Solvent vs Aqueous Cleaners

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Industrial and manufacturing businesses commonly rely on assistance from Aqueous cleaners or solvents to remove oil and grease, dissolve paint and resins, and clean parts, tools, and equipment. Choosing a cleaning solution for your components determines performance and cleanliness, and learning about your options for sustainable, effective cleaning solutions affects your bottom line. 

What is aqueous cleaning?  

Aqueous cleaning is water-based, using detergents and surfactants combined with agitation and pressurized spray to decontaminate your industrial parts. Aqueous cleaning is more sustainable, has a higher safety margin, and has a stable, non-VOC composition.  

What is solvent cleaning? 

Whereas aqueous cleaners use water as the primary solution for cleaning, solvents are pure chemical cleaners that you can combine to maximize performance. Solvent cleaners work by dissolving soil and grease on parts; as most solvents contain alcohol, acetone, ethanol, or butyl acetate, they then evaporate, leaving behind a clean component.  

Aqueous vs. Solvent Cleaning  

Both aqueous and solvent cleaners achieve the same cleanliness level, but there are a few key differences between the two:  

Evaporation vs. Rinsing and Drying

Water-based cleaners don’t evaporate at the same rate as solvent cleaners. They must be rinsed and sometimes dried to remove any leftover residue. Solvent cleaners, as stated above, usually contain alcohols such as ethanol or isopropanol, which don’t require rinsing. Additionally, the evaporation process takes less time than rinsing and drying. 

Environmental and Health Impact

Solvents often prepare metals for different finishing processes like welding or painting and contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds). VOCs have significant short- and long-term detrimental effects on the health of humans and the environment; their gaseous nature contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer. Since they have water-based chemistry, aqueous cleaners, while potentially dangerous when dealing with solutions on the far ends of the pH scale, are relatively nontoxic.  

Reactive Additives

Additives to aqueous cleaners, such as chelating agents, saponifiers, and builders, are not compatible with all materials. They can react aggressively and cause metals or plastics to break down and not function as intended.  

Why choose aqueous cleaners? 

Although solvent cleaners are efficient, when it comes to impacts on health and the environment, there’s no question about which is the safer option. Solvent cleaners cause illnesses ranging from skin and lung irritation to affecting the central nervous system, among other complications, including loss of life. 

Furthermore, methane is often released via evaporation in conjunction with VOCs. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies, the industrial sector accounts for 22% of greenhouse gases released into the air. With this in mind, many companies seek safer, more eco-friendly solutions such as water-based solutions as part of their sustainability programs. Aqueous cleaners offer a more sustainable solution by using water-soluble and biodegradable detergents, making them safer for the user and the environment.  

Which chemistry best fits your applications? 

Both aqueous and solvent cleaners have the potential to be effective. Still, cleaning depends on the contaminant, substrate, and regulatory requirements. It is essential to note that many regulatory bodies force manufacturers to carefully evaluate solvents for environmental and health concerns, causing water-based cleaners to be more common as they are safer.  

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