For most of us, a set of wheels is one of the first essential purchases after the car itself. It can also be one of the biggest expenses, so keeping those wheels clean is crucial both for their appearance and longevity. Threfore, we decided to return to our friends at Meguiar’s for some wheel cleaning basics.
Our original car cleaning guide ran in the 12/11 issue of eurotuner magazine and can be found under the “Tech” menu at eurotuner.com It looked at weekly washing maintenance, when to use clay or liquid compound to remove surface contaminants, then talked about waxing to protect the paint and how often you need to maintain it.
All the information came from Meguiar’s, who simply want people to know how to look after their cars properly. Once educated, they assume we’ll look for the best products…
While specific Meguiar’s products are referred to here, similar products are available from all car care companies and the same advice applies.
Meguiar’s has a comprehensive website with tips and how-to advice videos as well as an active forum to help you understand many of the process. SoCal drivers can even sign up for weekly classes to learn from the experts in person. Visit meguiars.com for more details.
When we embarked on this story, Mike Pennington and Mike Stoops from Meguiar’s explained that wheels represent the most common enquiries on their telephone hotline, and they cause the most common and costly mistakes!
The biggest problem is identifying the finish on your wheels because most people don’t know. They could be factory “coated” silver, painted, powdercoated, uncoated aluminum, uncoated polished auminum, anodized, chromed or any combination of the above. The problem is, if you guess wrong and use a strong cleaner you could do irreparable damage.
You also need to be aware of what’s behind the wheel, because strong cleaners can damage the finish on aftermarket brake calipers, rotor hats as well as suspension components.
Even the center caps need to be considered, plus the lug nuts and some inner wheel barrels are occasionally left uncoated. It’s a minefield out there!
It’s essential to always address the most sensitive material when cleaning. So while chrome is the toughest material that withstands the strongest cleaners, a chrome cleaner could ruin the finish of uncoated aluminum or powdercoated brake calipers, for example, turning them an unpleasant milky white.
In short, chrome is very resilient while aluminum is very sensitive. So if you’re not sure about the finish on your wheels, brakes and suspension, phone the manufacturer (not where you bought them – get it from the horse’s mouth).
The best advise is to read the directions on the product, don’t simply go by the name. Meguiars All Wheel Cleaner, for example, isn’t suitable for uncoated aluminum and the directions will explain that…
To check if your wheels are either chrome or polished aluminum, you can use a metal polish such as Meguiar’s All Metal Polish on them. Rub it on and if the cloth turns black, it means you have uncoated aluminum wheels, so you need to be very careful with cleaning liquids.
If the wheels are clearcoated, the cloth won’t turn black but a chrome cleaner could still damage them, so beware before applying a liquid wheel cleaner.
The problem is the ph value of individual cleaners. The more acidic liquids can eat into delicate finishes and cause damage. Here are the ph values for Meguiar’s Hot Rims wheel cleaners and household products to give you an idea:
|Chrome Wheel Cleaner||ph3-4|
|All Wheel & Tire Cleaner||ph13.5|
|Aluminum Wheel Cleaner||ph7.0|
As you can see, all are very strong apart from the neutral Hot Rims Aluminum Wheel Cleaner. This should be your default choice if you’re unsure about your wheel finish. Using acidic Chrome Wheel Cleaner on uncoated aluminum, anodized surfaces, magnesium wheels, aluminum brake components or aftermarket suspension could spell disaster. And don’t even get us started on motorcycles – these have lots of exposed metals and plastics and require specialized care!
As another caveat, wheels referred to as “black chrome” can either be chromed or anodized, so again contact the manufacturer for confirmation.
When chrome cleaner is sprayed onto a wheel, the brake dust and dirt will simply rinse away because it’s so strong. However, it’s not suitable for all surfaces, as we’ve seen. Subsequently, Aluminum Wheel Cleaner may require some agitation with a wash mitt or soft brush because it’s necessarily milder for delicate finishes. That said, if you wash your wheels often, a mild cleaner should be sufficient for all finishes.
If your car is equipped with its factory-fitted coated wheels, brakes and suspension, then All Wheel Cleaner would be sufficient. However, the name is misleading because it’s not suitable for “all” wheels (just all OE coated wheels) since it is too strong for uncoated aluminum, etc. The name is used throughout the car care industry but again, always read the label!
Just like paintwork, wheels should be washed at least weekly. Despite the name of the Hot Rims products, never wash hot components or a car in sunshine. Always allow the car to cool first because heat will increase the strength of the cleaner.
If the wheels are very dirty, spray the cleaner on a dry surface, and spray from the bottom upwards. The directions recommend you only leave the cleaner on for 15sec. Therefore, do one wheel at a time rather than circling the car with cleaner then water. This leaves it on too long and risks damage to center caps, brake calipers, etc.
Use separate buckets of water to wash your wheels and paintwork to avoid contamination. A separate wash mitt is best, but brushes are also recommended. Use soft, flagged bristles (split ends) on the wheel face and a spoke brush with a soft rubber nose to avoid scratches.
Painted or clearcoated wheels can get swirl marks like bodywork, or the color can fade, so Meguiar’s suggests several steps to restore the finish.
It starts with a clay bar to remove brake dust that might be baked on. Then use a liquid paint cleaner such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound to remove microns from the top surface and eliminate the swirls. You can even wax the finish afterwards for protection – it won’t last long on hot wheels but it might help at the next wash…
If the worst has happened and you used the wrong cleaner on uncoated, polished aluminum, you may have staining. In this instance, try Meguiar’s Wheel Polishing Kit (there’s an instruction video on meguiars.com).
Start by cleaning the wheels and apply the foam cleaner in the kit. Then use a Dynacone in a drill at a slow speed with All Metal Polish. It should help remove some of the staining. The same procedure can restore shine to chrome wheels as well. But if you have stained anodized components, there’s nothing you can do!
To reduce your effort at each weekly wash, you could try Meguiar’s Brake Dust Barrier. It’s sprayed onto dry wheels, is safe on any surface and will last for multiple washes.
The Barrier is a polymer coating that won’t allow brake dust to adhere, making it easier to remove by washing. And it won’t damage your brakes or suspension.
When the Barrier gets old it flakes off, at which point you apply another coat and it all merges together again. It dries clear and won’t go milky or discolor with age. Perhaps the only problem is that it’s hard to remove completely if, for some reason, you decide not to use it any longer. Rubbing alcohol and plenty of elbow grease will eventually shift it.