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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Autumn is close -- must be time to clean the windshield wiper blades

I can feel we're getting closer and closer to fall. This morning I had to turn on the lights to make the coffee. First time I did that this season.

I added a blanket, then took off the blanket, and now have it back on again -- yep, it's almost fall!

The morning sunlight streams in at a sharp angle while I'm driving now, too. If I'm facing east in the AM or west in the PM, I'm blinded by it's brightness.

Last Wednesday, the first day back to school for my daughters, I dropped them off and was driving home. My drive takes me down a small hill, facing east. I was stopped at the light at a major intersection, in the left-turn lane and could barely see. Between the dirt on my windshield and the rays of the sun hitting right at eye level, I could not see the traffic light very well.

So, what do you do when your windshield is dirty? You run the wipers with fluid, of course. Big mistake! I smeared dirt all over the place, and was now completely blinded. I kept running the wipers with more fluid, only to have thick bands of streaking across my vision field. And I was first in line at the light to turn left! I could not even see the light, let alone if it was red, green or yellow. If I had been behind another car, I could've just followed him around the corner, until I could see better. As it was, I was first in line. Fortunately, the guy behind me could see better and he so very kindly honked me into action.

But once I was home, I realized that I'd have this same drive morning after morning for a couple of weeks (then the sun would be further south and my vision field would improve). So I'd better do something about it.

Of course, my first reaction was, "I'd better get some new wipers". Some folks do replace wipers frequently, as often as twice a year. But seeing if I could squeak just a bit more out of these wipers is more my style.

The first step in getting your wipers to do their job correctly, is to clean them regularly. Ooops! I don't get to these things very often. But today that all changes. I read up a bit on best products and procedures for cleaning windshield wipers. Here's what I learned.

  • With a mild, soapy water solution, wipe the blades with a microfiber cloth. If there appears to be gunk stuck onto the blades, use a sponge with a scrubbing side, along with the soapy water. (Alternatively, for those of us frugal folks, use onion bag mesh to scrub the blades free of gunk.) 
  • Use a fresh rag dampened with water only, to rinse the wiper. 
  • Finally, use same rag dipped in half vinegar/half water to wipe entire length of blade. The vinegar and water solution is a mild acid that will help to remove road chemicals from the rubber.
  • After the blades are clean, thoroughly clean the entire windshield, to keep from redepositing grit and dirt onto the newly cleaned wipers. Use a vinegar and water solution and a sponge with non-stick scrubber -- the type suitable for silver stone pans, (or mesh onion bag) to scrape bugs and debris off. 
  • Finally, refill your washer fluid.

"Green" alternatives to commercial windshield washer fluid

Commercial windshield products often contain methanol, and their labels will indicate that the product contains hazardous chemicals. 'Nuff said, right? (But there's a "however" below.)

Here are two recipes for homemade fluids, from Sierra Club Green Home, with no methanol -- both "green", both work, and both will save you some cash. If you live in an area that freezes, stick with the alcohol recipe for your cold months. Otherwise, when freezing is not a concern, the vinegar and water solution is effective, will cost you less, and is better for the environment.

For cold winter climates
In a clean 1 gallon jug, combine 1 to 2 cups of rubbing alcohol (91% alcohol -- don't skimp on this, add the greater amount for severe freezing temps) and 1 tablespoon any degreasing dish detergent (Dawn is a great choice, but others will work fine, too). Fill with water, cap and shake to combine. You're good to go! Label, and store in a safe location. It does contain isopropyl alcohol which is toxic if ingested.

(Pricewise, I bought 91% isopropyl alcohol at the drug store, on sale today for $1.50 for 16 oz. That makes the cost of my winter fluid about $1.50 a gallon, if based on using 2 cups of alcohol. You may or may not think that is worth the effort. But keep this in mind this winter. If say you run out of fluid, and you happen to have some 91% alcohol. You could mix up a small batch to use in a pinch.)

*Important* I thought I should add this. Before using, place a container of this in a 0 degree F freezer for 24 hours, to see if it remains liquid. If it does not, and you live where freezing is a concern, stick to the commercial products which guarantee they will not freeze.

For above freezing temps (mild climates or spring/summer)
Use 1 part distilled white vinegar to 1 part water, and just a bit of degreasing dish detergent (1/4 teaspoon for every quart of vinegar/water solution).

However, while these homemade cleaners will do the job, there are two important considerations. 1) if it freezes outside, your windshield washer system may be in jeopardy, if this homemade product also freezes. You should test your solution in your kitchen freezer, and drain your old washer fluid before freezing weather hits, then add the alcohol recipe. If you've been adding just water all summer, or vinegar/water, then the alcohol solution that you add now, would be diluted by any remaining water in your system. 2) isopropyl alcohol will remove car wax from the finish, when in pure formulations. This recipe has a dilute amount of alcohol, so it should be fine. But test on your car's waxed finish in an inconspicuous area, to be sure. We don't wax our car, so this is not a concern for us. But it may be for you.

Finally, if your wipers still streak, it could be time to replace them.

What to use with care, or not use at all, on your wipers and windshield 
  • WD40, it could cause the rubber in the blades to break down more quickly
  • wax on the windshield -- could cause the glass to become too slippery and blades to skip in wet or snowy weather, hindering visibility
  • dishwashing detergent in large amounts in the washer fluid tank -- could leave streaks on your windshield. It is okay to have just a small amount of detergent in your fluid.
  • rubbing alcohol as a direct cleaner on the blade -- while would be a good degreaser, it could dry out the rubber and prematurely age the blade. It is okay in homemade formulations for windshield washer fluid, due to the small amount.
  • do not use any homemade formulas made with ammonia. Some experts believe that ammonia could cause damage to your wiper system.
And now for an update on my wiper situation . . . my blades and windshield are clean, and I tested the fluid. The wipers did a great job, no streaks whatsoever. I'll be able to see, no matter how sharp of an angle the sun is positioned.


  1. Nice to be able to see through a clean windshield, Lili. Your homemade solutions sound perfect. :)

    1. Hi Belinda,
      It sure is! And I'm glad it didn't cost any more than making some fluid, and a little elbow grease!

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Hi Lili,
    I just found your site this week. I love it!
    Thanks for this info. I was going to put Windex in my wiper reservoir. But I think it has ammonia in it. I'm in Phoenix. Hard freezes are not our problem. So I'll try the vinegar recipe. Again, thank you, and please continue blogging. Just want you to know that your work is appreciated!

    1. Hi Sandy,
      Welcome! I'm glad you found my blog.
      Let me know what you think of the vinegar and water solution for your windshield.

      Thanks for your encouragement! I really appreciate that.

  3. I sure wish I had read this years ago. I hated buying washer fluid because of its chemicals. I no longer own a car, but I will pass this on to others who do.

    1. Hi Lois,
      More and more I'm rethinking the chemicals that I allow in the house, and at least trying to substitute less toxic cleaners when I think I'll get a desirable result. It's not just that it would be the "green" thing to do, but reducing toxins could only improve the family's health.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Our windscreen wipers have been playing up for a while, so I might have to give cleaning them a go. It's something I've never thought of doing before (whoops...). I also wouldn't have thought of using vinegar as washer fluid (even though I use it for everything else), so will try that out since we have no risk of freezing here :)

    1. Hi Economies,
      Yeah, I could not believe the difference just cleaning the blades made. And it only took a few minutes. Hopefully, you'll have similar results!

      Glad you stopped by!

  5. I have never cleaned my wiper blades. That's probably a easy and good idea. As for making my own fluid, there are too many qualifiers to make it worthwhile for me. We do have a lot of freezing weather, so I don't want to take chances.


    1. Hi live and learn,
      Cleaning the blades took about 10 minutes total. And it gave me remarkable results. I needed the wipers this morning as the roads were wet from overnight rain. I was surprised at how well they cleaned the windshield. I haven't replaced the wipers, well since we bought the car in '06. My guess is by next winter I may need a new pair. The rubber does deteriorate with exposure to heat and cold.

      Hope your winter is not too severe this year.

  6. True. Since your wipers are always exposed to the elements, cleaning them regularly is the only way to keep them working properly. There’s another way of cleaning them that I know. All you’ll need is a very fine sand paper. It sounds destructive to the rubber but it’s not, take it from me. :D Just rub it against the wipers a few times, and then rinse with soapy water.

    1. Hi Sandy,
      I first heard about using sand paper on your wipers about 20 years ago, in the Tightwad Gazette. This is a good way to get one more year out of a set of wipers, by putting the edge back on the blade, much like using a sharpening steel on a knife. The sand paper removes tiny nicks which cause the blade to streak.
      Usually by the time a blade is getting nicks, the rubber is also deteriorating, and you can only extend the life of the blades another season or two.
      Thanks for the input!


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