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High Tech Cleaning Options


Yet while machining tolerances and performance expectations have changed dramatically over the past few decades, when it comes to getting parts clean, many of those high-tech shops struggle with the same technology they used 30 years ago. The simple fact is, times have changed for parts cleaning, and so have the methods. Engine builders have access to better products, systems and knowledge than ever – however, some shops don’t seem to have realized that, say cleaning professionals.

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“Shops are regularly taking advantage of the latest technology when it comes to their machining operations,” says Scott Morin, Keteca. “But when it comes back to parts washing, a lot of them are still using the same old technology.”

Dave Goetz, recently retired from the ArmaKleen Co., says “Many small auto repair shops are still using the solvent-based ‘sink on a drum’ technology. Old habits die hard, and although aqueous automated parts washers are gaining in popularity, many small operators still stick with the tried-and-true methods.”

It isn’t necessarily a fact that shop owners don’t know what new cleaning procedures may have been developed – they just may not think it’s right for them. “I think most shops are at least familiar with the full-range of options available to them today, many of them may, in fact, utilize multiple types of equipment in their daily work. However, for the smaller the shop, more likely cost is a consideration and as such it is more likely you’ll find older, manual equipment,” says Steve Cotra, Graymills.


When he got his start in this industry, Dave Weaver, Anchor Atlantic Group, recalls the process of “cleaning” to be far different than it is today.  “From 1977 until 1997 I was an engine builder and an AERA member, working with Bob Hirst at Anchor Atlantic specializing in VW and Porsche engines,” explains Dave Weaver of Eastern Precision’s Anchor Atlantic Group. “Air-cooled engines were a real challenge to clean. I think it is safe to say that half of the work week was spent cleaning and preparing the components for assembly. We needed a better way to clean while saving time.”

Weaver says his shop bought its first ultrasonic cleaning machine in 1997, “and my life changed. We could clean most engine parts in 20 minutes or less. We had more time to assemble engines and make money.”

Weaver was so excited by the new technology his shop incorporated that he made a career change from engine builder to prophet, taking the ultrasonic machine on the road from Maine to Florida, preaching the gospel of more efficient cleaning procedures. Certainly he has made converts of some, but says the mission is still ongoing.


“The small shops are always my favorites,” Weaver says, “because they benefit the most. I enjoy seeing the the smiles that come from happy customers who gain the additional time they used to spend scrubbing parts by hand. I’m amazed to see that there are still some shop owners who have the old fashioned sink on a drum with dirty solvent and the hazardous waste manifest, where the solvent looks more like 90-weight oil than solvent.”

Today, cleaning engine parts – whether they are small parts like fittings and fasteners, bigger parts like connecting rods and pistons, or even cylinder heads on up to engine blocks – requires attention to the three E’s: economics, efficiency and environmental awareness. But while shops may have the same ultimate goal – clean parts – the methods they can choose from may be very different.

“Effective cleaning is often critical to the successful completion of manufacturing or remanufacturing,” says Cheryl Larkin of Miraclean. “Customers like clean parts and such parts usually perform better. The right cleaning equipment for the job can free up personnel to perform other tasks while providing superior cleaning results.”


Goetz says that after 20 years of selling cleaning products to automotive facilities and machine shops one fact remains: “Rebuilders and shop operators would love to purchase a ‘one washer does it all unit,’ but the fact is there just isn’t such a system. There are spray washers, immersion washers, spray under immersion, ultrasonic washers and combinations of all the above. The simple truth is you need the correct size machine, the proper form of agitation and the correct chemistry for your specific requirements.”

One size fits may work in some parts of life, but not when it comes to cleaning. “I wish there was just one machine that does it all,” confesses former engine builder Weaver. “Spray cabinets and pass-through systems are good for soft contaminants, greases and oils but do little with blind holes and precision cleaning. Ultrasonic cleaning removes contaminants from the inside out through countless imploding cavitation bubbles. These small cavitation bubbles have been estimated to be in the range of 10,000 psi, which does a good job of removing contamination and forcing cleaning chemistry into small passages that other forms of cleaning can’t do.


“However, ultrasonics is not very effective at removing heavy grease. If you put a greasy part in a blasting machine the grease would most likely fill with beads and not get clean. Ultrasonic cleaning is a lot like this as grease absorbs the sound energy much like glass beads,” Weaver explains.

“That’s why it is more important for buyers to do their homework and partner with a reputable company that offers more than one type of parts washer,” explains Cotra. “If they deal with a company that offers all the alternatives they will be assured they will receive the right advice and buy what is proper for their particular applications.”

What seems to be good enough isn’t anymore, and although there still isn’t one system that will handle all your cleaning needs, the good news is that the systems available today can have a positive effect on your shop efficiency, your business economics and your environmental impact.

Cleaning With Sound Waves

While it may still sound futuristic to children of the ’60s and ’70s, ultrasonic cleaning has a long history of successful cleaning. Larkin acknowledges that cleaning choices are often driven by budget and throughput, and range from hand washing to automated cleaning systems. “Moving to a device as simple as a single ultrasonic cleaning tank followed by rinsing can improve cleaning results and productivity,” she says. “More parts can be cleaned at a time while personnel are freed to perform other tasks.”


Cotra says more and more shops are embracing ultrasonics for its automation and sophistication, but should always make sure whatever cleaning process they go with is appropriate for their needs. “Time is money so if a shop can implement an effective piece of cleaning equipment to allow them to free up the manual aspect of cleaning that obviously saves cost and increases profit. The flip side is if equipment is purchased without careful consideration it could end up costing them more in the long run. For example, a parts washer that only lasts for a year, or can’t cope with a stepped-up workload, is not a “bargain” and in fact could create more work for the shop owner.  

The most common mistake is to try and clean small parts with existing equipment intended for a completely different application. Trying to clean in equipment that is too large or powerful could blow them around and/or damage them, so many shop owners revert back to manual cleaning of these parts, which is time consuming. It’s always better to invest  in the correct equipment for the job no different than the way these small shops buy a special tool for a specific application.”


Today’s shop owners are smart enough to recognize when a sales pitch isn’t right for them, but they may not always know what they don’t know, explains Weaver.

There was a time when a pail of carburetor cleaner could clean almost anything. Health and environmental concerns have made it tougher for shops to clean. Weaver says there are guys still spraying carburetor cleaner and brake clean into shop rags to clean small parts. There is a better way.  

“The question in cleaning is how clean is clean? I always enjoy taking a ‘clean’ part that a rebuilder has scrubbed for hours and throwing it in an ultrasonic tank (push-rods and rockers are good examples),” says Weaver. “A new standard of clean is reached when more metal particles and oils come off of the parts. As I stated above there are still some shop owners who fear change and still have the sink on a drum and no time left at the end of the week.”

Morin explains that even the latest and greatest technology won’t be as effective if it isn’t used correctly, and that includes choosing the proper chemistry for the system. “A good ultrasonic solution will make or break your system’s effectiveness. Today’s water-based cleaning chemistry is non-hazardous, biodegradable and does a great job removing carbon. It’s safe for the worker, environmentally compliant and it’s equally effective.”


The problem some shops face is that they choose a cleaning product that interferes with the ultrasonic machine’s cleaning ability. “It’s all about material compatibility,” Morin says. “All-purpose cleaning products designed for, say, floor and shop cleaning can have a detrimental effect on certain metals and will offer  no corrosion protection.”

The “Green Seal-certified” parts washing solutions are different from some products that purported to be “green” in the early days of environmental awareness, says Morin, is that the new products actually. “Sure, those chemicals may have been fine to the environment but they just didn’t work. They wouldn’t clean.”

Morin says today’s chemistry is much more effective. “Aqueous chemicals will give two to three times the longevity of your parts washer because the water-based products will release the oils. Waste disposal is less expensive than with solvent based product and you’ll have less worker exposure liability. You won’t have the VOCs, increasing the air quality in your shop. You may even qualify for insurance discounts because you don’t have drums of flammable solvent standing around.”


Dave Goetz agrees that your shop’s bottom line will be better off if you take a closer look at your cleaning procedures. “Proper cleaning equipment, chemistry and procedures can have a significant impact on a shop’s bottom line,” he says. “If a facility has improper and inefficient cleaning procedures this can lead to a significant loss of revenue. Shops make money by getting a satisfied customer quickly out the door and another one in. Many operators that don’t have high volume demands can use abrasive cleaning systems that are manual but are still highly efficient and  gives them the ability to clean and strip a variety of materials and part configurations.

Blast Zone

“Abrasive blasting with baking soda is fast and thorough and is ideal for cleaning smaller parts,” says Charlie Ruemelin of Clemco Industries. “Damage to machined surfaces is always a risk with abrasive blasting, and so is media entrapment. Because the sodium bicarbonate is completely water soluble, fouling of internal passages by media like glass beads is completely eliminated.”

And shop time – always expensive – is only becoming more so. “Better, faster soda blasting saves shop time and the owner’s money. An obvious bonus – improved turntime – always pleases customers,” says Ruemelin.


Pleasing customers is something Fred Greis of Wet Technologies found he was doing at at recent PRI?Show, somewhat unexpectedly. “The idea of a wet blasting system is strange to a lot of people. The idea of running water and abrasive together is new to them, and the fact we didn’t have any chemistry was strange. We were just doing water and media. Now, if you’re doing ferridic parts that can rust, we just put a mild rust inhibitor in the water.”

All Wet Technologies machines are wet-media machines. This system is different from high pressure cleaning (water only or water with a chemical solution) – it is a low pressure, high volume cleaning operation.

“Our cleaning background is in the aviation industry, but several years ago, we exhibited at an ?AERA?Expo in Las Vegas,” recalls Greis. “Our wet blasting machine contained ceramic media and cost about $22,000. It got a lot of favorable impressions, but it was not the right product for the automotive aftermarket.”

Since that time, Greis says a lightweight, less expensive cabinet has been  developed. “And a year ago we got together with the Armex people who wanted us to develop a way to use the baking soda in our machine. They wanted to address complaints about it as a dry-blast media because it’s one time through and out the door it goes into the dust collector.”


Essentially, says Greis, the baking soda goes into a liquid solution that can be filtered and reused. The beauty of baking soda, Ruemelin says, is its soft, water-soluble nature. Yet for a media traditionally thought to be extremely gentle and fragile, baking soda is surprisingly durable.

“We’ve consistently shown that by recirculating the media in our machine it will go through the machine up to 5-6 times before it breaks down into a superfine and goes out of the filtration. The water actually cushions and protects the baking soda, keeping it from fracturing so easily.” Greis says.

“One of the criteria for the design of this system is that the “baking soda system” also has to be able to run all the traditional media as well,” he explains.

“The customer has the ability to change out and run glass bead, aluminum oxide, ceramic, plastic media – any of the other media – in our machine. We didn’t want to limit the machine and thereby limit ourselves to just run baking soda. This gives the customer the ability to change media – if they want to – which gives them a lot more capability with the machine.”


Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel are using these wet blasting machines, says Greis and have shown very good results.  “We’re doing pistons at Caterpillar right now. The baking soda cleans right down into the grooves on those pistons, and there’s some pretty heavy gunk on those diesel pistons. But even here, if they have an application that needs to be a little more aggressive, they can change it out and run a medium aluminum oxide for general purpose cleaning.”

Greis explains that one of the more frequent complaints from users of dry blasting machines is that the dust collectors are quickly overwhelmed. “Quite frankly, the dust collectors in a lot of the machines in a lot of shops don’t work very well, and there’s dust all over the place. A lot of shops have to keep their dry blasting machines quite a distance from their ‘clean’ processes such as assembly because of the dust.”

With a wet blasting system (or wet slurry, liquid honing, liquid abrasive blasting, slurry blasting or wet grit blasting – it’s all the same), he says lack of dust provides a lot of flexibility with shop design and flow of operations.


“If you can improve the customer’s use of his real estate by not forcing him to isolate cleaning processes from the rest of the operation, it’s definitely a savings. Two customers were able to use the space from their old system for much needed storage. And they weren’t counting on that kind of a benefit.”

As with the other cleaning methods we’ve discussed, the opportunity for cost reductions are a significant benefit to a shop owner. “If we can reduce the need to dispose of used chemicals, that can be significant savings,” Greis says. “And because the water cushions the media, our consumption rate is lower as well.  By limitation, however, we won’t necessarily be as fast as a dry media, but our customers have found that we’re still fast enough. They can’t really notice a difference in speed.”

If you’re up to speed with your cleaning procedures and you’re meeting the three E’s, congratulations. If you need to make some adjustments, you can get more information from the contributors to this article or by researching other cleaning procedures online at Dave Weaver says he always wants to know one thing.


“The question in cleaning is how clean is clean? I always enjoy taking a ‘clean’ part that a rebuilder has scrubbed for hours and throwing it in an ultrasonic tank (push-rods and rockers are good examples). A new standard of clean is reached when more metal particles and oils come off of the parts.

“Ultimately, it comes to simple number crunching. “I recommend that each shop owner looks at how much time he spends cleaning his parts,” says Weaver. “After 20 years of engine building one thing I learned is time is precious and anything I can do to increase productivity cheaper makes sense for everyone.”


Rust and the Rebuilder:?A Dirty Story

As anyone who works with metal parts can attest, rust is an issue. Whether you are working on a classic engine from a salvage yard that is covered with scaly iron oxide or simply looking at the motors you have in stock, untreated metal is likely to rust. Now that spring is here and, for much of the country, humidity is on the rise, how can you tackle this problem? 


“Almost all engines will have some degree of rust,” explains David Harris of Evapo-Rust. “Depending on your location and the time of the year, your area may be a little less prone to rusting, but there’s no area where rust isn’t an issue to some extent. Temperature, humidity and salt are the main factors that influence rust. Florida??It’s awful. Phoenix??it’s not nearly so bad. But a lot of people would be surprised to find out we sell a lot of Evapo-Rust in Alaska.”

Evapo-Rust is a non-toxic, pH-neutral liquid that actually absorbs rust from the iron. “The chemical works through a process called ‘selective chelation,’”?Harris explains. “The active ingredient bonds to iron, and can remove iron from iron oxide but is too weak to remove iron from steel where the iron is held much more strongly. Once the chelating agent has removed the iron, a sulfur bearing organic molecule pulls the iron away from the chelator and forms a ferric sulfate complex which remains water soluble. This frees the chelating agent to remove more iron from rust.”


Simply put, it removes the rust, in as little as a few hours (see the photo above), and leaves behind bare metal.

“If you have visible rust on the surface of an engine, you probably have a far worse problem on the inside,” Harris says. “It’s not going away and it’s not going to get better on its own. Rust in the water jacket is not good for an engine. It is a very good insulator and keeps the heat from transferring out of of the block into the coolant, causing the engine to run hot. It can also get into the coolant and then get into the radiator.”

Quick and effective to use, safe for the environment and easy on a shop employee’s skin and clothing??What’s that old adage about something sounding too good??Harris acknowledges that overcoming preconceived misperceptions is a challenge. “Sure, the solution sounds too good to be true, which is why we give away about 20,000 samples of it a year. But it was designed for military engine builds and, yes, it actually works as claimed.”


Engine builders can gain additional time they used to spend scrubbing parts by hand. It's amazing that there are still some shop owners who have the old fashioned sink on a drum with dirty solvent. One expert said, Today, cleaning engine parts 
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