Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Cleaning Common Automotive Spills

When you first start doing your own automotive maintenance and repair work, you'll find yourself making some pretty impressive messes. Even as an auto repair veteran, I still find myself making a few good ones. Since spills are a pretty common occurrence with mechanical work, knowing how to clean them up should be part of your knowledge base.

Most automotive spills and messes are petroleum related, and that's because most of the chemicals used in your car (gasoline, motor oil, and various other lubricants) are petroleum based. The other common spill is ethylene gycol, otherwise known as antifreeze.

Gasoline Spills
My most recent spill was about a gallon of gasoline from the motorcycle I have been working on. In addition to smelling foul, a gasoline spill will stain concrete, soak into anything the the garage it can reach, and is flammable until it is dry. Luckily, gasoline is also fairly easy to clean up.
  1. Soak up any pooled gasoline. There are commercially available products for this, and they work quite well. However, we have three cats so we have kitty litter on hand, and it works as well as the purpose-made products and they're frequently made of the exact same material. 
  2. Cover the standing gas with the litter and work it around with a stiff broom until it is all absorbed. 
  3. Sweep the contaminated material into a plastic or metal container and place it outside to dry. This keeps gas fumes from building up in your house or garage. 
  4. Call your local landfill or trash disposal company for instructions on how to dispose of this material safely, as laws and capabilities vary by jurisdiction.
  5. Scrub the spill area with a strong mixture of liquid dish soap and hot water and the same stiff broom that you used before. This will clean up the gas that has soaked into the concrete
  6. Rinse the area and repeat as needed until the smell and stain go away. The strong soap mixture breaks down and dilutes the gasoline, making it safe to hose down.
Motor oil and other petroleum-based chemicals are cleaned with the exact same process as gasoline. If they feel oily on your fingers, that's a great indicator that this process will work.

Old or especially stubborn stains can be cleaned, but they require harsh, dangerous chemicals such as Trisodium Phosphate and yield less return for the effort and risk. In almost all situations, once the smell is gone and the dish soap isn't removing any more stain, you're safe to stop the process.

Antifreeze Spills
Antifreeze cleans up a bit differently.
  1. Soak up any standing puddles, just like with gasoline. The big difference is what happens afterward.
  2. Hose the entire area down with water. Antifreeze is water soluble, and this helps dilute it somewhat. 
  3. Cover the stained area with powdered laundry detergent. Cover this powder with soaked newspapers and let it sit and soak for a few hours. Wet rags also work, but they're not as easy to clean up.
  4. Remove and discard the newspapers after the soap has had a couple hours to soak in, then use your stiff broom to scrub the laundry detergent until suds form. 
  5. Rinse the concrete with water and allow to dry. 
  6. Repeat as needed if stains remain.

Spills happen. Cleaning them up properly makes for a safer, healthier, and better work space.


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