What’s in a Name? – Cleaning Agents

Cleaning agents have truly amusing trade names! However, the name is not the molecule; and mixtures with similar trade names may behave very differently. I’ll give you some tips to understand the chemicals or mixtures behind the trade name. Choose the right cleaning agent, and you make critical product cleaning faster, more effective. This makes for reliable production and higher profits.

Think about the brand names of cleaning agents. Some convey visions of royalty. Some have names that evoke sourcing from beyond the known universe. Others remind me of a life-saving pharmaceutical, or at least something that would cure diaper rash. Many names are down-right adorable, something you might name a pet hamster. Yet other cleaning agents evoke the power to save the earth from certain environmental catastrophe. Many years ago, a manufacturer of cleaning equipment berated cleaning agent suppliers for making comments like: “Oh, the blue bottle didn’t work? Try the green bottle.” (Maybe it was the red bottle!). In any event, you can be way, way more sophisticated than that!

For a cost-effective, reliable product cleaning process, a process that positions your manufacturing facility well ahead of the competition, understand a bit about the chemicals and chemical blends behind the trade name. Suppose a cleaning agent manufacturer produces a line of products that we can call “NNNNX Cleaners and Degreasers.*” The supplier proudly announces the availability of  NNNNX-10 through NNNNX-953. That’s 943 choices!

Aqueous?  Solvent?
Suppose you are currently using NNNNX-34, a mildly-alkaline aqueous cleaner and that it isn’t as effective as needed for the new parts you are trying to assemble.  You’ve heard that NNNNX-732 is much better.  Can you simply swap out the two cleaners? Well, no! Not without more details and not without testing. In years past, providers of aqueous cleaners and solvent cleaning agents often stood on opposite sides of a great divide. Now, traditional suppliers of aqueous cleaning agents have ventured into the realm of solvent cleaning, and vice versa.  NNNNX-732 might be another aqueous cleaning agent; or it could be a lower boiling degreasing solvent or a higher boiling solvent.

Understand what’s in the blend you are currently using and compare it with what might be a better replacement. If all you can figure out is that the cleaning agent of interest is the “flavor of the month” or that it works really well, get more information. Look over the product literature. Get back to the cleaning agent supplier.

Aqueous cleaning agents
Aqueous cleaning agents are often described as “fully formulated” or “specially formulated.” They are complex blends of water and other chemicals. These chemicals do things like expanding the solvency range, controlling foaming, forestalling corrosion, and keeping water-spots off the part. There are many ingredients; and those ingredients are not likely to be fully disclosed.

Trying one bottle after another can be counterproductive, to say the least. The names may sound the same, but the function will be different. An acidic cleaner (low pH) can be effective in removing corrosion or tarnish.  Alkaline cleaners, or sometimes near-neutral cleaners, are used for removing metalworking fluids. We have seen instances where a representative will try to convince a manufacturer to switch to a new aqueous cleaner on the grounds that it’s the same thing, only less expensive and “better.” Such claims should raise a red flag. Proceed with caution. Ask for details. Look at the product literature and SDS. If it still looks promising, test it. On scrap, not on product to be sold to customers!

Blending aqueous cleaning agents is an art; and a skilled aqueous formulator is somewhat akin to a master chef (although you won’t want to eat the cleaning agent!). Just like chefs, formulators have different approaches. As you gain experience in critical cleaning, you are likely to find formulators that understand your specific manufacturing application.

Get to know the master chef. This is especially important if your product is constructed of many different types of materials or has sensitive, reactive metals. Or if you are changing product lines. Or if the customer has set up new requirements.

Solvent-based cleaning agents
Some are based on a single molecule or a blend of a few molecules. Chlorinated or brominated solvents contain stabilizers to control formation of either hydrochloric or hydrobromic acid.

Select azeotropic blends (the blend ratio remains constant when boiling) for use in vapor degreasing processes. For example, blends often contain a relatively inert material that does not have a flashpoint (hydrofluoroether, a hydrofluorocarbon, or a hydrofluoro-olefin) blended with trans-1,2-dichloroethylene. Trans-DCE is a VOC and has a low flashpoint.  Non-azeotropes or “near azeotropes” are not a good choice, even though they may offer higher solvency. The composition can more readily change during use, making it impossible to have a consistent cleaning process. Even more important, the mixture can become flammable – a recipe for disaster.

Select a supplier with an excelling record of product stewardship. Many chemicals, even aggressive chemicals that have worker safety or environmental issues, can be managed successfully.

Physics and chemistry
If NNNNX-438 has a boiling point of 50 degrees C and NNNNX-439 has a boiling point of 300 degrees C, the applicable cleaning processes will be very different. The higher boiling material may clean better because a hot liquid has more kinetic energy, but may be harder to rinse, or displace, or need more thorough drying.  Look at solubility characteristics. If the two materials have very different solubility parameters, they are very likely to be effective on very different types of soils. Make sure they are effective in removing the contaminants found on your product.

The SDS (MSDS) provides useful information, including some physical and chemical properties.  However, the SDS generally does not provide the full picture. The SDS is meant to disclose attributes of chemicals that are harmful to workers. Examples include inhalation level, problems with skin exposure, and flashpoint. The SDS may also include environmental information, like aquatic toxicity. However, while an ingredient in the product may not be listed because it is not harmful to workers, it may damage the product you are attempting to clean.

And, I must emphasize: the fact that the major ingredient of NNNNX-502 has an inhalation exposure level of “not estimated” or “not determined” does not mean that the product is necessarily safer than NNNNX-508, with a PEL of 25 ppm. It just means, we don’t know as much about NNNNX-502.

It’s proprietary
Let’s consider NNNNX-666. On the SDS, the product is described as a blend of “proprietary chemicals.” Really?  I am very cautious about using such products, particularly in applications such as aerospace high-reliability electronics, and medical devices, where residue is of concern.

If NNNNX-666 really is the best cleaning agent for your application, get more information, set up a non-disclosure agreement.

Ask questions, test the product
The product line branded  NNNNX is not a molecule. Names can be very useful. If you’ve worked successfully with the company that produces the product line, if the company has a great record of product stewardship, including technical support, branding can provide a level of assurance.

But don’t assume!  There is more to a cleaning agent than the name. Rather than blindly switching from the red bottle to the purple bottle, instead of trying all 943 products, be strategic. By the way, considering the number of cleaning agent suppliers, there are probably many more than 943 cleaning agents on the market. How many? I have absolutely no idea – I stopped counting. Find out more about the cleaning agent. Ask questions; consider the properties of the cleaning agent. You will be better able to put together a more reliable process for critical product cleaning. Once you clean it right, you can build it right. That means higher quality, more effective production, and a favorable competitive position.

Do you have more questions about cleaning agents? Just give us a call! We are always delighted to help you. We can even provide some tactful questions to ask your supplier.

*It was actually pretty hard to find the name of a cleaning agent that wasn’t already taken! Based on a quick internet search, I didn’t find a product line with this name; so no manufacturer should feel singled out.

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