How to Clean Tires and Rims like a Professional

Posted March 10, 2020 by Chris Blaisdell, Onsite Detail

You’ve heard the saying, “The eyes are the window to the soul”. Well that’s how I feel about the wheels and tires to a vehicle. You would think it would be the windows or the windshield to the vehicle but no. According to a survey that I made up, the wheels and tires are the windows to the vehicle’s soul. I may be alone in this assumption but may have many that agree with me.

As an auto detailer, I loved cleaning the wheels and tires. Making the tires black and polishing the rims to a glossy shine did a lot for the final product of the exterior detail. To get to the beloved “final product” it usually is a process. Usually not a hard process or a long process but I’ll go over a process that will help you clean tires and rims.

Thing to Check Prior to Cleaning Tires and Rims

The first thing you will want to do is to make sure that the rim and tires are NOT hot. If the vehicle has just been driven, the rims may have become hot from the constant breaking and friction that comes with movement and vibrations of the road.

Spraying wheel cleaners and wheel acids on hot rims can often lead to the chemicals and/or acids marking or etching the rims and making them not look good by damaging them. Especially if those chemicals and acids are left on the rims longer than they should. Acids can already damage rims if they are misused or left on the rim. If the rim is hot then the chances of the clear coat or metal being irreversibly damaged is significantly increased. So before you start to clean tires and rims make sure they are not hot.

Timing with Wheel Cleaning Acid is Important

Another thing to remember, especially when using acid to clean the rims, is that you will want to do only one rim at a time. In some cases, if the conditions are good and you’re experienced and comfortable with using wheel cleaners and other acid wheel cleaners, you could do two at a time. You may be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about how many rims to do at a time. If you read one of my previous blogs you may remember that upon being applied, acids will immediately start eating away at whatever it comes in contact with. That also includes the metal that it’s applied to when left on there for an extended period of time.

Acids are very effective when used correctly. However, if the acid is properly diluted, it will give you the time needed to allow you to do more than one rim at a time. Diluted acid will ONLY slow down the corroding process. It will still work just as well but will just make it so leaving it on the rim for a little longer won’t be as devastating if left on there for longer than 30 seconds to a minute (at the very most). Acid that isn’t diluted will maybe give you about 15-20 seconds before it needs to be thoroughly sprayed off where diluted acid will give you about 30 seconds to possibly a minute. Be sure to check the Safety Data Sheets information to make sure what the appropriate dilution should be.

Benefits of Wheel Cleaning Acid

I haven’t really talked about the benefits of acid and what it can do for your rims. One of the coolest things that I’ve seen with using acid correctly is that most of the time it can completely eliminate the step of scrubbing. If scrubbing is needed, it should be minimal. Also, if you are needing to scrub the area sprayed with acid, keep a close eye on the area that you are working on to make sure that the acid isn’t damaging the metal. In some cases you may need to spray water to rinse the acid off and closely look at the area to see if more acid/scrubbing is needed. In most cases, after spraying the wheel cleaning acid on the rim, you will be able to spray the acid off with water and knock off whatever you were trying to remove from the rim without needing to excessively scrub leaving a nice shiny glossy rim.

When you are working with undiluted acid, you will  need to pre-spray the rim with some water to soften the blow of the acid to the metal of the rim. If the acid is diluted, it’s not as big of a deal to pre-spray the rim with water before applying the acid but still a good idea to do so. Some detailers don’t quite feel comfortable using the acid, it might be a good idea to pre-spray the rim before applying the acid to the rim or just use a more generic non-acid wheel cleaner.

Wheel Cleaner Acid is not the Only Method

Wheel cleaning acid is not the only method of cleaning rims and tires. There are other wheel cleaners and degreasers that are not as harsh and maybe safer. If you are an inexperienced detailer, I would highly recommend starting with a degreaser cleaner or other non-acid wheel cleaners before using acid. Basic degreasers will most likely require light scrubbing or agitation and doesn’t need to be removed as urgently as acid. Degreasers can also be called all-purpose cleaners. Many of the cleaning properties of degreasers will have a very slippery texture. 

Benefits of All Purpose Cleaners and Degreasers

Another benefit of using degreasers/all-purpose cleaners to clean tires and rims is that the degreaser can be used on just about any surface. As far as wheels, rims, and wheel wells go, you can use the degreaser on all of these surfaces and be able to do an exceptional job. A really effective and efficient way to clean the tires to have them looking the best they can look is by spraying degreaser, scrubbing the tire well, spraying off thoroughly, and then finishing it off with a water based tire dressing. When you get trained and get to be familiar and comfortable with using acid, spraying acid on the rim after the scrubbing of the tire and before you rinse is also a good option if extra strength is needed. Wheel well areas can be hard to reach if the desire is to scrub them with the degreaser applied. I suggest finding a brush with a long handle that will reach if needed. Most commonly those areas can be sprayed off well after spraying the degreaser and letting it sit for a minute or two. If you have access to a pressure washer it will usually work best to most effectively clean these areas by knocking off any heavy dirt or debris.

So just remember when you are going to clean tires and rims and other areas around there that you take proper caution and care both for you and the car. Wear PPE if needed and make sure you know what the risks are of ALL the chemicals you’ll be using, especially wheel cleaning acids. Never think you can cut corners and skip safety. 

I hope I have helped you better understand how to clean rims and tires and understanding wheel cleaners, degreasers and wheel cleaning acids. Happy wheel cleaning and safe travels!

by Andy Stallings, CD, Operations Manager, Onsite Detail