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.
Will Haltiwanger says
Some of you will think I am a neanderthal but I would rather ride than clean parts, and pollute the environment in the process. Mechanics like Jim take things apart and clean them but for those of us who just want to ride: Use a good chain lube, brush or rinse off dirt and ride your bike. Unless you ride in extreme conditions that should be all you need to do. I am using Smoove on my SRAM 12 speed chain, lubing at 600 miles as recommended. Based on current wear I will get 10,000 miles or more on one chain. I do no special chain cleaning before relubing, just brush off loose dirt. Enjoy the ride!
Kerry Irons says
I’m approaching 60 years of cleaning bikes, and have only used rags to wipe off the gunk and maybe a little water to get off sticky stuff. I use the “home brew” chain lube (1 part oil, 3 parts odorless mineral spirits). I saturate the chain with the lube while pedaling on the work stand. Then I wipe, wipe, wipe the chain. The solvent slurries up all the gunk from the chain and leaves it clean. If the chain is especially dirty, I repeat the process but that is rarely necessary. In my riding environment, I do this every 350 miles or so. Every winter (after about 9,000 miles) I completely tear down the bike and clean every part with rags. Re-lube, reassemble, and ride. I get great life out of my components and never have to deal with leftover solvent, apr0ns, or rubber gloves and goggles. Maybe if I worked in a shop I would embrace a parts cleaner to speed up the work, but for a single rider, I’m not sure a parts cleaner is needed. YMMV.
Fred R says
I used to remove my chains and soak them in gasoline for hours, scrub it and resoak it, it’s what they taught us to do at the bike shop I raced out about 45 or so years ago, that got time consuming, along with hot waxing my chains, so I stopped doing all of that crap. Then I went to using a Park Chain Cleaning tool and solvent, it worked ok.
So, one day I was watching a bike mechanic cleaning a chain at a bike shop, what was he using that surprised me? Dawn For Dishes non citrus version, all he did was take a wet sponge put some Dawn for Dishes on the sponge, rubbed it in into the sponge to get to lather a bit, washed the entire bike, then wrapped the sponge around the chain and backpedaled the bike, after he was done, he rinsed with water and he was done and the chain sparkled. I talked to him about it and asked why Dawn for Dishes and not a solvent, and he said Dawn for Dishes removes grease as good if not better than any solvent he had ever used, and ALL pro mechanics do it that way as well, plus it’s has ZERO contaminates to go into the ground or waterway.
I will still doubtful that Dawn for Dishes would work that good, so I was shopping for something which that bike shop didn’t have so I went to another bike shop, while I was there, I asked the owner what he used to clean chains with…Dawn for Dishes was his reply.
I went home and googled what pro mechanics use, and most of them used Dawn for Dishes, what the pros do is scrub the entire bike with the stuff, then lastly, they scrub the chain and sprockets, then rinse with a gentle stream of water.
So, from then on, I have used nothing but Dawn for Dishes, and my chains look good. I do it the way the pros do it, wash the bike first and save the chain, gear rings, derailleur pulleys, and sprockets for last. I also use a brush made for the gear sprockets to get down inside the gaps while it’s sudsy. Of course, you do have to get the water out, but all I do is let it air dry overnight, then apply lube, I never had a chain rust doing that, but most good chains are made of stainless steel, or have some sort of hard coating on it, so rust is not an issue.
What I found out is that my chains last just as long using Dawn for Dishes as they did after soaking in gasoline overnight, in fact I think the chain looks better than it would have coming out of a gasoline soak, not to mention the stink and the dumping of the gasoline in a responsible way, plus the time it takes to dissemble the chain, clean in whatever fashion, put it on the bike and resemble the chain, a lot of work. The Dawn for Dishes is the fastest way to clean a chain, does not screw up the environment in any way, which all of that appeals to me.
Maybe after hours of soaking the chain in gasoline then pulling the chain out and setting fire to it, that might clean the chain really well…folks, don’t try that at home! LOL!!
Dave DiRoma says
I use Dawn as well. It’s a great grease buster but environmentally friendly enough that it is used to clean oil off of birds that are caught in oil spills.
Bill Brannon says
Tip. Use water in the electronic parts cleaner. Put the parts in a zip lock bag with cleaning solution. Keeps the cleaner clean. Uses much less solvent. Essentially, “sous vide” bagging for parts.
My husband does the same thing — I was going to add that to the list but your description was better than what I would have done 🙂 Sous vide!!!
I’m not a clean weenie at all, but I do own an ultrasonic cleaner. It was purchased years ago for doing other tasks around my shop. It’s not large but will fit pretty much any bicycle parts except chainrings, which are really easy to clean without an ultrasonic. So, I don’t feel you really need a large bath.
Cassettes, chains, and derailers all get nice and clean in the ultrasonic but beware of too clean! Is there such a thing? Well, in my experience newly cleaned chains need a good and thorough lubrication afterward otherwise it will indeed begin to make noise. I know this from my initial experiences. Make sure to use a good lube for the conditions you ride and lubricate each link separately. Let this sit in for several hours and then reapply before wiping down with a shop rag. Also, worn chains seem to work better dirty!! JJ
I’ve started waxing just this spring. It’s been fantastic. It’s easier than it sounds and my drivetrain is always clean. Believe me, nothing is easier than taking the chain off, dropping it in the slow cooker, letting it dry, and replacing it in the bike. I rotate two chains so that I’ve got one waxed and ready to go when my current chain is ready to be swapped out. Using quick links, this is the easiest thing I’ve ever done to keep my bike clean. Never going back to lubes or solvents.
@Bill Brannon: Wow! Really?
Will certainly try your suggestion. Wifey was not happy whenever I used the small, jewelry US cleaner to clean the chain, as it left all the residue gunk in the US tub afterwards.
However it certainly seemed to clean the chain more deeply and thoroughly than using the Park cleaning yool or by wiping down the chain repeatedly with rags and degreaser/mineral spirits/oil
Btw, yes it takes more time to remove chain and US clean it in the small cleaners (compared to what Kerry Irons does with the home made brew for example). Therefore, I compromise and do it Kerry’s way usually, then US clean the chain about every 1000-2000 kms.
I’ve tried waxing but found it too time consuming. Also found that wax flaked off all over drivetrain. Same same with using wax-based lubricants such as Pedro’s Ice Wax etc… Way too messy for my drivetrain with wax chips all over.
larry english says
i can;t think of any bike part that has to be super cleaned for any functional reason
i also think if you have an ultrasonic, you still need to get out brushes and rags, which alone would probably do 90% of the work anyway, if you didn;t have the ultrasonic.
if i had one, for other more valid reasons, like watch repair, i might try using it for bike part cleaning, but i can;t think of anything that needs to be that clean on a bike.
maybe if i ‘restored’ bikes for big money, or cars,. but i don;t
Pros in Europe use Dawn also?
Thought Dawn was not available on this side of the Pond.
What’s so special about Dawn’s dishwashing soap formula – compared to other brands?
Reminds me of audiophiles (or perhaps it was one guru audiophile, who then influenced all his followers…) touting only Dawn as being good enough to wash CDs, then rinse, because apparently only Dawn removed harsh, sibilant high frequency sounds from CDs, without leaving any hazy film afterwards. 😅
Think that Palmolive may beg to disagree?
Brian Nystrom says
Although I own a couple of ultrasonic cleaners (which I got really cheap at estate sales) and a cleaning tank that I’ve had since the late ’70’s, I don’t often use them for bike parts. My typical cleaning consists of:
– Soaping up the entire bike using dishwashing liquid and water, then rinsing with a gentle spray
– Removing the rear wheel and inserting a chain holder in the right dropout
– Spraying the drivetrain with Citra-Solv and scrubbing it while pedaling and switching chainrings
– Spraying the cassette with Citra-Solv and scrubbing it
– Rinsing thoroughly
– Reinstalling the rear wheel
– Lubing each chain pivot with my home brew lube, working it in, wiping it down, then repeating
– Lubing the derailleur pivots
– Drying things off as much as possible and calling it done
This has been working well for me for a long time, despite the fact that I don’t do it nearly often enough. In between washes, I’ll wipe the chain down (with mineral spirits, if necessary) and apply more lube as above. I get great life out of my drivetrain components and everything works properly.
Brian Nystrom says
As to the original question, should you get an ultrasonic cleaner…
If you’re trying to get the absolute best performance from your drivetrain for racing, perhaps there’s a reasonable argument for it. For most riders, it’s probably a waste of money.
David L says
I use SCC Slick All Condition chain lubricant on both my road and Mtn. bikes. It works really well and last a good long while before needing to relubed. The chains stay clean and don’t get any build up on the chain, cassette or jockey wheels. But eventually everything needs cleaning. I use the Simple Green greaser in my chain scrubber tool rinse it off with a little water, let it dry and relube with the SCC Slick All Condition lubricant.
Ray B. says
I have used a 1.5 liter ultrasonic for about 5 years to prepare new (and old) chains for lubricant testing. Most lubes – and particularly wax emulsions – require a completely oil free surface for best results. I use the degreaser-water-alcohol system recommended in Josh Poertner’s videos. However, even though Silca’s “Super Secret” chain lube worked well, for IRL riding, I like Smoove because it lasts a boringly long time and repels water. My 11-speed chains last about 7,000 miles. For trainer riding on my older 9-speed bike, I like SCC Slick. It keeps the chain quiet and beautifully clean.
William Wightman says
Ultrasonic cleaners for bike chains can get pretty dirty, so that means it is dedicated to the bike only. I use mine as part of the chain waxing process to get all oils and road grit out. After a good waxed-chain reinstall I then add 20 drops of NFS lubricant to the chain because there is an amazing synergy between the wax and lube that makes the high-power rides consistently faster than with just waxing. You have to dry wipe and reapply the lube after every ride and it is way worth the time. I love the idea of zip lock bagging the chain to keep the bulk solution clean…clever.
Jim Langley says
Thanks readers for chiming in with your best tips – great information!!
Much appreciated and sure to help Amy in her decision,
Bobby London says
The ultrasonic cleaner is not something you are going to do more than once every 4 1/2 months. I use three chains and clean them all at one time. I install one and have two in reserve, with intermediate application of Super Secret liquid wax each chain can go 1500 hundred miles before replacing with a freshly waxed chain. If your riding 12,000 miles a year that is equal to a month and a half. The entire process of cleaning and waxing with an ultra sonic cleaner takes less than an hour. I don’t know where you guys live but in that time period my area has numerous rain days where getting off the couch and cleaning my bike is a pleasure not a chore. There is nothing better than a pristine drive train and clean bike on a beautiful morning ride!