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I was chatting to the guys at my LBS the other day about how they get my bike so clean when I take it in for a service. They said they use compressed air to clean it.

They warned I shouldn't use any high pressure water because it can get into the sealed bearings and cause damage. I also noted on the user manual for Campag cranks (right at the end) that you should "Never spray your bicycle with water under pressure".

How much of an issue is this? Rinsing the bike with the hose is such a convenient way to wash off loose grit and then the soap after washing. How do you clean your bikes?

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"Water under pressure" probably does not refer to tap water from a hose, but 1500+ p.s.i. pressure washing. It is possible to use pressurized water, and not simply not aim it in such a way that it either directly hits sealed bearings or ricochets off something else and then hits the bearings. Just like when you cut food with a knife, you keep the knife away from your fingers. Pressure washing can get grit out of a bike chain and clean parts of the bike that are far away from any bearing, so if you have access to this tool, why not use it. –  Kaz Oct 27 '12 at 1:13

7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Yes, pressurized water can damage your bicycle, specifically by washing the grease out of bearing areas. Note, this is pressurized water.

Using a garden hose without a sprayer is unlikely to do damage. Using a garden hose with a shower type sprayer is unlikely to cause damage. Low pressure, so that it doesn't break the seals, is the point. (I avoid the risk, anyway, because I can't afford to be wrong, and how much pressure is OK depends on the strength of the seals on your particular bike.)

A car wash, or any other pressure washer, is pretty much guaranteed to do damage.

Washing by hand, with a bucket, a car wash brush, a toothbrush or gear brush, and some non-detergent based soap is the safest way, and with a little practice and preparation, can be done in half an hour.

Some detergent based soaps react to aluminum, and can cause serious damage to an aluminum frame or parts over time. Make sure you use an aluminum safe soap.

You can make things easier by using a repair stand to hold the bike, and removing some parts, if you have the tools and knowledge, but that's a bonus.

Other than that, it's just elbow grease.

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Use the garden hose without sprayer, just using your thumb to spray. Avoid spraying hard/long at bearing areas. And when you do spray at a bearing, do it obliquely, not straight into the bearing.

Or just let the bike be dirty. That doesn't hurt it either.

(Compressed air can damage a bike too, if used improperly, by driving dirt into the bearings.)

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Not sure why someone down voted ya! Dirty bikes don't run as well though...having said that, mine is always the dirtiest, must be because I like the extra resistance! –  GuyZee Jul 21 '11 at 17:47
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If the chain and sprockets are clean, and dirt doesn't interfere with brake or derailer operation, dirt has no effect other than to add a minuscule amount of weight and wind resistance. (Dirt on the rim sides will get wiped off in short order by the brakes, of course.) –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 21 '11 at 19:06

I'd wash my bike with a water jet spray as long as you dont point it towards the sealed bearings. I did that to most of my bikes and they still last. As a point to ponder, water does not destroy your bearings, its the dust and dirt that does the thing. But pressurized water may force through the sealed bearings and push away all your grease out of it, making it dry all round. As long as there is grease, then your bearings will last. Water jet is a better way to clean tight areas such as chains and gears. Remember to always relube and lube and lube them after each wash.

Another thing to consider is that detergents arent good for your bearings too. Once they get in the seals, it wont be possible to wash them out. These detergents will decrease the efficiency of your grease for your bearings, worse like dirt and dust.

After each wash, I'll use compressed air to quickly dry the chains and gears as well. And bear in mind that you MUST NOT point the pressurized air to the bearings or seal.

With that in mind, then you will have a wise, fast and amply safe enough method to clean your bike.

Just to be more safe, go get some knowledge on how to assemble/disassemble your bike. When you aren't confident enough with the seals, dissemble it and regrease it. ;)

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Actually, bearing grease is a combination of soap and oil, so it's not at all clear that detergents will decrease its efficiency. And a hazard with high-pressure water is simply that any significant amount of water in the bearings will promote rust. –  Daniel R Hicks Oct 26 '12 at 18:00

Cleaning a bike with high pressure water is relatively tame and only mildly morally wrong if you really do not know what you are doing.

A lot more fun can be had with a diesel powered steam cleaner where the water-cleaning-solution-mix comes out at a toasty 150 degrees centigrade and the 'wand' has to be held with both hands due to the 'recoil'.

Pass the 'wand' over the three main tubes of a bicycle and you can sometimes pull off the stickers in one smooth motion. Stick a 1980's Peugeot racing bike in the way of the 'wand' and you can get down to bare steel. (Temperature dial has to be adjusted for Peugeot and Halfords own-brand bikes).

Put the bike upside down and well supported so it does not get instantly blown over by the onslaught of water and point the 'wand' at the wheels, in next to no time they spin at a very fast rate and every speck of grease and grime gets to be washed away. A quick point at the hubs and they are in as-new appearance. The same goes for the chain, even the most encrusted chain gets to be denuded of all lubricants in seconds. Handlebar tape - same again, back to as new except for cuts and holes.

Most of the bikes I washed so environmentally-unfriendily were customer repairs or part-exchanges to be sold on as second hand bikes. A thorough inspection was given afterwards and areas needing oil/GT85 were treated accordingly. The oily-rag was used for the Allen-key bolts and other steel nuts where the chrome surface was likely to be damaged. A quick polish and the appearance was so much better than achievable by other means.

I did test-ride many of the bikes 'abused' by industrial cleaning methods and we also had customer feedback. On one or two occasions I did inadvertently get water into the bottom bracket or freewheel, this was not the problem though, it was dirt forced in that was the problem. I learned through trial and error not to assault such areas and to give the Peugeot models an easier time due to that water-soluble-paint problem they had. Not once did we ever get a customer complaint, people were always very pleased with getting their bikes back looking as good as new.

Would I put my own bike under the 'wand' of the steam cleaner? Most definitely, even my retro-Campagnolo road bike (that has no sealed bearings). The 150 degree water would heat the frame/components so that on a summer's day it would be dry in a matter of minutes with not a speck of dirt left behind. The air + water + steel combination needed for rust to bloom was therefore kept to the absolute minimum of time. My bikes did not rust prematurely or have mystery rattles from the freehub or bottom bracket area. As a consequence of having cleaned the bike so quickly and thoroughly I was able to spend more time re-lubing my bike than I might have had otherwise.

Had I only have had a bucket of soapy water and hose to clean my bike with I doubt I would have done such a good job, however, that is all I have now to clean my bike with. I use clothes washing powder for the soapy water and give the bearing areas a very wide berth. Same with the hose, I don't point it at the hubs or bottom bracket. I find that riding the bike is a good way to dry it off, plus sticking it under that unshielded nuclear fusion reactor that passes overhead 93 million miles away on most days.

The fact of the matter is that anything you use to wash your bike with can push dirt into the bearings. But using water under pressure is not necessarily worse than using the sort of baby's toothbrush that archaeologists use to clean up a Sumerian tablet. The reason being that a jet of water will take the path of least resistance. That isn't necessarily straight into the bearings for there is a rubber seal in the way.

From a manufacturer's perspective with parts that come back under warranty, you obviously do not want to encourage 'idiots with steam cleaners' or to recommend any type of pressure washing. However, from my practical experience with hundreds of bicycles I know that pressure washing is best done all the way with 150 degrees hot water and that in some cases you can inadvertently wash the grease out of bearings. The risk is definitely worth taking, even on your own bike.

P.S. I do take my bike to the local car wash these days and let the guys there clean up my bike. I don't know what chemical they use in their bucket of soapy water but it seems to work wonders on my alloy wheels. Last time I had to force them to take my money, the time before they wanted all of £2. If you have a garage nearby and have a sense of adventure/humour I recommend giving the car-wash guys a go.

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-1 This is every piece of bad advice on the subject all rolled into one answer. Way to go. I seriously hope you are being facetious. But i you are, it is in poor taste, as someone is bound to see and believe this is acceptable. –  zenbike Jul 21 '11 at 17:48
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I would typically NOT wash any of my bikes with a pressure washer. Maybe? If the frame was totally stripped. Upsidedown mathew...your answer is totally nuts. –  user313 Jul 22 '11 at 7:29
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It is easy to say that you shouldn't wash your bike with anything stronger than a fluffy towel, to give a risk averse answer. However, I have cited experience rather than 'theory', before jumping to the conclusion that extreme temperature pressure washing must be bad, take into account the practical experience factor - do you have it or not? Like washing anything - e.g. dishes - cold water with no soap won't do a good job. Hot water with soap with a wand that you do not point directly at bearings does a fantastic job. However there are situations e.g. the old Peugeot bikes to watch out for. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Jul 23 '11 at 10:52
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@zenbike - There's no need to attack matthew personally just because you feel he's wrong. Just dowvnote the answer and move along. –  Neil Fein Jul 27 '11 at 0:57
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@zenbike: I see no attack on you. His response was strongly worded, but he called you no names and used no derogatory language. You, however, accused him of whining and labeled him a coward. –  Carey Gregory Oct 28 '12 at 16:02

I always wash my bikes with high pressure water jet (kärscher). It is excellent for cleaning chains and gears without the hassle of taking them off and rinsing through diesel. The only thing I clean is chain and gears ;)

The only very important point is to never aim the water jet at the wrong places (ie, bearings). There are not so many bearings on a bike so it's not too difficult.

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I always heard that using a hose was bad. I can't understand why. Recently I worked for Trek World Racing for the Windham World Cup event. They wash every bike, DH and XC with a pressure washer every day. It must not damage their bikes considering their success. I just don't understand the conflicting information here. Many other companies did the same: Giant, Specialized, Rocky Mountain etc.

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I submit that professional teams, with sponsorships, and free equipment are more likely to abuse their bikes than those of us who've paid for them. In addition, none of the many professional team mechanics of my acquaintance will recommend this practice. It comes down to a trade off between needing the bike to last more than one season (they don't), and the time it takes them to wash the bikes each day, and whether that time is better spent, for them, in other pursuits. F1 Teams replace their engines every 800 kilometers. Does that mean you should do that at home in your Subaru? –  zenbike Jul 26 '11 at 17:17
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I also submit that the mechanics for the professional teams likely regularly take the pressure washed bikes completely apart and relube and/or replace all bearings/joints. –  Trey Jackson Mar 1 '12 at 16:41

I just paid £232 to replace various on my bike: headset, cassette, cables, etc. etc... I couldn't work it out, I regularly clean my bike and here I was, being told to do exactly that. I discussed this with one of the chaps in the shop. He asked how I washed my bike. I went into detail, then he asked "Do you pressure wash?" "Yes, vigorously!" Was my answer answer, "Don't!" I have learned an expensive lesson, and I know that the parts I had replace (apart from changing bar tape) was due to the washing. You live and you learn. I think I need another lifetime!!!

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Headsets, bottom brackets, pedals, and hubs contain (usually sealed) bearing assemblies. (Freehub / freewheel, too, but the bearings there are generally buried well enough to not reasonably pose pressure washing risk unless you're overhauling a hub). It's obvious that water inside a greased bearing assembly is a Bad Thing™. Cassette, chain, and cables are more likely due to wear and tear and I fail to see how pressure washing exacerbates it. –  moshbear May 24 at 6:03

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