Acid Wheel Cleaners (AWCs) have been a fixture of the detailing landscape for decades. Prized for their versatility and ability to break down even the toughest of baked on brake dust and other deposits, AWCs have nonetheless come in for some negative press of late, with various sections of the internet calling for them to be all but abandoned in favour of less effective, differently formulated alternatives. The fact that they’re made of a corrosive substance ensures that all acid-based wheel treatments should be treated with respect, but, when used carefully and correctly, they’re a valuable tool in the battle to keep your alloys looking flawless.
We’ve been developing, formulating, selling and using AWCs for decades now, long enough to know a huge amount about them, and long enough to be in the position to impart some advice on the subject. With this in mind, please take the time to read through the following article; Acid Wheel Cleaners 101 – The Complete Guide To Acid Wheel Cleaning Products
AWC – An Intro
There’s a good reason why AWCs have been a part of the automotive cleaning industry for so long, and that’s because they’re highly effective. Unlike other areas of your car, wheels can be difficult to clean with detergents and elbow grease alone, and this is down to the incredibly hostile environment in which wheels operate. Not only are wheels directly in the firing line when it comes to road grime, tar and other common contaminants, they’re also home to your brakes. Bringing any car to a halt involves huge pressures, and as a direct result, massively high temperatures. The temperatures generated by heavy braking serve to bake the tiny flecks of iron and brake pad shavings onto the wheel, meaning that nothing but an advanced, chemically formulated product can shift them.
The history and reputation of AWCs
As we’ve already touched upon, AWCs have been part of the car cleaning scene for generations, and though some now have reservations about their use, they continue to play a massive role in the professional car cleaning industry. Fast acting and effective, the chemical makeup of AWCs ensures that they make light work of most contaminants, yet this potency has also resulted in some bad press in recent years, much of it based on hearsay and internet rumour rather than cold, hard fact.
While there are indeed alloys with certain coatings and finishes that cannot be used in conjunction with AWCs (see below), the majority are fine. Advances made in the field of alloy wheel coatings and lacquers mean that almost all mainstream wheels are more than capable of shrugging off acid wheel treatments, and this is particularly true of more sophisticated cleaning solutions, our own Clean Wheels being a case in point.
In fact, the bulk of the negative publicity surrounding AWCs stems from misuse and misunderstanding, both of which can be dangerous when discussing products as potentially dangerous as acids. At Autoglym, we feel that AWC do still have an important role to play in the sphere of detailing, hence why Clean Wheels, one of our longest standing and best selling products, is an acid formulation. It’s a proven weapon in the fight against dirty wheels, and when used correctly and sensibly poses no risk to alloys or human health.
Our reputation is one that has been carefully and painstakingly built up over many decades, and this span of time has left us with a wealth of experience to draw upon when developing and formulating new cleaning products. Put simply, we’re in the business of keeping cars looking at their best and prolonging vehicle life for as long as possible, so if the package has an Autoglym logo on it, you can be sure you’re in the safest of hands! We would never sell a product that when used correctly would damage a customer’s alloys or alloy components.
Acid types and PH levels
The debate around AWCs is far more nuanced than a simple ‘good or bad’ dichotomy, and there are actually several factors that determine whether a particular cleaner is suitable for use on a particular wheel, with the type and strength of the acid in question both being prime examples.
There are a number of different types of acid in commercial use today, and though all function in the same basic way when used in an AWC (loosening and eventually removing brake residue), their different composition means that there are some types that you’d be well advised to steer well clear of, both in terms of your wheels and your skin! One example of an acid that you really don’t want to get too closely acquainted with is hydrofluoric acid, yet it remains commonly used (though not by Autoglym) in AWCs. It’s certainly effective and will make short work of most contaminants, but it’s also coarse and overly corrosive, with the potential to damage your wheels and health.
Another important factor to consider when researching AWCs is the pH level of the acid in question. The lower down the pH scale an acid can be found, the stronger it is, and when discussing wheel cleaners, stronger doesn’t always equal best. Developing Clean Wheels was an involved process, one that took many months of careful laboratory testing, with the majority of the time spent on trying to devise an acid solution with the correct pH level. The end result is a product that has a relatively low pH level yet still manages to be safe for use on alloy wheels.
When to use AWCs
Despite what certain sections of the internet would have you believe, AWCs are safe to use on most alloy wheels, hence why they still form a key component in our own range. Indeed, Clean Wheels is perfectly safe to use on the vast majority of wheels, including those with lacquered alloy, painted and plastic finishes. Pre-mixed and therefore ready to use right away, Clean Wheels will make short work of baked on iron deposits, minuscule debris from brake pads and discs, and all other types of accumulated road grime.
When not to use AWCs
The very fact that acid is central to their chemical makeup means that AWCs are not suitable for all detailing eventualities, and this is particularly true if you happen to own a set of high-end aftermarket wheels. Wheels with an anodised or chromed coating, or those with a diamond cut are not suitable for AWC treatments. These finishes do not like acid, potentially leading to a compromised finish on the wheel.
Those running wheels with an anodised, chromed or diamond cut finish should instead look to our Custom Wheel Cleaner solution, a product developed specifically for use on expensive aftermarket wheels, or those with thinner, more chemically sensitive coatings. Its carefully developed, acid free, alkaline formulation means that it will have no problem removing the iron deposits caused by repeated braking, yet won’t cause damage to the alloy itself.
Common queries and misconceptions about AWCs
Q) Is it true that AWCs are ‘old hat’ and have no place in the modern, professional car cleaning industry?
A) Not in the slightest. While it’s certainly true that improper use of poor quality AWCs has the potential to cause damage, they have also been proven to be ultra-effective at ridding wheels of all forms of dirt and grime. Our own Clean Wheels spray is pre-mixed to optimum strength, easy to use, and is suitable for use on most wheels.
Q) I’ve been told that Clean Wheels is safe to use in all conditions, so can I apply it after I’ve driven my car to a show?
A) While Clean Wheels is pre-mixed and therefore requires no dilution before use, its acid base means that you should still be wary about using it in really hot weather or immediately after you’ve driven your car. This is because the liquid that forms an essential element in all cleaning solutions is liable to evaporate in hot weather or when applied to a wheel that’s hot to the touch, and this in turn serves to concentrate the remaining acid, increasing the likelihood of it damaging your wheels.
Q) I’ve inherited some old, commercial AWC from a friend that once ran a professional car wash, will it be safe to use on my alloys?
A) In the right hands, yes, but be sure to read the label and safety data sheet before you decide. That being said, we really don’t know why you’d want to, not when Clean Wheels is so effective, affordable and simple to use. Clean Wheels has been proven to be every bit as effective as commercial cleaners yet comes in a ready to use form, meaning that you can leave diluting acid wheel cleaners to the professionals.
Want to learn more about wheel care and the Autoglym range? Then click through to read our Wheel Masterclass