When it comes to industrial parts cleaning, there are many options available to the consumer, from the type of cleaning unit used to whether to use solvents or detergents to break down stubborn grime on objects to be cleaned. Whether to choose solvents or detergents in cleaning is a vital choice that touches on everything from overall effectiveness to environmental impact and workplace safety.

What’s the difference between solvents and detergents?

The essential difference between solvents and detergents is that solvents break down and dissolve contaminants in the cleaning solution while aqueous detergents surround and lift away contaminants so they can be washed away. As everyone knows, water and oil don’t mix, repelling one another. To help water “get at” oil-based grime, detergents use additives known as “surfactants” that help water get “wetter” to lift dirt and oil away from the surface of the object being cleaned.  The detergent’s chemical properties pull grime away from the object’s surface and surround it with water so it can be washed away. Overall, solvents and detergents act in very different ways when used for cleaning.

How solvents work

As mentioned earlier, solvents are a compound that tends to dissolve away certain other materials placed in it. Technically, then, water is a solvent and is known as the “universal solvent,” simply because almost anything can be dissolved in it. However, what most people think of as solvents are so-called “organic solvents,” which include substances such as nail polish remover, paint thinner, and so on. These organic solvents are great at dissolving grease and fat-based spills and stains, something that water typically can’t handle well. When it comes to parts and industrial cleaning, you typically find solvents made from petroleum distillates, naphtha, acetone, light mineral oils, and other specialized organic or synthetic compounds. These types of solvents tend to be formulated depending on their intended application and use.

Issues with solvents

Over the past few decades, solvents have come under greater government and public scrutiny because of the undesirable effects of using them. They are often flammable, give off noxious fumes that are bad for workplace air quality, and they can be hazardous for workers to use, both in the short term and long term. Not only that, but they have been classified as an environmental hazard and must be both handled and disposed of with great care. There have been some recent reformulations of common solvents to make them somewhat more environmentally-friendly, and they still hold between 60 to 70 percent of the industrial cleaning market. However, they are losing ground to aqueous cleaners, due to better detergent formulations being developed and overall environmental concerns.

How Detergents Work

Water-based detergents start out of the gate possessing many advantages over solvents. These include non-flammability, few offensive fumes and little to no health risks for workers handling them. What’s more, many detergents are biodegradable, making them easier to dispose of safely and in an environmentally-friendly fashion. The traditional downside of detergents has been their perceived lack of effectiveness at the rapid removal of contaminants such as grime, rust, and scale from industrial parts. However, as noted earlier, more recent formulations of detergents have improved. Moreover, when they are placed in combination with the power of ultrasonic cleaners, their effectiveness becomes similar to or even surpasses that of solvents, without all the environmental and workplace safety concerns.

Ultrasonic cleaning and detergents

When paired with ultrasonic cleaning, water-based detergents have proven to be effective and thorough at cleaning every surface of industrial parts and many other objects. The detergents contact surfactants that help loosen the hold that contaminants have on the object, while the cavitation effect stemming from the high-frequency sound waves hitting the object produces millions of microscopic bubbles that blast away at the grime. Together, both ultrasonic cleaning and detergents form a powerful dynamic cleaning duo.

How do you choose the right cleaner?

There’s no exact answer, but you do have a few factors to consider. One of those is your setup and operation. You need to consider what you’re trying to clean and the regulations surrounding your work environment.

Another factor you should consider is the overall cost. Solvents are in general are more expensive than detergent solutions. Detergents are typically sold in highly concentrated form and work out to be much less expensive when you add water. Plus, you need to consider that you may be able to reuse some detergents more than you can with solvents, depending on whether you have a filtering system.

Another factor to keep in mind when looking at cost, as well as environmental impact, is the disposal of the used solvent or detergent. Properly disposing of some solvents may add quite a bit to your overall overhead costs. Some detergents may need minimal treatment before being disposed of, and others may use a technique called “bioremediation,” which uses unique microbes that clean up the solution, with only the addition of extra water and additional solution necessary periodically. Other maintenance for detergent-based systems may include filter changes, which are also inexpensive.

Don’t know whether solvents or detergents are best for your cleaning process? Why don’t you get some free advice? Contact one of our experts at Omegasonics at 888-989-5560 or email us at Omegasonics@Omegasonics.com. You can also get in touch with us by filling out our online contact form. We look forward to hearing from you!