Bike cleaning: Are you doing more harm than good?

Author: Phil Turner Posted: 11 May 2015

Are you doing more harm than good?

For most of us cleaning our bike is a pain, not least when you're told you should do it: right after a ride. It's the last thing I want to do when I get home.

Don't clean your bike regularly and properly though and the salt, flies, oil, grit and everything else the road throws at it, will slowly but surely ruin the paint and metalwork, get into your wiring, stop things like chains and brakes working properly, and in extreme cases cause them to fail altogether. It'll also make it look very second-hand, very quickly, wiping off a fair chunk of its resale value.

And cleaning not only helps keep you bike in good shape, it gives you the chance to get up close and personal with it, spotting potential problems and faults early and making servicing and repairs much more pleasant.

A no-brainer? Well, kind of. Cleaning can do just as much damage as it prevents, depending on how you go about it and the products that you use.

We all know that grabbing a bottle of floor cleaner and a scouring pad is a bad idea, but did you know that even bike-specific cleaning products could be eating your bike?

Dr Mario Kraft, deputy head of research and development at Dr O.K. Wack Chemie GmbH – developers of the SDoc100 range of motorcycle care products – explained: 

Not fairing well:

'Most metals, as we know, corrode or oxidise once they are exposed to our atmosphere, hence what you find on a motorcycle have a protective layer or element to them, for example stainless steel or anodized aluminium. That layer also protects against other substances that may come into contact with it, such as the chemicals in your chosen cleaner.

If – through either accidental damage or through abrasion from brushes or particles in cloths and sponges – this layer is damaged, it will of course leave the bare metal exposed to oxidisation, but apply an aggressive substance to this exposed area each time you wash it and that substance can also damage the metal.'

This problem isn't restricted to metals though, certain chemicals – and combinations of them – can also have a devastating effect on your body panels and screen.

Dr Mario explained: 'Commonly Plexiglas or Polycarbonates are used for the transparent plastics. The latter, in combination with Acrylic Nitril Styrene (ABS), for most of the other plastic parts.

Plexiglas and Polycarbonate are sensitive towards a number of different chemicals, especially solvents or surfactants commonly used in household products, which can cause Environmental Stress Cracking (ECS), normally at the parts which are under tension: where they're mounted to the bike.

Before cleaningAfter clean

The tricky thing is that the parts prone to ECS are normally hidden. So you believe you rinsed off the bike well, but the chemical can still be present and able to cause damage over time.' 

What's in the bottle?

So what's actually doing that damage? The key, according to Dr Mario, is the pH rating – how acidic the product is. But it's not as straightforward as high pH bad, low pH good: 'A high pH-value does not necessarily mean bad compatibility with metals, because there are powerful corrosion inhibitors available strong enough to protect even sensitive aluminium. And a neutral cleaning agent might be still capable of attacking metal surfaces. Furthermore, often you are not able to find out which pH-value the product has, since they're seldom stated on the label.'

Another factor to be aware of is age. Do you know how long that bottle of cleaner you just bought was in the shop/warehouse, and how they stored it? Where are you keeping it? And how long as it been there?

The chemical make-up of a cleaning solution can change over time and through exposure to extreme heat or cold; what's in the bottle now might be subtly different to what was originally, and that might just have an effect on your bike.

Dr Mario added: 'We perform storage and stability tests with each formulation we want to introduce in the market. We store each formulation at different temperatures over a three month period and check that the physical parameters are still the same as they are freshly mixed.

pH testing is the solution

Effectively, we simulate a time lapse so we can guarantee a shelf life of 5 years, and you'll find a  production date and lot number on the label of our products.' 

Choose wisely:

So, what does all this actually mean? What should you be looking for and which cleaning products should you be avoiding?

Washing up liquid is designed for washing pots and pans, not bikes, but the same can be said of car shampoo: how much care has been taken to make sure that doesn't react badly with the surfaces and materials found on a modern bike?

Even some cleaning products that profess to be motorcycle-specific are very simple in composition, and although they often give the impression of a quick cleaning action, they can cause lasting damage. The golden rules are: 

  • Go for something you know has been properly developed by people who understand motorcycles and the surfaces/materials that make them up. Read their promotional material, go on their website and even ring them to be sure you trust it
  • If you can, get an all-in-one cleaner, that contains an active degreaser, anti-corrosion additives, is acid/alkali-free and you're happy will protect all the machine's surfaces, especially sensitive ones like aluminium and black chrome 
  • Try to find one that has a 'spray-on-rinse-off' formula, so you don't need to start rubbing on sensitive areas 
  • If you're not 100% sure, put a small amount onto the surface and check for any adverse effects

You get what you pay for:

Remember that old adage? A good rule of thumb to go by is price, as Dr Mario pointed out: 'A cleaner that costs just a few pounds might not be as well developed as something specifically developed for motorcycle use.

There's a lot of work goes into our products to ensure performance combined with perfect material compatibility: testing and analysing results, sourcing new raw ingredients, and developing for the new materials and finishes appearing on the market - carbon parts or matt finishes etc.

Of course this leads to relatively high product price, but our success in the market confirms that this is the right way to go.'

The wash:

You've got the right bottles of cleaner, but that's only half the battle. Here's how to get the best results without causing more harm: 

Before you start:

Where you wash your bike is just as important as how you do it. First, make sure you've plenty of room to move around, and that it's parked on firm and level ground. Ideally, it should be on a centre or paddock stand. If it only has a side stand fitted, it's a good idea to strap the front brake on to stop it rolling off.

Make sure you're in the shade, as washing in direct sunlight can increase drying time and cause marks/streaks to form. It can also reduce the effectiveness of cleaning products.

Make sure the your bike is switched off and stone cold before you start, adding products to hot surfaces can cause marks and in extreme cases, certain cleaning products can ignite.

Getting started:

Make sure you follow the instructions carefully. Most good bike cleaning solutions require a short period of time 'sitting' on your machine, to allow the solution time to soften, dissolve and pick up the contaminants, and power through the stubborn bits.

Make sure you leave it to work for the recommended time, no more, no less, as this can affect how well the cleaner performs: not leaving it on long enough won't give it chance to deal with the dirt, but leaving it on too long can have a similar effect too. Gel cleaners are the ones to go for, as they stay in contact with dirt longer.

After clean

Down and dirty:

Some bits of stubborn dirt and grime might need agitated to help get it off. Use a sponge for this, and make sure it's clean, as rubbing a dirty one on your bike can cause scratches/damage. Make sure you have access to a supply of fresh, clean water to rinse them with and do it after every session.

Never use brushes as the bristles, and the dirt/grit particles that can are often trapped in them, can cause serious damage to paint, panels, plastic and metals. If you're worried, re-apply cleaner to the problem area after rinsing, this should shift it. 

For really grimy areas, like the drive chain, it's worth investing in a separate product specifically designed to deal with it. A good chain cleaner will be specifically formulated to get old  lube and gunk off, without having to start scrubbing at it. It's worth spending a little more to make sure the job's done right.

Rinse and repeat:

Once your solutions have worked their magic, rinse off with clean, cold water. Use a garden hose or bucket/jug and not a power/jet wash, as the pressure from the spray can blast through seals and into wiring, and other components; lift or damage paint; and take some of your cleaning solution with it.

Leave a high PH or Alkali cleaner sitting in the nooks and crannies of your bike, and it'll slowly eat it's way through it. If you do use a jet washer keep the nozzle well away from the machine and avoid pointing the jet directly into electrics and seals etc.

If there's still dirt, don't be too quick to grab the sponge,  re-apply cleaner to the problem area and let it have another go.

The finishing touches:

Once fully rinsed, dry your bike with a chamoix/soft cloth, as air-drying may leave water marks. Don't rub the cloth across the wet surface, as this can cause scratching. Unfold it, lay it over the surface and allow it to soak up the water. Lift off, ring out and re-apply until your bike is dry. 

Polishes, protectants and finishers can be then be applied to specific areas, if needed. Paint and plastic polishes will remove fine scratches and revitalise the colour of body panels, without damaging decals. As with the cleaner, buy something bike-specific, read the ingredients and instructions carefully.

Metal components like the engine block, frame, and forks will also benefit from treatment, as over time they can 'grey' and 'bleach', as can plastic and rubber parts such as mudguards, mirrors and indicators. Although many separate solutions are available to treat these areas, they can be abrasive on the sensitive surfaces and are fiddly to use. Again, go for a spray on product that requires no rubbing or polishing.

Finally, it's worth investing a little more time to protect against corrosion, especially during the winter months. A light coating of oil over vulnerable areas will offer some protection, but a dedicated corrosion inhibitor is the best bet.

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