In the car wash industry today there are several different new types of chemical applications and types of products in addition to traditional ones. It is important for operators to understand how and why they may be applied in their car wash. Let’s explore numerous types of applicators and explain some of the science that will hopefully help you to understand the different types of bubbles and products used to get good clean cars.


Lubricating foam.

We begin by looking at what makes foam. There are four important components that need to be available.


Surfactants are one of the raw materials used to make a finished product and their main job is to foam. Some surfactants are best in an alkaline (base) environment and some surfactants are better in low-pH products (acids). There are even some, used to foam waxes and protectants, that are neither alkaline nor acidic.


Water is essential to dilute the products and carry the surfactants and other cleaning components. Different products dilute differently, based on how much water is used in the product production.


Think about blowing bubbles through a round bubble maker as a kid. Air is what helps propel the mixture through the fourth component during the application process.


Agitation can be accomplished with many different materials but most times plastic scrubbies are used in a foam chamber. There are some newer-technology foamers on the market that use different types of agitation. I can remember making foam using plastic balls or even a small screen. The point is that anything that increases the surface area of the product mix being pushed by air will create foam.


Tri-foam application puts on a show.

In order to make good stable foam the mix must be able to grow without restriction. Any type of restriction will cause the bubble within the foam to be smaller. This is important to understand when trying to get a specific type of foam or bubble. Some functions in the car wash need certain types of foam.


For example, presoak is best applied to the vehicle surface using a tight and small bubble. This smaller bubble can more easily get cleaning power into the smaller areas of the surface. You can imagine if the bubble were large and dryer, the overall chemical coverage would be reduced. Another factor to consider is the air to liquid ratio. The more air used, the dryer the foam will be. Too much air when making smaller bubbles usually shows up as spitting and uneven coverage. To obtain this smaller bubble for presoaks, the product is usually forced out of a K-foam nozzle or another orifice type nozzle. The K-foam nozzle is very popular because it throws the product out of the manifold at an angle that makes it easy to cover the fronts and backs of cars as they move past the arch. This smaller and wetter bubble is perfect for getting a nice “painted on” product that covers the entire surface.


When applying a product for lubrication after the presoak, typically a larger and dryer bubble is used. These products are built with a high amount of surfactant and will foam very well. They are usually dispensed through a foamer without a nozzle to restrict flow. This less restricted flow is accomplished by pushing the product out through a small hole drilled into a plastic manifold. These manifolds can be in many different configurations depending on who manufactured them. Some are short and some are long and reach from the floor area up past the top of the vehicle. The shorter foamers are usually more efficient, that is, they will use less product mix to make similar foam. This larger bubble is not as important to coverage but more about lubrication for the friction in the wash. Don’t get me wrong, they play a part in cleaning, but friction, if present, will do the hard cleaning. Most of the time these foaming lubricators are in the low-pH family and tend to rinse faster and more completely. Free-rinsing products are becoming more important in many car washes because water is always being minimized for various reasons. Perhaps water and sewer costs are very expensive or perhaps the city will only let you have a certain quantity of water or discharge.

Tray Foamers

In the last few years we have seen several new types of foamers that are being installed in virtually every new car wash being built, while many older washes are retrofitting these foamers into their facilities as well. These “tray” type foamers are built basically without any restriction on the foam after the foam chamber. This allows the foam to grow and produce a very large bubble. Some of these tray foamers introduce air under the product mix out in the car wash through an air manifold instead of air injection. A huge amount of foam can be produced this way, which really overwhelms and engulfs the vehicle as it passes by. This is an awesome and very successful method for adding more value to a particular wash package. Many retail customers react with, “Wow, that was incredible!” These products are usually high in dye and fragrance to assist in the value-adding proposition all car wash operators are looking for. This group of products are applied early in the wash process, usually right after the presoak. After all, they need to be rinsed and you can imagine that rinsing could be difficult with all those great big revenue-enhancing bubbles.

Waxes and Protectants

Okay, so we have talked about cleaning bubbles and bubbles for show and lubrication. What about wax, protectants, drying agents and sealers? This group of products typically uses a smaller, tighter bubble similar to presoaks. The smaller bubble is preferred in this process because we are looking for the same great coverage and activity on the vehicle surface. It is important to have complete coverage so the protection on the surface is complete and even. Drying agents are the one exception in this type of products. They typically don’t have the foaming properties as part of the product. Drying agents are part of the basic production of dry cars and normally are not used to enhance (other than beading of water) the value of the wash package. The foaming ability of these extra service products varies depending on the manufacturer.


It really doesn’t matter what type of wash we are talking about, whether self-service, in-bay automatic, or conveyor, these products and the various ways of making foam are present and really don’t change all that much. When trying to make foam at a car wash, it is important to understand what you are trying to accomplish with the product and what type and size of bubble you may need to produce for that function.

I have covered a lot of information and hopefully have answered many questions about chemical applications. There is an old adage in our industry that every car wash and situation is different, and as there are so many ways to accomplish car wash product application it makes it very difficult to completely explain all possibilities. Hopefully this information adds to understanding the basics enough so operators can make good decisions regarding product use and proper application.


Carey Petersen is a car wash veteran and the southeast regional manager at Blendco Systems. He can be reached at