Bug Off!

Julie Riddle Comments

Bug Off!
The pros offer bug and tar removal tips

By Julie Riddle

It's the bane of drivers everywhere. One road trip can turn a vehicle's once-pristine finish into a work of art--bug art. Not only is it ugly to look at, but the sticky mess that splatters on windshields, paint finishes and bumpers can leave a permanent mark if not attended to quickly and properly.

"(Bugs) can destroy a car," says Irene Bernardo of Top of the Line, an auto-detailing supply company in Bonanza, Ark. "It's so acidic. They can add a dent or a hole wherever they happen to be and etch a hole into the clear coat, just like acid rain."

Unfortunately, chemicals present in insect remains can sometimes make the spot hard to remove without damaging the vehicle at the same time. Couple that with the need for a carwash or detail shop to finish the work efficiently and with top results, and it becomes important to narrow the process.

"It has to be pre-treated before a vehicle goes through the wash. You have to allow time for the water and soap solution to loosen up the bug that has adhered to the paint surface, window or bumper before the high-pressure water will knock it off," says Gary Stinnett, vice president of operations at San Antonio, Texas-based The Wash Tub.

"That's why a lot of operators will apply it to the vehicle when it's in the vacuum area or the entrance to the carwash, to allow it some cure time or time to process. So that is what we typically do," Stinnett says. "That's where the extra effort is--applying the soap solution and/or using a non-abrasive sponge. Then, when it's going through the wash, the high-pressure water and/or the cloth will take the rest of it off."

Rick Flaugher, manager of Speedy Car Wash in Panama City, Fla., says the process his employees use is fairly simple. "We presoak in the sales area, then pressure wash before it goes through. At the other end of the tunnel we use strong soap and a scrub pad."

Other than using plain old "elbow grease," Flaugher names Car Brite's Blue Max, a water-based cleaner/degreaser, as a staple of the bug-removal process at Speedy Car Wash.

Bernardo says one of the most effective tools is the Sure Scrub, a brick-shaped product she refers to as the "bug block." Used wet, the honeycomb-like material "grabs hold of bugs and tar without damaging the clear coat," she says. "It works really well."

Bernardo says the most effective way to remove bugs is to use a "debugger" to chemically dissolve the insects.

"Pre-spray, let it set, then wash. You can do the same thing with tar by using a citrus extract or degreaser that will dissolve it. If it doesn't work the first time, then do it again. It may take several times."

As far as products go, Stinnett says he primarily uses a generic prep soap solution and Turtle Wax. To avoid damaging the paint, he says, "You have to stress that it has to be a mild solution. You want something that is just going to create lubricity. You don't want something that is going to attack the finish or try to remove any type of dirt because it (the solution) is going to set on the vehicle for a short period of time before that vehicle enters the wash."

He also recommends finding a product that won't cause harm if it dries.

"You have to make sure that if the solution does end up drying on the vehicle, it's not going to cause any harm. Some soaps are too caustic. If you allow them to dry on the vehicle then you have a problem with the finish," Stinnett says.

Rick Martens, a chemist for De Pere, Wis.-based Cleaning Systems, Inc., says CSI's bug removal products work well because of the chemicals they contain.

"Our philosophy is a little different from other companies'. Most of their (bug removal products) are mild detergents which are somewhat effective. Ours are not detergents." The difference, he says, is the wetting agent CSI has in its D-Bug-It remover.

"Bug remover is usually applied well before (the car) goes into the carwash, and it usually sets out in the sun. If you use a product not formulated properly for the job, it will evaporate and concentrate and hurt the finish. D-Bug-It has special ingredients that put moisture into the bug and help soften and hold moisture in it. If it does dry, it doesn't hurt the finish." CSI recommends using a low-pressure sprayer before a vehicle enters the wash.

Tar is the pits

The black, sticky gunk that makes up tar belongs on the road, not the car. Unfortunately, the stuff often finds its way onto vehicles and can be a bear to remove without damaging the car's paint job and finish.

"Once it has been on a car for a long time, it is very hard to get off," Bernardo says. "You can get it off with tar remover and a plastic razor blade. The plastic graphic squeegee has a really thin blade. It smoothes out graphics and gets the bubbles out--it has a fine edge on it. Just move it along to help release tar. "The best type of product to remove the bugs is a solvent."

Martens recommends CSI's Resolve for de-tarring a vehicle. The citrus-based, wipe-on, wipe-off product is a biodegradable, general-purpose solvent and tar remover. Another product, MiraClean, is a mild alkaline detergent with solvent in it. Martens advises carwashes to put a product on "well ahead of time, so it has time to soak."

Safety first

Because of the potentially dangerous mix of chemicals present in some tar and/or bug removers, it is important that employees use extreme caution when it comes to applying the product.

"Safety is usually a precaution when you are dealing with the tar remover, because a lot of them are petroleum-based products which are highly flammable," Stinnett says. "You need eye protection and you need to make sure it is only applied to painted surfaces of the vehicle, not on the interior or the vinyl top, because it could cause damage. So there is quite a bit of training involved on that product."

For example, Stinnett says employees should not use the chemicals to remove a lipstick stain on plastic inside the vehicle. This could cause discoloration. They are predominately exterior products to be used on glass or painted surfaces.

Bernardo says that when potentially dangerous products are used wisely by carwash staff, there is no reason to worry.

"If (the employees) follow instructions and have mixed and applied properly (it's OK)," she says.

Once the job is done, rags that have tar remover on them are another safety issue carwashes should consider. "Those (towels) should be washed separately. It is a flammable product, so you do have to worry about it if you used a lot of the tar remover--this is similar to oil rags. You have to worry about them self-combusting if you don't properly clean them and properly dispose of them."

Once the vehicle has gone through the removal process and the tunnel, what's next? If the damage was significant, the vehicle may need a sealant or wax. Some vehicles may not need any additional treatment.

"If the tar has completely been thrown onto all painted areas of the vehicle, then yes, we do recommend a reapplication of wax or paint sealant," says Stinnett. "Most vehicles are already treated on the underside of the vehicle or lower rocker panel. They have a different kind of finish that protects the paint. If it's just little pieces of tar, we don't recommend it."


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