Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
It’s been a fun week watching the back-and-forth between Steve, who asked for help with his drivetrain last week and you awesome readers who offered a ton of help: Steve’s Malfunctioning Front Shifting. I heard from Steve this morning and he’s still working on finding the best solution for his needs. I think he’ll update us with a comment when he does.
A Bike Maintenance Question
While we were assisting Steve, a roadie named “Amy P.” dropped a comment with another interesting question.
“I was wondering if you could address if ultrasonic parts washers are preferable to a regular parts washer for cleaning cassettes, chains, etc. I was looking at the ultrasonic ones recently and was surprised how inexpensive they are.”
That’s a great question, Amy. I can give you some general information about the claimed benefits of ultrasonic cleaners, but I have never owned or even used an ultrasonic parts cleaner. I can, however, point out some resources I’ve looked at in thinking about getting one for myself and/or my place of work.
For anyone who doesn’t know what an ultrasonic parts cleaner is, it’s a device that holds solvent or water. You put dirty parts into the bath and when you turn the device on, high frequency sound waves clean the parts. I don’t have a photo of one to share but in the videos below you’ll see some.
To use one you need electricity. I understand they make a buzzing noise when they’re running, too. The advantage over regular solvent parts cleaners is that you just put the parts in the ultrasonic cleaner and let it do the cleaning while you wait (though, I’ve read that you might want to loosen up the grit and grime on really dirty parts to speed the process). The best ultrasonic cleaners are supposed to be able to clean a bicycle chain almost perfectly in about 15 minutes!
I did a little searching on Amazon to check prices and I found small ones selling for less than $50. But, you can’t go too small or you won’t be able to clean the larger parts you probably want to, like cassette cogs and cranksets/chainrings. So that’s an important consideration when buying one.
Parts Cleaning Tanks
The old-fashioned parts cleaning tanks where solvent is pumped through a brush also require electricity. These parts cleaners are under $100 on Amazon currently https://amzn.to/3mMagN4 (seen in the photo below). Here’s a different style for even less: https://amzn.to/3zCf3bM.
With these cleaners, you clean the parts by scrubbing with the built in brush and usually other brushes and tools for really filthy parts. It can take awhile to clean a really grimy chain and it’s not easy to get it as spic and span as you might want because it’s hard to get in between the sideplates where gunk collects.
I’ve spent lots of time bent over old-school parts cleaners and can share that it’s an effective tool. It’s satisfying to see your componentry sparkle again. But, the solvent can stink, splash and get on your clothes and even in your eyes (if you’re not careful), and it’s never good to get it on your skin. I wear goggles, rubber gloves and an apron but it’s still easy to get solvent on yourself. In a shop situation there’s also an air compressor to blast parts once they’re out of the parts cleaner, which helps clean them even more.
Making Your Own
You can make your own solvent tank with any bucket, a strainer you can hang on the rim of the bucket and a brush. Be sure to get a lid for the bucket to seal it when not in use. Use biodegradable solvent and dispose of it responsibly. Keep in mind that as you clean parts, all the gunk goes into the solvent so its biodegradability may change.
To use a homemade cleaner like this, only put enough solvent in the bucket to be able to dunk the strainer with the bike parts in it. Then lift the strainer above the solvent and use the brush to degrease the parts dunking as needed to rinse them.
A while back in this column we covered the topic of super cleaning chains and for that story I found three videos by my friend and owner/engineer at Silca, Josh Poertner. They’re at the bottom of the page. He discusses the advantages and superior cleaning prowess of ultrasonic cleaners in all three. Here they are for your viewing pleasure.
The most alarming thing I learned from him in these videos is that soaking a chain in water- or citrus-based solvents for any more than 15 minutes can lead to hydrogen embrittlement, which can cause a chain failure. Wow. In case you don’t have time to watch the whole video, Josh covers that topic here:
If that’s true – and I have no reason to question one of the top and most accomplished engineers in cycling – it’s another reason to consider using an ultrasonic cleaner since it cleans so fast.
One Drawback of Parts Cleaners
With all parts cleaners, you eventually have to clean the cleaner. This means disposing of the dirty solvent and cleaning the tank. This can be a messy job if you let it go too long and you will need to read up on your local regulations for disposing of solvents safely. You also need clean solvent on hand to refill the tank.
This is the perfect time to point out that you can avoid needing to deep clean components by not letting them get too dirty in the first place. All this takes is sticking with a regular bike washing routine. You just have to be the one person on rides everybody always picks on because their bike is too clean: “Jeez, Robin, don’t you ever ride that thing?!”
Readers, if you’re using an ultrasonic cleaner to keep your baby beautiful, please share which one you like and your tips for using it. If you prefer another approach to keeping your bicycle clean, share that instead. Thanks!
Here are Josh’s other videos:
Cleaning the Chain Part 2
Best Ultrasonic Cleaner and Solvent
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.