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How to clean car wheels

Car wheels, often made up of an aluminum or magnesium alloy, are what serve to hold the tire. On some cars, a plastic wheel cover or hubcap is affixed to the wheel itself. Both require cleaning to keep up appearances. And your car’s wheels take some of the heaviest abuse on your car, generally needing much more care than is provided. That’s one reason many relatively new cars have dull, dusty wheels. If you spend a little time and money maintaining your car’s wheels, then they’ll have that new-car look.

Person washing car wheel hubcap with a sponge

From an expert: Why you should clean your car wheels

Corrosive brake dust builds up on the wheels, starts to etch into the finish and causes staining, peeling and discoloration, said Todd Cooperider, President, Esoteric - Fine Auto Finishing. Even if you don’t need to replace the wheels, discolored wheels and pitting will surely lower any trade-in value. Cooperider noted that professional detailers – not local car washes – know the best cleaners to use on individual wheel types and finishes.

Detailing costs more than DIY cleaning, of course, but remember that replacing a wheel that was pitted or damaged by improper cleaning can cost about $150 per wheel. If the wrong cleaner is used, it can also be "catastrophic and expensive" to the brakes, said Cooperider. Owners of high-end cars may opt for professional detailers to coat their wheels with the latest quartz/ceramic wheel coating technologies, making cleaning much easier. Those coatings, which can cost between $300 and $600, are generally used on high-end cars with wheels that cost thousands, but that treatment is available for all wheels.

The good news is that most drivers can safely clean their wheels and rims at home as long as they use care and the correct products. That will certainly cost less than detailing, but Cooperider cautioned not to buy the cheapest cleaners. He recommended a relatively new segment of wheel cleaners that are pH neutral and neutralize the iron deposits from brake dust that attach to the rims. These wheel cleaners are far more effective than what is typically available at your local auto parts store, and they are much safer as well.

How-to tips

Once you select your wheel cleaner, consider these tips for cleaning your own wheels and rims:

  1. Choose a large foam sponge. Or, get a brush with soft bristles. Wheels are easy to scratch, so you want something very soft. Pro tip: Old toothbrushes are excellent tools for wheel cleaning.
  2. Soak the sponge and/or brush in water for several minutes before you use them.
  3. Use plenty of water. You’ll want to have one bucket to use with the cleaner and a second for rinsing your sponge and/or brush between uses. That way, you won’t transfer dirt from the water back onto the wheels.
  4. Make sure you’re working with wheels that are cool to the touch, and clean the wheels one at a time for best results.
  5. Don’t rush. Give the cleaner time to work. Depending on the type of cleaner you choose, leave it on the wheel for a minute or so and let it dispel the dirt.
  6. Work from the top of the wheel to the bottom, just as you do when washing windows. That way, dirt and water won’t run over a freshly cleaned surface.
  7. Thoroughly rinse and dry each wheel as soon as you finish cleaning it.
  8. Consider using a protective coating on your wheels after you’re done, which will make your hard work stand up to the elements longer by repelling brake dust. Pro tip: Some car waxes can be applied to wheels. Not only will wax serve as a protective barrier, but you’ll also save a few bucks from not purchasing another specialized product.

Nancy Dunham is based in Washington, D.C. and writes for Automotive News, National Automobile Dealers Association and other major publishers.
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