Ultrasonically Cleaning Your Chain
Ultrasonic cleaners do a phenomenal job of cleaning chains for waxing. They use ultra high frequency sound waves to blast away contaminants on chain parts. Importantly, ultrasonic cleaners meticulously clean hidden, interior parts like pins, inner links and inside roller surfaces where the majority of friction occurs. The cleaning action, known as cavitation, is completely safe for chains and other bike parts.
Because ultrasonic cleaners are powered by electricity, we can't recommend using flammable solvents in them like mineral spirits and denatured alcohol. Instead, choose water based (aqueous) cleaning solutions that are non flammable. When combined with heat these solutions clean extremely well with one exception: they aren't 100% effective in removing new, unoxidized grease from a new chain. If an aqueous solution is used in this situation a light film of grease will remain on the chain.
To completely strip new grease and oil from a brand new chain we recommend using our container method with mineral spirits and denatured alcohol; from that point on the ultrasonic cleaner and aqueous cleaning solutions can't be beat. Note: if you live in an area that has banned mineral spirits, visit your LBS for a good quality citrus degreaser to use in the first step of our container method. No other type of solvent is advised for completely stripping new factory chain grease off a chain.
In sum, a new chain out of the box should be cleaned with our container method and petroleum solvents before its first waxing; for all subsequent cleanings, use the ultrasonic cleaner with an aqueous based solution for an incredibly clean and fast chain.
Items Needed For Ultrasonic Cleaning
- Ultrasonic cleaner with heating element (what a coincidence, we sell them!)
- Aqueous cleaning solution, for example, Branson MC-3, Simple Green HD
- 36 oz. or larger measuring cup for measuring concentrate and water (and rinsing chain)
- Paper towels
- Dry, clean rag
- Compressed air (nice to have, not critical)
- Denatured alcohol (for final rinse, nice to have, not critical but necessary for fastest chain)
- Clear plastic container with lid for alcohol rinse (Target "Monster Mix" container is best)
- Rubber gloves
- Safety glasses
Safety first: wear rubber gloves throughout cleaning process to protect hands from hot liquids and cleaning solutions; never put hands in ultrasonic cleaner while running; wear safety glasses when working with chemicals.
Ultrasonic Chain Cleaning Steps
Please note: from this point forward we will refer to the ultrasonic cleaner as "UC."
- Mix aqueous solution concentrate with hot tap water according to manufacturer's recommendations (mix in measuring cup then pour into UC, liquid should be minimum of 2/3 tank height). Time saving tip: preheat 32 oz. of water in microwave before mixing.
- Put lid on UC and plug in, set temperature to 57C (135F) and timer to 6 minutes (to degas aqueous solution). Degassing improves cleaning performance.
- After degassing is finished, place chain in basket and basket in UC, replace lid
- When temperature reaches 57C, set timer to clean chain for 6 minutes, then flip chain for additional 6 minutes (caution: chain, solution and tank are hot!)
- Unplug UC, remove basket and place chain in large measuring cup
- With chain in cup, fill cup with hot tap water in sink, keep water flowing into cup while agitating chain aggressively, empty and fill cup several times to flush out solution and contaminants in chain, minimum of 30 seconds intense rinsing/agitating is recommended
- Dry chain with clean rag, note any residue marks left on rag (distinguish between dirt and simply wet marks left by chain)
- Coffee break: it is possible to stop now if no dirt was left on rag - see additional notes at bottom of page for clarification - but for cleanest and fastest chain continue remaining steps to assure chain is as clean as possible before waxing.
- Pour out dirty cleaning solution from tank, clean tank with paper towels, including wax clinging to sides of tank (reminder: tank is hot!)
- Mix new solution with hot tap water as in step #1 above, pour into tank, put lid on, plug in UC
- Set temperature to 57C and timer to 6 minutes to degas
- After degassing is complete, place chain in basket and basket in UC, replace lid
- When temperature reaches 57C, set timer to clean chain for 6 minutes, then flip chain for additional 6 minutes
- Unplug UC, remove basket, place chain in cup for second rinsing as step #6 above
- After thorough water rinse, blow chain dry with compressed air if possible, then dry with clean rag (if any marks appear on rag, repeat process with fresh concentrate and water). Note: when in doubt, replace solution and clean more!
Final step: place chain in clean, clear plastic container (Target "Monster Mix" container preferred) that has lid, add denatured alcohol to cover depth of chain, put lid on, swish for 45 seconds, remove chain and dry with clean rag, hang chain 15 minutes before waxing. Note: check container for debris on bottom (likely), repeat alcohol rinse with new alcohol (clean container with paper towels before refilling). For fastest chain plan on multiple alcohol baths.
- A minimum operating tank temperature of 57C (135F) is recommended for effective cleaning and wax breakdown (Molten Speed Wax melts at 127F). Higher temperatures can be used if recommended by the surfactant manufacturer.
- Degassing should be completed for a minimum of 6 minutes. Some manufacturers recommend up to 10 minutes or even longer, this is OK, but the majority of degassing will be completed in 6 minutes.
- It's important to flip the chain every 6 minutes in the basket to facilitate the cleaning of all internal and external chain parts.
- A chain can be quite clean after just 12 minutes of ultrasonic cleaning (and a thorough water rinse), but if you want the fastest possible chain we recommend at least one additional cleaning cycle with fresh cleaning solution and two or three denatured alcohol rinses.
- The dirt marks left on a clean rag or paper towel are a good litmus test for determining how clean a chain is, but not necessarily representative of how clean the chain is on the inside. When in doubt, add cleaning cycles and additional rinses in denatured alcohol for the fastest chain.
- Denatured alcohol is preferred as a final rinse for two reasons: 1) It is excellent at flushing out residual debris, contaminants and left over detergent from the chain; and 2) alcohol absorbs (actually mixes with or is "miscible") any remaining water and dries quickly. Note: before rinsing in denatured alcohol the chain should be rinsed thoroughly in water and dried with compressed air (if available) and wiped dry with a clean rag.
- If out of aqueous solution, Dawn dish washing soap will suffice and only a good squirt is needed per tank. Please note that there are no anti corrosion additives in Dawn (most aqueous solutions formulated for metal do) so the chain should not be left in solution for extended periods.The same principle applies to the water rinse after cleaning. In sum, clean the chain, rinse in water and then dry as quickly as possible before waxing (or rinsing in alcohol if doing the alcohol step). It's also important to limit the amount of time the chain is stored without a protective coating of wax. Try to wax the chain within 15 minutes to an hour after cleaning and drying. Don't wax and wane, get wax back on that chain pronto!
- If new to waxing, recommend starting with a new chain to avoid a significant amount of cleaning time and mess. New chains or previously waxed chains are easy and quick to clean; chains that have been ridden and oiled are chock full of dirt, grit and grime and are difficult to clean.
- To verify your UC is functioning properly, test it by placing a small piece of aluminum foil in the solution while the machine is on and the solution degassed. Small perforations will occur in the foil if your machine is working as designed.
- Ongoing research: over the last year we've experimented with a dozen aqueous solutions in our UC's to test cleaning performance. We've also teamed up with a surfactant manufacturer in an effort to create a formula that removes new chain grease without damaging the chain's surface (or using flammable ingredients like citrus extract). Unfortunately, the chemistry required to accomplish these goals doesn't currently exist, but we'll continue testing new solutions as they are introduced. Until we find an effective and safe solution for removing new grease, we recommend using our container method with petroleum solvents as mentioned previously.
- Technical clarification: the sound waves created by a UC do not directly clean the chain, rather, they create and implode millions of tiny vacuum bubbles that collide with the chain's surface, essentially scrubbing the chain clean. Now you know.