In the modern era of reduced vehicle maintenance requirements, it’s very easy to develop a complacent attitude toward selling automotive chemicals. But, in our current market, automotive chemicals have become far more than just “snake oil” or “mechanic in a can” products. To the contrary many are essential tools for keeping a modern vehicle in top-notch operating condition.
To help you capitalize on the modern automotive chemicals market, I’ll break the most popular chemicals down into basic categories of lubricant, solvent, stop-leak, maintenance, and shop chemicals. While we’ll discover that there are some overlapping definitions among these categories, they will help us understand how most popular automotive chemicals are used in modern, day-to-day vehicle maintenance. But before recommending any automotive chemical to your customer, understand its intended use and related precautions by reading its label and enclosed literature.
If a shop performs a large volume of undercar repairs, it’s definitely going to use a number of automotive chemical lubricants. A typical wheel alignment service, for example, requires a large application of penetrating oil on the tie rod adjustment sleeves, adjustment cams and suspension attaching bolts. Not only does penetrating oil expedite the removal of rusty bolts, it also allows rusted threaded fasteners to be torqued to specification. Far from being an expense, a regular-sized aerosol can of penetrating oil becomes a profit generator by saving minutes on each job and occasionally adding hours to each day’s productivity numbers.
If you’re doing outside sales, remember that many manufacturers sell penetrating oil in money-saving gallon-sized containers. The penetrant can then be applied with a common squirt oil can or plastic spray bottle. And, if the shop prefers aerosol cans, it’s less labor-intensive and more profitable to sell a case as it is to sell a single can.
When selling lubricant chemicals, it’s important to know which type to recommend for specific applications. For example, some chemical manufacturers supply “dry” lubricants that resist attracting dust. These dry lubricants work well for door locks and other body and interior mechanisms requiring a greaseless lubricant that won’t stain clothing or upholstery.
Weather-resistant aerosol lubricants are required for applications like shift linkages, vehicle hood latches and truck tailgate latches that are exposed to outside weather. These are generally non-drying lubricants that resist water, snow and extreme temperatures. Aerosol silicone and synthetic-based lubricants are generally used on rubber door moldings, moving plastic parts and other non-metallic parts that require dry, non-petroleum-based lubrication. In contrast, silicone greases are generally synthetic-based, non-hardening lubricants that resist water and extreme temperature changes. Silicone greases are most useful for lubricating small, light-duty moving parts like shift linkages, window register mechanisms, door latches and small gear box assemblies like those found on windshield wiper motors. None of these light-duty greases should, however, be substituted for heavy-duty chassis or wheel bearing greases.
Before recommending a solvent/cleaner to a customer, it’s very important to understand that chemicals like aerosol carburetor, throttle body, mass air flow (MAF), brake/parts and electrical contact cleaner all have very specific formulations and they are not, in most cases, interchangeable. Aerosol carburetor cleaners are very harsh solvents intended to dissolve the hardened carbon and gum deposits collecting on carburetor choke plates and linkage mechanisms.
Throttle body cleaners, on the other hand, are less harsh and are intended to remove the softer deposits forming around throttle plates and idle air control valves without damaging the throttle shaft seals, throttle bore coatings, idle air control valves and throttle position sensors. Hardened throttle body deposits also can be cleaned by using penetrating oils recommended for this task. Cleaning these deposits with penetrating oil might require soaking and brushing the deposits with an old toothbrush, but they can remove hardened deposits without damaging delicate throttle body coatings or shaft seals.
Brake part and electrical part cleaners have similarly different applications. Some brake part or brake-electrical cleaners tend to be very harsh and will damage plastic electrical parts and painted surfaces. If in doubt about the properties of a specific brake/electrical cleaner, it’s always best to suggest an electrical part cleaner for cleaning plastic electronic connections and other insulating parts. Here again, reading the manufacturer’s label before selling to the customer is a good way of avoiding incorrect and potentially damaging recommendations.
Stop-leak chemicals are generally designed to reduce minor fluid leaks on older vehicles. Because a large volume of stop-leak products are sold to an amateur market, it’s important for the parts professional to read the labels on these chemicals before recommending any product for a specific use.
When used as instructed, cylinder head gasket stop-leaks can often prolong the service life of a leaking cylinder head gasket and occasionally provide permanent repair if the leak is caught in time. In contrast, cooling system stop-leaks are designed to seal small seeps and pin-hole leaks that develop in radiators and around the external edges of cylinder head gaskets.
Because heat tends to harden neoprene oil seals, gaskets and hoses, many stop-leak manufacturers design chemicals to soften and slightly expand these materials to their original dimensions. Applications include power steering, automatic transmission, and engine oil stop leaks. Because these additives often include oil supplements designed to blend with power steering, automatic transmission and engine lubrication oils, they are not interchangeable. In any case, using a stop-leak can reduce fluid leaks to manageable levels and reduce the potential for immediate and expensive repairs.
To simplify, I’m including engine and powertrain oil additives under the category of automotive maintenance chemicals. At the outset, it’s important to understand that many modern engine and powertrain oils are becoming application-specific, which means the oil used in these vehicles must contain an oil base and additive package that will extend oil service life to 10,000 or more miles.
With that said, many neglected engines might require a solvent oil additive or other lubricating additive to either clean or provide additional lubrication to the engine’s internal parts. Most oil additives will fall into this category and most, when used under these circumstances, will provide a benefit.
Other oil additives might claim to extend engine life or improve the lubricating qualities of engine oil. Obviously, I can’t make a general comment that will apply to all engine or powertrain oils and oil additives. But I will say that choosing such an additive is largely up to the consumer. In some cases, an additive might provide a benefit, in other cases, it might not. In any case, be aware that using unauthorized oil additives might void some auto manufacturers’ powertrain warranties.
Other maintenance chemicals could include fuel additives intended to clean fuel injectors and reduce carbon formation on intake valves and combustion chambers. In most cases, installing a fuel system detergent during each oil change can maintain the performance of the fuel injectors. In contrast, alcohol-based fuel additive chemicals are designed to prevent wintertime fuel line freeze-ups. Isopropyl alcohols tend to be the most effective “de-icers” because isopropyl transports the water out of the fuel tank into the engine’s combustion chambers.
The solvents, lubricants, sealants, adhesives and other compounds used in the day-to-day business of repairing modern automotive vehicles can be classified as “shop” chemicals. Solvent chemicals like aerosol carburetor, throttle body, mass air flow (MAF), brake/electrical, and electrical contact cleaners are used each day to clean automotive parts. Lubricants might include chemicals like penetrating oil, “dry” lubricants, light greases and synthetic lubricating products.
Sealants might include weather strip adhesives, the various silicone gasket sealing and gasket-making compounds, and thread locking compounds. Other chemicals commonly used in auto repair shops might include aerosol gasket-removing chemicals used for removing hardened gaskets from metal parts and anti-seize compounds used for installing exhaust systems, oxygen sensors, and corrosion-sensitive parts. For maximum productivity, every shop should have at least a small working inventory of these diverse kinds of automotive chemicals.
Since most automotive chemicals are on-demand items, it’s important to maintain the depth and breadth in your store’s automotive chemical inventory to support the needs of your professional customers. While amateur mechanics might be more price than brand-sensitive, remember that name-branded chemicals rank usually high in the minds of your automotive service professionals.
If you’re working outside sales, it’s important for you to not only understand the basic categories of chemicals and their uses, it’s also important to understand how your service professionals use these chemicals in their shops. But the most important thing to remember about automotive chemicals is “inventory, inventory and inventory.”
During most of my professional life, I’ve maintained a shelf full of automotive repair and maintenance chemicals in the shop. More specifically, I had a truck supplier maintain those chemicals because he was willing to maintain the inventory on an as-used basis. Most jobbers could greatly increase their chemical sales by providing the same type of personalized service. Always remember that, for your professional technician to use an automotive chemical product to its maximum advantage, he must have the recommended product immediately at hand.
Gary Goms is a former educator and shop owner who remains active in the aftermarket service industry. Gary is an ASE-certified Master Automobile Technician (CMAT) and has earned the L1 advanced engine performance certification. He is also a graduate of Colorado State University and belongs to the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).