If you’re struggling to keep your aluminum truck and trailer parts looking clean, it might be because you are not using a low pH presoak cleaner. An acidic cleaner will knock down oxidation and bring out the best clean on your aluminum when paired with an alkaline-based soap to remove dirt and grime.

How to Clean Aluminum Oxidation on Your Fleet

Aluminum is known for its durability and lightweight properties, making it a popular choice on trucks. But because they drive many miles over rough terrain and through multiple conditions, the aluminum parts will oxidize, diminishing their appearance and begin to look dull. It's important to know how to clean aluminum oxidation.

The first step is using an acidic cleaner. (And remember, ‘acid’ isn’t a bad word, it’s an effective cleaning tool!) An acidic, low pH cleaner will reduce oxidation and give your vehicle the best clean when used in combination with an alkaline-based soap to remove dirt and grime.

Now, if your aluminum is polished, that’s another matter. You can (and likely should) still use a low pH product, but make sure it’s a product that is polish-safe. At Hydro-Chem Systems, we have some great options that are safe for polish. We can certainly help you there. Unsure if the aluminum is polished? Read more here.

However, many folks we encounter have regular aluminum. It's unpolished and prone to dulling and oxidizing, particularly on trailer rails and fuel tanks. What's happening to the aluminum? Why is an acidic cleaner essential for its maintenance?

In this guide, we’ll show you how to clean aluminum oxidation, including valuable insights and practical tips. These will ensure a safe and effective cleaning process.


What is Aluminum Oxidation?

Aluminum oxidation happens when the metal reacts with oxygen in the air or moisture, forming a thin layer of aluminum oxide on its surface. This layer dulls the appearance and makes the aluminum look almost like it has a powder coat.

It's important to note that exposure to moisture or acidic environments can speed up this process, leading to a thicker oxide layer. While aluminum is generally resistant to corrosion, prolonged exposure to tough conditions can wear it down, causing gradual damage to aluminum surfaces. Aluminum oxidation is not the same thing as rust. Rust only happens to iron and steel.


Enter the Acid-based cleaner

A good acid-based cleaner will eat away oxidation on both metal and paint if it’s allowed to sit and dwell for the right amount of time. Interestingly, it also leaves its own tiny film behind, which fills in some pores. 

With consistent use, a good acid cleaner will reduce and remove oxidation. It will also refill the pores and stave off the deterioration. Acidic cleaners have other benefits too, like brightening and attacking minerals, such as road salt. 


How to Eliminate Aluminum Oxidation

1. Choose the Right Chemicals 

Choosing the right acid-based cleaner is crucial for getting the results you want.

Consider factors such as the following:

  • Amount of oxidation
  • Type of aluminum surface
  • Frequency of washing
  • Other types of dirt and grime on the surface
  • Application method
  • The user's familiarity and comfort level with different chemical strengths

Think about these points when picking a cleaner.  And always follow the manufacturer's instructions because they help you use the product safely and effectively.

2. Prepare Your Surface

Before using the cleaner, make sure the aluminum surface is ready by removing large spots of mud or debris. If you’re unsure about the surface, test a small, hidden area with the cleaner first to make sure you get the results you desire.

3. Apply the Acidic Pre-Soak

Once the surface is prepared, it's time to apply the low pH, acid-based cleaner. Regardless of how the product is applied, make sure you have an even application across the surface. On larger vehicles, this typically means you apply it from bottom to top to reduce the chance of streaking.

Allowing the cleaner to dwell for about 30 seconds (or as recommended by the manufacturer) to dissolve oxidation buildup, maximizing its cleaning efficiency effectively.

4. Neutralize and Rinse

If you are cleaning the vehicle, this is where you would continue to wash by applying a high pH, alkaline soap directly on top of the low pH acidic cleaner, letting it dwell briefly before rinsing. This is what is known as the 2-Step or touchless wash process. 

It’s important to have both the low pH & the high pH because the contaminants that makeup road film have both a positive charge and a negative charge. The two different products also ‘attack’ different types of dirt and grime on vehicles.

The low pH acid in the pre-soak neutralizes the negative charges in the road film and works best on oxidation and minerals. The high pH level of the alkaline soap is what will target the remaining positive charges and attacks the grease, oils, and other carbon-based grime on your trucks. 

If you are only using an acidic cleaner, particularly to brighten, make sure you rinse well and/or use an additional neutralizer product to remove any residue and reduce the risk of damage to the aluminum. 


The Final Takeaway: Pro Tips for Proactive Maintenance

Cleaning aluminum oxidation properly means understanding the risks of using acid-based cleaners. These cleaners work well but the ingredients, chemical strengths and concentrations can vary. Some are non-hazardous and fairly simple to use, such as our Evershine or #1 Citric Presoak, while other stronger acids can be more aggressive and harmful and require special care when used, such as our Fleet Prep or Quicksilver. Following safety tips and advice from the manufacturer can help you find the best product for your specific situation and help reduce potential risks.

By focusing on safety and following the tips in this guide, anyone can clean aluminum oxidation well. With the right knowledge you can keep your aluminum clean and bright, enhancing the appearance and durability of your fleet. 

Our experienced, professional staff are here to help if you have any questions or need advice when choosing an aluminum cleaner. Give us a call at 616-531-6420 or email us at info@hcsclean.com, so we can make sure your fleet gets the care it needs.


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