More Than Skin Deep

While others use machines, creams, lotions and elbow grease to do the job, Monty Casteel does what plenty of hard-working owner-operators do during a truck wash: He sleeps.

Casteel’s white late-model Freightliner FLD gleams in the sun at the Eagle Truck Wash, behind the Pilot on Salt Springs Road near Youngstown, Ohio. A generator purrs as employees of J&L Detailing finish polishing rims.

Casteel is awakened in his bunk by a knock from one of the detailers, Josh, who wants him to look at the rims on the passenger side before Josh and his wife start on the driver’s side. Casteel, who drives for Family Touch of Atlantic, Iowa, is pleased. “You can’t get much better than that for $7 a rim,” he says.

The typical owner-operator has a lot riding on his truck’s cleanliness. The grime of produce markets, steel mills and lumber yards and highway contaminants such as salt and chemical de-icers do a lot to dull and corrode a truck’s paint. When that happens, it also dulls the image of its dedicated professional.

To deal with these nasty agents, owner-operators use everything from commercial wash facilities to a variety of substances applied by hand or with tools. While any of these approaches can produce good results, some are better than others. Every truck owner should know his rig’s vulnerabilities to surface damage and the basics of how to fight the most damaging dirt.

Casteel says he normally washes his truck every other week but is paying to give it a good spit and polish before he turns the truck in to his boss and collects the new one he is leasing to own from Family Touch. Like many owner-operators, even those who frequent beauty shows, he’s happy to farm out his aluminum buffing. “I don’t worry about drying because the truck is white and doesn’t show spots.”

Carl Peterson hauls cattle with his 1997 Pete 379, which doesn’t get nearly as dirty as his trailer. To protect the DuPont Imron 6000 and DuPont Chroma finish of his purple Pete, Peterson goes to great lengths to wash his entire rig often, even hoisting it with a crane to reach the undercarriage. He also paints the frame at least once a year.

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“I use Blue Beacons, but I probably wash it by hand more,” Peterson says. “The Blue Beacon I use does a better job on my trailer than anybody.”

Peterson and Larry Hellman at DuPont mention McGuire’s, readily available at outlets such as Wal-Mart, as a good cleaning agent. Many other suitable soaps are available at any auto parts store.

Many owner-operators save money by hand-washing their trucks, but many others prefer to save the time and energy, judging from the proliferation of Blue Beacon locations and independent washes such as Danny’s, across from the Flying J on 64th Street in Phoenix.

To appeal to fans of hand washing, Blue Beacon is trying a new concept, Charlie’s Old Fashioned Truck Wash in San Antonio, based on the idea that some drivers want more than the typical truck wash can offer, says Jeff Dykes at Blue Beacon. Charlie’s offers hand washing, hand drying and limited detailing.

Bill Culver believes in low-speed buffing and old-fashioned elbow grease. “You can’t rub enough,” he says.

Owner-operator Bob Hall puts his black Mack CH with Chrome Illusion fenders through plenty of washes to look its best. Hall says his biggest problem is fender chipping caused by road debris. “I have to have the whole fender repainted if I get a chip. My fenders turn 17 different colors. They have to look right.”

“Blue Beacon does a good job,” Hall says. The occasional leftover soap film is no problem unless he’s going to a show, he says. “I run too hard to hand-wash my truck all the time.”

“If there is film left on a truck, it could be a poor rinse,” Dykes says. “But film can be caused by other factors. We’re not perfect, but if we’re told about a problem when it happens, we will fix it.”

Film is not because of recycled water, which Blue Beacon is rumored to use. Though only one location of 90 recirculates water, Dykes says, “It’s only a matter of time before everyone will have to use recirculated water. Local ordinances often require businesses like truck washes to use higher water quality standards than the municipality has.” Furthermore, “The water we recirculate passes tests for drinking water.”

One possible source of streaking is the brightener, which Blue Beacon adds at no extra charge, to remove the brown film or white pits left on aluminum by de-icers. Blue Beacon also suggests brightening if you plan to repolish your aluminum, saying it will remove the contaminant and provide a clean buffing surface.

Brightener sometimes, though, causes streaks in waxed paint and on aluminum. “Brightener interacts with different polishes in different ways,” Dykes says. “Some waxes streak. It’s impossible to tell whether streaking will occur on certain waxed surfaces. Streaking on aluminum can be avoided. All our shops will cover tanks and wheels before using brightener. We can also eliminate brightener altogether if there is highly polished aluminum on a rub rail, for example.”

Hall deals with streaking and road grunge his way. He carries four different buffers and runs them from a generator attached to his trailer. Hall uses the three high-speed buffers on his aluminum wheels, reserving the low-speed Ren for his tractor and trailer after waxing. “High-speed buffers burn the paint,” Hall says.

Low-speed buffing and elbow grease are hard to beat when keeping your investment clean. In the words of Bill Culver, owner of a ’90 Pete 379: “You can’t rub enough.”

Some owner-operators use their own pressure washers to get the job done. Culver uses his to clean his undercarriage. “I am critical on the undercarriage,” he says.

No wonder. Salt and the new generation of de-icers now being laid down on roads before the snow even starts to fly can be very damaging to joints, brakes and aluminum. As a means of defense, pressure washing is top-notch because it reaches all the nooks and crannies, Dykes says.

Others aren’t keen on pressure washing. “I do not use high pressure or any brushes,” says David Kosar, an owner-operator from Dallas, who washes his truck every two weeks. “I use a woolly mitt from the auto parts store to wash and a chamois to dry. I do use pressure washes for my undercarriage, but getting too close to paint with a high-pressure wand can sometimes take off paint.”

Some tricks of the trade will never be found at a truck wash. Culver uses an old sock to apply Speedy All Metal Polish and a towel and some flour to bring out the shine. “The flour also picks up black residue,” Culver says. Some owner-operators swear by their woolly mitts and avoid brushes, but Culver prefers extremely soft brushes. He uses a sponge to wax his paint.

Whether you do your own washing, drying, waxing and polishing or catch up on sleep while others do them, don’t neglect your truck’s appearance. Keeping it clean and shiny protects your image and your investment.

Monty Casteel doesn’t mind paying to have his rims polished.


Protecting your paint is important even if you don’t compete in beauty shows. It is paint, after all, that must withstand all the dirt, salt and solvents of the road and continue to look fresh.

DuPont Imron paints are now used by Kenworth, Peterbilt, Freightliner, Western Star and Volvo on all their Class 8 vehicles. Applied, the paint is a mere 1.8 to 2 millimeters thick.
Agents called hardeners, catalysts or activators dry the paint and harden it, enhancing the paint’s ability to withstand contaminants and chipping. This 2-millimeter layer will hold up for years if treated correctly, simply by waxing and polishing.

“Any good car wax is fine,” says Larry Hellman of DuPont, who notes that waxing and polishing are not the same. “Wax has silicone, polish does not. Wax is longer lasting and provides more protection against environmental contaminants.”

While Imron 5000 has a clear coat already in its color coat and is applied in a single operation, Imron 6000 requires first a color coat and then a clear coat, Hellman says. Thus, when 6000 paint is waxed or polished, the clear coat, not the color coat, takes the shine.

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