Since the birth of road transport, trucking operators have strived to reduce fuel usage and increase payloads. Over the past decade, the industry’s push towards alloy wheels because they’re far lighter than steel wheels has seen many truck manufacturers make alloy rims a standard fitment on various models.
For instance, almost half a tonne (476kg) weight saving is gained on a standard B-Double fitted with alloy wheels compared to steel wheels. It’s a well-documented fact that tighter vehicles enhance rolling resistance, reduce fuel consumption, and allow for greater payload. Since the late eighties, when freight carriers first started using alloy wheels, their adoption has steadily grown. By the turn of the millennium, alloy wheels made up almost 50 per cent of the heavy-duty market.
Today, approximately 70 per cent of all heavy-duty trucks run on alloy wheels.
But ask any driver, and they all agree that alloy wheels also significantly improve vehicle aesthetics, helping trucks remain brighter and shinier for longer. It’s a fact that has not gone unnoticed by truck owners and is something they use to attract and hopefully retain drivers in an industry suffering from a severe driver shortage.
Truth be told, most drivers will want to their wheels looking good.
But Aluminium wheels do require regular maintenance. This is because they experience rim flange wear and oxidisation during everyday use. However, heat from dragging brakes seized wheel bearings or running for an extended duration on flat tyres will cause irreversible damage to rims.
Rims’ shiny surfaces become dull over time due to road grime and other contaminants, and they require regular polishing to maintain their shine. However, since a wheel’s appearance is a big attraction for many truck operators yet constant maintenance is not, alloy wheel makers like Alcoa have developed their Dura-Bright rim that eliminates any requirement to polish wheels.
Dura-Bright rims should never be polished since this will effectively remove the specialised coating. Therefore, it is essential first to understand the difference between a polished alloy rim and a Dura-Bright coated alloy rim, and secondly, the correct procedures to clean rims properly.
The first step is to locate the rim’s identification marks. However, if these identification marks are not readable, you should remove the wheel from service.
Alcoa wheels have a Dura-Bright decal located on their coated rims and the letters DB preceding the wheel part number (for Dura-Bright) to indicate the wheel is coated. On the other hand, polished wheels have a plane brand decal and the absence of the DB nomenclatures.
As an added safety measure, aluminium rims have a heat sticker discreetly installed on them. If a wheel experiences excessive heat, the heat sticker will change colour, and the wheel should take the wheel out of service.
Next, no matter what type of alloy wheel you are working with, it needs to be cool to the touch (35°C) before you commence washing.
Let the wheels cool down if the rims are at operating temperature. Then use a hose or a pressure washer to rinse the wheels, and remember to spray the surface of the wheels around the stud holes. If the tyre is still mounted on the wheel, exercise caution when using a pressure washer to prevent tyre damage with a powerful stream of water.
Pre-washing Polished Alloy Wheels
During the pre-wash, make sure to get rid of big chunks of dirt and debris. Then use a reputable aluminium wheel cleaner to remove brake dust, dirt, grease, and grime from the wheels.
A word of caution here, do not use strong detergents or alkaline or acidic cleaners to clean an alloy wheel. Many of these solutions can etch the surface of the alloy rim and leave dull steaky areas. Also, it’s always wise to verify the wheel is at ambient temperature before applying any cleaning chemicals to the wheel.
Apply the cleaning solution evenly over the surface of the wheels. Take care to do around the stud holes and inside the hand holes. Use a soft-bristle brush (not a wire brush) to agitate the cleaner and periodically apply water to prevent the cleaning solution from drying. If the tyre is removed, use a stiff-bristle brush to scrub the wheel drop centre with an all-purpose cleaner.
Finally, rinse the wheel meticulously, ensuring all debris and detergent are removed. Don’t be afraid to repeat this process a few times if necessary.
Failure to execute the above cleaning step thoroughly often harms the polishing outcome of the wheel’s final appearance as rubbing detergent and debris against the wheel’s surface can scratch the wheel.
Polishing non-coated aluminium wheels
There are several ways to polish aluminium wheels. The first is the “Mr Miyagi” method that’s by hand – wax on, wax off.
After pre-washing the wheel and ensuring it’s dry, use a non-abrasive aluminium polish on a buff pad. But pay attention to the instructions on the polish container. Most polishes should never be allowed to dry on the buff pad. The best way to prevent polish from drying on the buff pad is by polishing one small section of the rim at a time. It can take a little over an hour to polish one wheel this way.
The second method uses a power tool such as a drill with a buff wheel. Once the wheel has been pre-washed, use a non-abrasive aluminium polish on the rim and with a soft bristled buff pad on a drill to polish the wheel. This definitely cuts polishing time in half compared to hand polish.
Some bigger fleets have the luxury of a portable wheel-polishing machine. These will roll up to the truck and mechanically polish the wheel in approximately 10-15 minutes. However, these machines only polish the rim. They will not remove any oxidation on it.
It is recommended to use carnauba wax to protect the wheel’s surface once the wheels are polished. This step reduces corrosion and pitting caused by contamination and will make future cleaning and polishing far easier.
Conversely, if polished surfaces go unwaxed, they become susceptible to water spotting and pitting from environmental contaminants. Therefore, always use a clean, dry cotton cloth to remove excess wax when applying carnauba wax.
Cleaning Durabrite wheels
While aluminium rims with Dura-Bright coatings should never be polished, from time to time, it is still necessary to clean them to preserve their shine.
After the pre-wash, rinse generously apply a mild reputable truck wash detergent to the wheel surface with either a spray applicator or a clean, soft bristled brush or sponge.
To prevent any etching or staining of aluminium due to improper cleaning solution, take care to use only a non-corrosive, aluminium-appropriate, clear coat, safe cleaning solution. Under no circumstance use cleaning products containing hydrofluoric acid or abrasive tools and scouring pads (such as 3M Scotch-Brite) as these will remove the rim’s protective coating. Take care never to allow any soap to dry on the wheel’s surface.
Lastly, rinse the wheel thoroughly with clean water to remove all remaining detergent. If you wish to dry the rim, use a chamois or soft, clean cloth.
Never use polishes or wax on coated aluminium rims. Remember, Dura-Bright finishes will maintain a bright and shiny surface for many years without the need for special polishes.
After polishing or cleaning any aluminium wheel, inspect the rim’s identification marks again to ensure it is legible. Also, check that the heat sticker hasn’t been removed from the wheel. Aftermarket heat indicators are available that turn colours if wheel temperatures rise above 250 degrees Celsius.
It’s also worth checking the heat indicator on each wheel periodically to ensure that the rims are in a serviceable condition.