PS Advisor December 2019 Issue

Simplifying Your Cleaning Chemicals Kit

Instead of requiring 30 random cleaning products, you would need only four or five with carefully targeted chemistry. That’s it—no more than five cleaners to serve most purposes. Here are the basics to building your own kit.

Do no harm. First, we must not damage what we are cleaning. When in doubt, test on a scrap of the same material or in an inconspicuous location.

Acids work great waterline stains, but if you leave them on too long you can harm gelcoat. Work from the bottom upward to prevent streaking.

Strong oxidizers. Bleach, hydrogen peroxide, cleaners containers peroxides, percarbonates, and hypochlorites fall into this category. They can bleach and weaken fabrics. If properly diluted and exposure time is limited, oxidizers are generally safe for materials that are non-porous or color-fast in the sun.

Solvent products. Solvents can be tough on certain plastics. Degreasers often contain citrus oils or glycol ethers (ethylene glycol monobutyl ether is a common co-solvent), which can damage some paints and plastics. Formula 409, Spray Nine, and anything that has orange in the name is suspect. Clear soft vinyl windows require special precautions (“Ultimate Guide to Caring for Clear Plastic,” Practical Sailor, July 2014).

Acids. Muriatic acid (3 percent solution, diluted 10:1) is quite useful for removing calcium or rust stains. However, the pH is very low and it will quickly corrode aluminum and most other metals. Nylon can be severely damaged and even melted by strong acids. Milder acid products, such as vinegar (acetic acid), lemon juice (citric acid), and CLR (lactic acid) are both slower and safer to work with.

Alkalis. Lye (sodium hydroxide) is found in drain cleaners, paint removers, and oven cleaners. It is very effective on cooked-on grease proteins and fats, but the very high pH that makes it effective can corrode aluminum and brass and remove or dull paint. The more moderate alkalinity of washing soda (sodium carbonate) or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) are sometimes more appropriate.

When using either acids or alkalis, remember the following:

Protect your work. Many cleaners can streak or corrode if used incorrectly:

‘Mask’ sensitive areas with water. If preventing contact is impractical, wet it down; the chemical will be diluted, which is often enough to prevent harm.

Don’t let it dry. Bleach, for example, while normally harmless to most surfaces, becomes very alkaline (it contains lye) when allowed to dry, and can eat little pits in aluminum and etch glass. It won’t do this if you keep it wet.

Clean from the bottom up. This may seem counter intuitive, but it is related to “don’t let it dry.” If you clean from the top down, undiluted cleaner will streak down the sides, resulting in uneven cleaning and etching. Your final cleaning and rinse can be top-down. (For more on DIY cleaning, see the complete report from PS May 2017, “The One-bucket Cleaning Kit.”)

Drew Frye is technical editor for  Practical Sailor and author of the how-to book on anchoring, Rigging Modern Anchors. He also blogs at his website

Comments (1)

Bleach based on chlorine also will corrode stainless steel quickly. I never use chlorine in my water tanks or anywhere on the boat at all.

George DuBose

Posted by: George DuBose | December 7, 2019 12:08 PM    Report this comment

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