Rooftec Systems: Do you Need Surfactant? (And what is it?)


Surfactant Vs Soap Vs Detergent
What are they and do you need them?

There's a lot of confusion in the industry with these terms. Some guys will assume they're all the same thing, just different names...but is that true?

While some people use these terms interchangeably, There are probably even more contractors have the common misconception that these are the correct definitions:

Detergent—product that contains surfactants

Surfactant –artificial or synthetic “soaps” that do not make soap scum.

Soap – made of animal fat and caustic. (sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably with surfactant)

While these may be the colloquial definitions, The truth is that these definitions are incorrect and inaccurate.

The technical definitions of Detergent, Surfactant, and Soap are the following:

Detergent – a chemical agent that promotes cleaning. This agent can be a surfactant, a soap, a salt such as soda ash or phosphates, a water-soluble solvent etc. So, a detergent is not just surface-active agents. But anything that promotes cleaning or adds “detergency.”

Surfactant – this is an acronym for “Surface active agent.” Anything that acts on the surface tension of a liquid (such as water) is considered a Surfactant. That goes for synthetic surfactants, soaps, water soluble solvents, etc. However, most people associate surfactants to synthetic “detergents.”

Soap – The result of a reaction with an alkali (Lye but not limited to) with a fatty acid. A fatty acid is an organic material that has a carboxylic group such as in animal fats, and certain natural oils. This reaction is called “saponification,” or “the act of making soap.”

Thus, a soap is a surfactant and a Detergent. Additionally, most exterior cleaning “surfactants” are actually detergents that contain surfactants, but are not soaps.

While it's important to know the technical differences, for the purposes of simplification, I will use the broad term, “Surfactant” to refer to the professional detergent/surfactants on the market for exterior cleaning (Washtec, Apple Wash, Southern Style, Southern Slang, etc.)

In our industry, there are generally two schools of thought:

The first group believes that “surfactants” are not necessary for cleaning.

The second group believes that surfactants should be used. This group can then be broken down into two sub-groups:
  1. Anything you use is fine (such as Dawn)
  2. You should only ever use “professional” surfactants

So who is right? Do you need "Surfactants"?

To understand this, you need to know a little bit about Bleach. Bleach in itself is not a cleaner, but rather it’s an oxidizer and disinfectant (a very good one at that). Bleach contains inorganic salts that greatly increase the surface tension of water. Because of this, bleach is a very poor wetting agent and, on it’s own, doesn’t spread and penetrate surfaces efficiently. This results in a lessened effect of the bleach.

Generally, most guys who don't use "surfactant" will all cite the same arguments:
  1. You seemingly can get similar visible result in the end.
  2. You don’t have the added cost of surfactants ($25 or so a gallon)
  3. You spend less time rinsing (if you actually rinse)

Those who choose to use "surfactants" typically will cite the following reasons why:
  1. They decrease the surface tension of the cleaning solution. The bleach can better penetrate and spread out on surfaces.
  2. They have a foaming agent that allows the bleach to cling better to the surface, increase dwell time, and minimize run off
  3. They have wetting agents which slow down the evaporation of the bleach and allow it to be effective longer
  4. They typically have a cover scent that helps mask the harsh smell of the bleach

So, can you do exterior cleaning without "surfactants"? Technically, Yes. There are many big companies in the industry that do and do it well. However, I believe that the companies who have sworn off of "surfactants" may have just never actually used the right one.

Which brings me to the next question: So what about using other “non-professional” soaps/surfactants/detergents? Why not just use something like laundry detergent or dish soap?

The two "cheap" options i hear the most about is using are Tide Laundry Detergent and Dawn Dish Soap. While you will see some benefits like the breaking of surface tension and addition of foam that increases dwell time, the benefits typically stop there. Dawn is not bleach-stable and has a lower pH. It will actually cause the bleach to break down quicker and have less of an effect on the surface. While detergents like Tide may be bleach stable, they don't possess many of the other qualities that make an effect exterior cleaning detergent/surfactant.

So the final question is, what should you use and why do I think Rooftec’s Washtec is the best one on the market?

As listed previously, there are many benefits you'll find with "professional grade surfactants". Many have very similar attributes, and the reality is that most of them on the market (not all) are just copies of one another with private labeling.

However, in addition to the listed benefits Rooftec's leading surfactant, Washtec has a few extra benefits that set it aside from other products on the market:

  1. It's formulated by our in house Chemist so it's not just a re-branding of the same formula
  2. It contains specialized polymers that chain together particulate in hard water to help create a spot free rinse
  3. It has a high pH that will stabilize and maximize that cleaning abilities of the bleach
    • We have actually had reports in the field of guys having to turn down the strength of their bleach when using it
  4. As it is used, it creates no harmful byproducts that can harm you, or the property
  5. It has a really effective floral cover scent
  6. Most importantly: it puts to use corrosion inhibitors that slow down the corrosion process
    • this allows you time to rinse off any bleached surfaces to they aren't attacked by the cleaning solution
    • this also prolongs the life of your equipment and helps maintain your pump
So the original question: Do you need surfactant?

No, you don't "Need" it. However, using the right surfactant will get you better, more consistent results and will also benefit your equipment in the long run.