Now I know this won’t get the attention that a catchy title like “Confessions of a Car Wash Gigolo” might get, but maybe you will read on anyhow because, if you care about your car wash operation, you might want to take note — and because I really couldn’t say much about that alternative topic.

Car wash chemical experts who service car wash operators on a large scale know and see things in secret that operators may not know. You want to know the inside scoop? The secret is…with every car wash, with virtual certainty, there is something from a chemical perspective that could be improved at the wash. You say, “Well of course?” No one is perfect, no car wash operation is perfect. The “secret” is that we aren’t talking about minor improvements like “Oh, this low-pH presoak is 1 ml too high or low in usage”…we have stuff worthy of Tik Tok to reveal.

To make this more readable let’s steal from David Letterman and present the information as our top 10 car wash chemical reveals:

# 10 Home Brew Optimism

This one is a little rare, but it happens. An operator says: “I combine the Wheel Cleaner with the Presoak and I get unbelievable cleaning.” Folks, no offense, but chemists are smart people and they could have made that product if it was going to be better. Chances are you are affected by your own pride in your creativity. You are probably 1) creating a long-term unstable product, 2) costing yourself more, 3) wasting your time vs. using a product that performs better without playing chemist. The other thing that cracks us chemical guys up is when an operator says: “Wow the blue stuff works amazing and way better than the yellow,” and we know they are the same except for the dyes. Hand to face symbol. The power of placebo, brother!

This shows two products thrown together in hopes of making a “better chemical.” Note the incompatibility of the ingredients via separation and inability to dissolve.

#9 Chemical Incompatibility

You cannot just switch from one product to another without risking problems. Many products vary in pH and makeup and clash and literally turn to gel, or crystallize. This gel is often white, looks like playdough, and is a mess to cleanup from soap tanks — it coats the lines with an impossible residue. The solution, when you aren’t sure, is to thoroughly rinse lines and tanks with water before changing products.

#8 Wrong Product Put On

You were in a hurry; the supply company was behind on sending product; Joey, your attendant, can’t read — all reasons these things end up happening. It’s pretty awkward being the chemical guy and pointing out that some neutral pH product is “somehow” being used on a wheel cleaner or on a wax application.

# 7 Failure to Energize the Nozzles

This could be from worn nozzles, but most of the time its because someone selected the wrong injector or size of nozzles. If you aren’t energizing all the nozzles and the nozzles are new and the right ones, you need an injector that can supply enough total volume. Imagine a presoak arch with bottom nozzles spraying well but the top set are sputtering or insufficient. The problem may be that you need to step up to the next size injector (for Hydra-Flex-style setups). Caution: by increasing the volume you decrease chemical concentration at the same usage (see secret #4).

# 6 Product Gelled up in Container and not Pulling

You tell the customer and hear “well, that explains why that drum was lasting so long.” Sometimes this only shows up at the bottom of the drum, or on the screen on the foot valve. See an example of gelled product below on the tube which supplies product to the wash.

# 5 Phantom Chemical Draws

A failed solenoid, not using siphon breaks on a Hydra-Flex unit, bay arches leaking product because of bad check valve — these are all possible causes. We often see this in busy tunnels that use 30- or 55-gallon drums of chemical. The chemical takes a long time to be used up because the source is so large, but chemical is basically being pulled in even when not being triggered by a function. When using Hydra-Flex systems, a “siphon break” can help avoid situations where this happens.

#4 Dilution Is Not the Solution

Operators really don’t understand how much the volume of water being applied matters. The example I sometimes give to be rememberable is: Imagine you are swimming in a lake. Someone tells you, as you drink in some water and spray it with your mouth, that a kid across the pond just peed in the water. You say “no biggie.” Now consider all the same occurring in a bathtub. Different deal, right? Well, this example is constantly in play at your washes. Ten ml of a presoak into an injector that supplies 1 gpm to the car will result in a chemical that is three times stronger than if you use a 3-gpm injector. Seems simple, right? But this oversight happens all the time. If you are titrating a presoak or tire cleaner, and adjust tips for 10 drops of titration without flow testing, you might not realize that 10 ml costing 20 cents per car before the change now costs you 60 cents per car. For the same exact strength! This applies to self-service washes that offer medium pressure presoaks and tire cleaners.

#3 Applying pHs in the Wrong Order

We get it. Chemistry is hard and some of you have a nervous tick when we remind you of high school chemistry. But many operators don’t really know the difference between an acid and an alkali. They see the corrosive sticker on a pail of alkaline and see it eating skin and they think “that must be an acid.” But it’s actually the opposite. In automatics, the typical sequence is acid then alkaline in a classic two-step. If only one presoak pH is used, it has to be alkaline. Using acid alone is fruitless in touchless. Applying alkaline late in any wash process is not recommended ever because the alkaline will destroy the effectiveness of waxes or drying agents.

#2 Significant Over or Under Use

The cause of this could be varied but overuse usually occurs because either the wrong tip or setting was used, or because the wrong injector was selected. Another common cause of overuse is applying a product line tire-and-wheel cleaner along the entire side of the vehicle instead of wheels only. Underuse usually occurs because of a clogged tip.

#1 Running Out of Product

Yep, #1 is when there is no chemical being applied at all. We show up, and the pails are empty. Employees are running around, bringing in cars, and the chemical is just completely used up. I guess these employees were lucky to make it to work without running out of gas.

These top 10 do not make a comprehensive list, and there is no way to cover all of the items that we find wrong during virtually 100 percent of our visits involving a comprehensive evaluation of usage, strengths, and performance. Hopefully the list gives you a few ideas to watch out for tomorrow at your own location, but most important is that you realize that your site is probably not perfect. Now reflect and decide whether your own operation is probably a disaster and make it a focus. Bring in someone that really knows how to evaluate each and every product being used. A strong chemical technician who really knows his/her stuff is a true asset. Invest the time and spend the money because it matters!

Brent McCurdy is a car wash chemical professional with more than 25 years of car wash chemical and car wash operator experience. Brent is currently the president and owner of McClean Solutions LLC, a worldwide provider of car wash chemicals and solutions to the professional car wash industry, specializing in highly concentrated and cost-effective products. Brent can be reached at (267) 855-7627.