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Tire & Wheel Detailing

by David W. Bynon
Copyrightę, 1999-2007, Autopia Car Care -- All Rights Reserved

History didn't record his name. He may have been a warrior designing a battle chariot. Perhaps he was a stone mason struggling to complete a building, or a mourner providing a smoother ride for a departed loved one. But on that special day, sometime in the fourth millennium BC, in the delta between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, this unknown Sumerian changed the history of the world and all mankind. He invented the wheel.

Wheel Care Challenge
Your car's wheels can dramatically enhance the appearance and performance of your automobile. Modern wheels can also present a substantial cleaning challenge as heated dust particles from brake pads bombard the wheel and bake into the finish. If left on the wheel, a phenomenon known as galvanic corrosion sets in, which will eventually destroy the wheel's appearance.

Most modern wheels, in particular aluminum wheels (or "Mags" as they were once called), are painted with the same paint and clear-coat used on the body of your car. While durable, the wheel’s clear-coat finish is subject to damage from acid compounds (including acid rain, hydrocarbons, and acidic cleaners). Likewise, polished and anodized aluminum wheels (not protected by a clear-coat) will react to both alkaline and acidic
conditions.

Unfortunately, typical car wash soaps and household cleaners are not strong enough to break the bond between brake dust, road tar, road grime and the wheel. To properly clean
wheels, the car care industry has developed two groups of wheel cleaners:


  1. Acid-based Cleaners -- These are widely used by detailers, car dealers and car washes who need to clean wheels in the shortest possible time or with the least amount of effort. Acid-based cleaners are typically 2% solutions of oxalic, phosphoric, and hydrochloric acid. Eagle One All Finish Wheel Cleaner is an example of an acid-based cleaner. While acid-based cleaners pack the greatest cleaning punch they can easily etch the surface of your wheel if allowed to dry. Care must be taken not to use acid cleaners on wheels with pitted or chipped surfaces. The
    acid will migrate into any fissures and accentuate flaking and peeling of surface coatings.

  2. Acid-free Cleaners -- These are mild solutions of alkaline solvent, usually ethylene glycol, with a wetting agent. These solutions creep under the dirt and brake dust, loosening and lifting surface grime. Non-acidic cleaners usually require some surface agitation (brush or sponge) but are safer to use and will not etch the wheel's finish. P21S is the best known 100% acid-free wheel cleaner. Acid-free wheel cleaners range in strength from mild (P21S), to moderate (P21S Gel), to professional strength (Eimann Fabrik Hi-Intensity).

Tire Care Challenge
Your tires have several formidable enemies: water, formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, ultraviolet light, and ozone. Water washes away the natural oils in rubber that keep it elastic. Formaldehyde and petroleum distillates act as a solvent, eating rubber on
contact. When ozone, an odorless gas which is part of the air we breathe, is combined with ultraviolet (UV) light, a reaction occurs that attacks the tire and its polymers (the agents that bind the rubber).

To protect against ozone and UV damage, a stabilizer molecule called a competitive absorber is blended with the tire polymer. Competitive absorbers work by capturing and
absorbing UV radiation and converting it to heat which is dissipated harmlessly. All tire manufacturers use the same competitive absorber, called carbon black. This is why
all tires are black.

These absorbers are sacrificial; they expend themselves in performing their function of converting UV light to heat. However, as carbon black loses its ability to perform, it turns gray. This is one reason why black tires discolor as they age.

To protect from further ozone damage, tire manufacturers add a wax compound to theirformulas. Tires flex when they are in motion, causing the wax molecules to migrate to the surface. This forms as a protective barrier between the air (ozone and oxygen), water and the tire polymer. In the tire trade this is called blooming. When tires are parked for extended periods, blooming does not occur and ozone quickly attacks the tire polymer. With UV light and ozone working in concert, the degradation is accelerated, resulting in drying, discoloration and cracking.

To combat the negative effects of water, solvents and UV light on tires, the car care industry has created tire dressings. These dressings condition the tire, restoring essential moisture. Tire dressings fall into two groups

  1. Liquid Silicone Dressings – These penetrating-type silicones form a flexible protective shield on rubber. Liquid silicone seals small openings with a film to prevent penetration of moisture and dirt. Most silicone dressings leave a never-dry gloss film. There are many myths regarding silicone, specifically the negative long-term effects of silicone on rubber and vinyl. The fact is, silicone is an inert material. The benefit of silicone is its ability to easily penetrate the tire’s surface and not evaporate. Some silicone-based dressings contain petroleum distillates as a cleaning agent. Petroleum distillates are harmful to rubber and vinyl, and will cause rubber and vinyl to crack. If you decide to use a silicone tire dressing, make sure it does not contain a cleaner. The only true negative property of silicone is the difficulty of adding UV protection.


  2. Water-Based Dressings – The water-based dressings do not contain silicone oils, petroleum distillates, waxes, or other dangerous solvents that can harm and dull the surface of rubber and vinyl over time. Most water-based ressings use a combination of natural oils to offer a non-greasy, satin finish. Likewise, most of these products contain UV blocking agents to help keep tires from cracking, fading and hardening. Additionally, most water-based dressings are biodegradable, whereas silicone oils are not.

Proper Tire and Wheel Cleaning
To properly clean your tires and wheels, you will need a 3-5 gallon bucket, a soft tire and wheel scrub brush, a sponge or wash cloth, a water hose and nozzle, car shampoo, and a
spray wheel cleaner. Here are some step-by-step tips to make cleaning easier

  1. Clean one wheel at a time.

  2. Clean your tires and wheels first before washing the rest of the car. This prevents splattering cleaners, dirt and brake dust on already cleaned panels. Your car is also less prone to getting water spots from drying while you wash your wheels.

  3. Do not clean your wheels if they are still hot from driving. Let them cool, or thoroughly hose them down.

  4. Mix a bucket of soapy water with your favorite car shampoo. Mix double the recommended strength.  I recommend Eimann Fabrik Power Wash+ for tires and wheels. It’s much stronger than most automotive shampoos, but it will not strip wax.

  5. Thoroughly rinse the tire and wheel with water using a hose and spray nozzle. If exposed, rinse the brake caliper to flush away loose brake dust. Finally, rinse up into the wheel well to wash away road grunge, road kill, mud and other debris.

  6. If your tires and wheels have a heavy coating of brake dust or road grime, spray them down with your wheel cleaner. Allow the cleaner to soak for 30 seconds (minimum) to 3 minutes (maximum). I like P21S, P21S Gel, and Eimann Fabrik Hi-Intensity for most applications.

  7. Use your tire and wheel scrub brush and your soapy water to agitate the tire and wheel surface. Use plenty of soapy water. The soap acts as a lubricant to gently lift dirt and grit away from your wheels. Follow-up with your sponge or washcloth to wash the remaining dirt from the tire and wheel. If your wheels have large open areas, use the sponge to get behind these areas. Make sure the tires are scrubbed. Many people put layer upon layer of dressings on their tires but never clean them. The result is a brown or yellow discoloration.

  8. Use your wheel brush and soapy water to scrub the accessible areas of the wheel well, too. This small detail keeps your car looking fresh and new.

  9. Thoroughly rinse the tire, wheel and wheel well. Use plenty of water. You need to ensure that all traces of the wheel cleaner (and your neighbor’s cat) are gone.

After washing your car, remember to dry your tires and wheels using a 100% cotton terrycloth towel.

Caution: I do not recommend using tire cleaners containing bleach. Bleaches are used in many tire cleaners to brighten white wall tires, but they can turn tires a dull
gray and will stain your alloy wheels.

Proper Tire & Wheel Conditioning
After you clean your tires and wheels, you need to protect them. Tire dressings accent the appearance of your tires and protect against cracking and fading. Likewise, waxing your wheels protects their finish from brake dust, and makes them easier to keep clean.

Your wheels should be waxed, at a minimum, each time you wax your car. You can significantly reduce your wheel cleaning and waxing efforts by coating your wheels with a high quality acrylic. I really like Klasse All-In-One for this purpose, as it's heat resistant and will not yellow. Klasse All-In-One also has the added benefit of being both a cleaner and a protectant. Another excellent wheel protection product is Plexus.  Plexus works well on wheels with many small openings, as these wheels are difficult to wax.


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Last edited by DavidB; 09-09-2007 at 05:55 AM.
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