Most of a bike has solid two dimensional surfaces, protected with paint – like an automobile or motorcycle. The solid parts can be hosed off or gently scrubbed. Cleaning the bike exposes the joints and the open parts, including the chain, to dirt, water and detergents. Cleaning a chain is necessary to use the chain. Many riders clean well enough to be able to run the chain, and to get the chain clean enough to be able to lubricate it. Many pages, videos and podcasts discuss cleaning chains; for instance, see the following:
- The “How to clean your drivetrain” section in The complete guide to bike gears | Bicycle transmissions explained at BikeRadar, and
- Chain cleaning: a complete guide from lazy to obsessive Dave Rome, CyclingTips May 2018. (Not in the CyclingTips “Endless FAQ” format).
Most chain cleaning removes visible material that interferes with the chain. Chain cleaning articles mainly address:
- the visible dirt that sticks to the ouside and inside of link plates, on the chainwheels, in the derailleur pulleys and on or between the cassette cogs;
- cleaning chains that have been lubricated with motor oil, gear oil, and most of the proprietary bicycle chain lubricating fluids.
The aricles above cover cleaning chains in sense above, but also discuss deep cleaning. I will not repeat or summarize the articles above.
Deep Cleaning with Solvents
It is difficult to remove the microscopically small particles of grit that adhere to the rollers, link plates,pins and other load bearing surfaces. Jobst Brandt, in a paper published in Bicycle Technical Information (Sheldon Brown site), described the problem (emphasis added):
Chain wear is caused almost exclusively by road grit that enters the chain when it is oiled. Grit adheres to the outside of chains in the ugly black stuff that can get on one’s leg, but external grime has little functional effect, being on the outside where it does the chain no harm.
The black stuff is oil colored by steel wear particles, nearly all of which come from pin and sleeve wear, the wear that causes pitch elongation. The rate of wear is dependent primarily on how clean the chain is internally rather than visible external cleanliness that gets the most attention.
Only when a dirty chain is oiled, or has excessive oil on it, can this grit move inside to cause damage. Commercial abrasive grinding paste is made of oil and silicon dioxide (sand) and silicon carbide (sand). You couldn’t do it better if you tried to destroy a chain, than to oil it when dirty.
… the chain should be cleaned of grit before oiling, and because this is practically impossible without submerging the chain in solvent (kerosene, commercial solvent, or paint thinner), it must be taken off the bicycle.Jobst Brandt, Bicycle Technical Information, January 2002, Chain Care, Wear and Skipping; (Also see Jobst Brandt bio and index of Jobst Brandt’s BTI articles.)
The grit in a chain is partly the metal products of friction between steel surfaces, and between chain parts and grit in the lube. The grit includes dust suspended in air or accumulated on the road and suspended in water on the road.
Deep cleaning a chain involves removing the chain from the bike and using solvents that detach and the oils and grit. Removing a chain was a serious problem without master links, and demanded time and materials. The practical limits of deep cleaning were lllustrated by a parody in an April Fools Day (prank/humour) article “The ShelBroCo Bicycle Chain Cleaning System” in the Bicycle Technical Information (Sheldon Brown) pages. A complete cleaning of a chain would literally require dissassembly of links!
Deep cleaning of a new, unused chain with solvents is the most effective way to remove enough factory grease to let lubricasnts adhere to bare metal. It is recommended/required as a prelude to lubrication:
- Immersion waxes – by manufacturers of the hard wax pellet products and the hot waxing advisers;
- Modern fluid chain coating wax products – by some of the manufacturers – e.g. Silca Super Secret Chain Coating
A deep cleaning may be necessary “to reset contamination” (as Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling refers to this) if the hard wax on a chain had been contaminated by dirt, water and wear under adverse conditions. There are less demanding ways of cleaning a waxed chain for rewaxing.
Deep cleaning can be used with chains that have been run with drip lubes. It can remove most contamination when a chain has been contaminated during a ride(s) under adverse conditions. It removes factory grease, which can improve the penetration (movement into a chain) of lubricant. It is not a common practice.
Deep cleaning a chain that has been lubricated with an oil based fluid and used involves:
- First, removing visible contaminants and lubricants from the exterior surfaces of the chain and the drive train components that contact the chain – chainwheels, cassette cogs, derailleur pulleys. Some parts can be scraped or brushed. For other, rags can be used, or the strong blue disposable paper towel (e.g. Scot Shop Towel). Some users use microfiber wipes and towels. Small amounts of detergent may be used
- Then washing it with/in a detergent. The detergent market is confusing. I have not tried to get past the surface. Some detergents are marketed for cleaning bike chains or greasy things or anything. Some are marketed as environmentally friendly. The methods include soaking, soaking and agitation, soaking and scrubbing any surface than can be reached with a scrubbing device. Some soaking is necessary to allow the detergent to contact the material to be cleaned off inward facing visible surfaces and visible on the edges of load bearing surfaces (edges of rollers and liink plate). Some advice cautions against soaking a chain in detergents that may chemically interact with the chain steel, causing “hydrogen embrittlement”. Some advisors recommend automotive or aviation detergents to remove oil from metal without damaging the metal.
When a chain is immersed in detegent, it needs to be rinsed and dried before either solvents or lubricants are applied. A chain can be hung on a peg or a nail, in a dry place and left to dry. Users with the resources may blow compressed air through a chain.
“Deep” cleaning means, basically, washing the chain in solvent. Some advisers recommend soaking before washing. The method is: immerse the chain in the solvent in a closed container, and shake it. The shaking caused turbulent flows of material in the container, including the movement of diluted grease out of the chain and clean solvent into the chain. The shaking or agitation of the chain in the container is shown in many videos on the web. (Many of the videos refer to this method a part of a program of applying paraffin by immersion.) Some use plastic bottles (the wider mouth bottles for Gatorade and similiar products – not the narrower soft drink bottles). The videos will suggest on attaching something to an end of the chain to extract the chain from the container. This deep cleaning is done with the chain off the bike, of course. Removing factory grease take several rounds of immersion and agitation. It depends on what the chain manufacturer put on the chain, and on how much.
The recommended solvent for deep cleaning is mineral spirits (“mineral terps”), or white spirits, a low viscocity combustible petrochemical product. Some white spirits are formulated, packaged and sold for specific applications: fuel, solvent, paint thinner or even as lubricant. Mineral spirits, as opposed to paint thinner, are preferred for degreasing metal items. Turpentine is a paint thinner made from plant resin; it is not used for cleaning metal because it leaves residue.
In Canada, most retailers sell mineral spirits manufactured by Recochem Inc.1Business Wire: “Founded in 1951 in Montreal, Recochem has grown into a leading manufacturer and marketer of branded, private label and bulk automotive aftermarket and household fluids for consumers and industrial customers worldwide. The Company operates a global platform, with a network across North America, Europe, Australia, China, India and the Asia Pacific region. Recochem’s strong reputation in the markets it serves has earned the Company vendor appreciation awards from its customers and long-standing relationships with its suppliers and partners around the world. With innovation and agility built into its DNA, Recochem is poised to continue its expansion into global markets while maintaining its core values of exceptional customer service, consistent product quality and environmental stewardship.” in the H.I.G. Capital2Business Wire: “H.I.G. is a leading global private equity and alternative assets investment firm with $43 billion of equity capital under management. Based in Miami, and with offices in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Atlanta in the U.S., as well as international affiliate offices in London, Hamburg, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Bogotá, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, H.I.G. specializes in providing both debt and equity capital to small and mid-sized companies, utilizing a flexible and operationally focused/ value-added approach. Since its founding in 1993, H.I.G. has invested in and managed more than 300 companies worldwide. The firm’s current portfolio includes more than 100 companies with combined sales in excess of $30 billion.” portfolio under the brand name Solvable. Recochem does not offer a Solvable brand odourless mineral spirit; Recochem makes an “odourless” mineral spirit sold as Varsol, usually as a paint thinner; Varsol is a trademark of Imperial Oil in Canada.
Adam Kerin of Zero Friction Cycling has deep cleaned many chains in the ZFC business and the ZFC tests. In Episode 6 “Chain Preparation FAQ” of the ZFC YouTube series, Adam Kerin notes the differences in the removing factory grease – some chains take 3 rounds of mineral spirits but SRAM chains take 4 or 5. This was a useful aside. Some internet commenters have said that SRAM chains are noisy, implying that a SRAM chain is noisy even when properly lubed. Removing factory grease, and using wax or a high-reputation drip lubricant appears in my experience to make a SRAM chain run silently.
Mineral spirits cut the grease, but may leave microscopic amounts of water that cause some oxidation of the metal. It is also necessary to rinse the chain with a polar solvent that will carry off any water. Denatured alcohol (“methylated spirits”) is a polar solvent. It is mainly industrial ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Ethanol is also the intoxicating chemical in potable beer, wine and spirits. In the US, the federal government mandated during Prohibition – the rule was never changed – that industrial ethyl alcohol must be “denatured” (poisoned) with methanol to deter people drinking it and bootleggers from selling it. It is a clear fluid – no food flavouring, colour or sugar. It evaporates quickly. It is cheaper than potable spirits (hard liquor). Using potable spirits to clean a bike chain is inefficient: potable spirits contain other substances that leave residue, and it is expensive. Solvable does not offer a denatured alcohol, but does distibute methyl hydrate or methanol. Some Canadian hardware stores sell the Klean Strip brand “Denatured alcohol clean burning fuel” in the blue metal container depicted in the image on the denatured alcohol Wikipedia page (link above).
Rinsing a chain cleaned in solvent in the polar solvent allows the user to dry the chain. Again, when a chain has been immersed in mineral spirits and alcohol, it needs to be dried before lubricants are applied. Generally, after an alcohol rinse, this is fast since alcohol evaporates quickly.
Used mineral spirits may or may not be subject to hazardous goods handling rules. The used spirits are contaminated with fine particles, factory grease residue, and petrochemical lubricant residue. Mineral spirits are petrochemicals. Rules vary.
Cleaning a Waxed Chain
There is less material on cleaning a chain that has been lubricated with solid wax by immersion in melted hot wax.
One option for chains that have been ridden a few hundred Km. in dry conditions or only for short rides in mild wet conditions is simply immersing the chain in hot wax again. This is the Molten Speed Wax manufacturer recommendation for “training chains”. The wax will get mildly contaminated, but this method can be repeated many times before the wax needs to be is discarded. A variations on this approach for more serious contamination is swishing the chain in boiling water to wash off the contaminated wax, drying the chain and putting the chain in the hot wax. Zero Friction Cycling lists the boiling water method, with these comments, among other options:
… There is no tangible benefit to boiling water flush rinses after dry rides – especially road riding where extremely little contamination will get into your solid wax lube – but even for most offroad riding unless extremely dusty – just wipe outside. …. Don’t over complicate things – basically just re wax unless fully wet ride …. With waxing just even straight re-waxing will reset contamination in chain extremely well, and a brilliant job can be done with just some boiling water.Zero Fiction Cycling, Waxing-FAQ.pdf
A badly contaminated chain may need a deep cleaning to reset the chain to a clean condition, and an immersion in clean wax.
On-the-Bike cleaning devices
There are plastic devices that can be attached to the lower span of a chain on a bicycle placed against a support, when the bike is not in motion. The chain is rotated through the device by pedalling backward as the user hold the device steady. The device has rollers with bristles that pentrate inside links and bend the chain into the lower compartment, which is filled with a chain detergent. The Park Tool CM-5.3 is modern device.
These devices are used on chains that have been lubricated with fluids. The general goal is to remove dirt sticking to the chain by rotating the chain in detergent that facilitates detaching dirt from the metal, and rubbing off the dirt. In principle, these devices remove dirt in the chain on the outside surfaces including the surfaces oriented inside such as link plates. This is in aid of making a chain clean enough to lubricate. The bristles and cleaning components of these devices do not reach inside the sleeves, around the pins, or in the spaces where link plates overlap with brushes or friction. They clean “inside” the chain to the extent that detergent gets in and out, and carries away contaminants.
These devices hold tiny amounts of cleaning fluid which gets grossly dirty, which leads a use to believe the chain was dirty – which was a given. These devices have to be emptied and refilled at short intervals. They clean the visible surfaces including most of surfaces of link plates and roller pretty quickly.
The detergent will penetrate the chain. It may take a long time to remove internal contaminants, which will also introduce more detergent and water.
It is best to wait and let the detergent dry off before relubricating a chain. Dried detergent residue, in principle, does not affect new lubricant. Wet detergent residue contaminates the new lubricant. These devices are less useful than they seem to be.
The information security consultant Bruce Schnier uses the term security theatre:
Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.Schnier on Security, Beyond Security Theater
Using these devices does some good but does less good than the user thinks.
Wear and Replacement
Chains wear, and have to be replaced to protect other drive train components and ensure the proper operation of the gears. Cleaning a modern bushingless chain lubricated with most chain lubrication products may not extend the useful life of a chain.
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