-free wash, reducing your dwell time to increase throughput will mean you will have to increase the strength of your cleaning solutions.

• Maintaining your water softener properly can save you chemical costs, while failure to do so will not only increase costs but also have a negative effect on cleaning ability.

• While changing nozzle sizes or reducing pressure may save water you may also need to adjust your chemicals to maintain wash performance.

• Balancing the chemicals used in the cleaning process is important not only for better cleaning but also improved drying ability.

• Selecting the right type of tri-foams and sealants may keep performance and costs in line without sacrificing quality.

• Changing the speed of the wash process either by increasing conveyor speed or the speed or amount of passes in an automatic without adjusting chemicals may not only affect the performance of the process but also increase the cost.


A final compatibility issue may occur if you are using reclaim water in your wash. While some chemicals may be compatible in the wash process they may not mix well together in your reclaim process. The most common problem revolves around the chemicals coagulating and clogging up the system. If you are using reclaim water, make sure you check with your reclaim equipment manufacturer on possible issues regarding the chemicals you are using.

Improving the quality of your wash by making sure your chemicals are working together while controlling chemical costs is an absolute necessity in today’s competitive car wash market. Knowing the chemical basics, how chemicals interact, and the importance of balancing your chemicals will help you make better decisions when choosing wash chemicals.

Ron Holub has been involved in the car wash industry for 35 years, working for several national car wash chemical companies, owning a car wash and detail supply company, and serving as a general manager for a national car wash chain. He currently does consulting and training seminars. He can be reached at