Dry ice blasting: A better way to clean that project?

Photography by Terry Thomas

Story by Terry Thomas

Quick quiz: How many of you, when faced with tackling an evil, greasy car project, have opened the hood, beheld the awful mess underneath, then shut the hood and gone back inside to watch TV

We have. 

For most of us, there is nothing fun about cleaning the non-shiny parts of our cars, which usually involves hours of disassembling things, scraping off the loose gunk, and then either using chemical cleaners or media blasting to get things clean. 

This is quite literally a pick-your-poison decision. Chemical cleaners can be toxic and create a nasty mess, while media blasting–using sand, glass or walnut shells–can still leave plenty to clean up. 

If only we could wave a magic wand and summon an easier, less toxic, cleaner way. Well, we can, if that magic wand happens to blast out tiny snowballs of carbon dioxide at extremely high velocities. Behold the wonders of dry-ice blasting, a cleaning technology that’s quickly gaining popularity for its effectiveness, safety and environmental friendliness. 

Use of the technique has exploded, to the point where dry-ice blasting the underside of a car has now become a table-stakes level of preparation for high-end vehicles on auction sites like Bring a Trailer. But does it make sense for the average car enthusiast?

Trial by Ice

Our test subject was a humble yet dirty 1995 Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon wearing nearly 30 years’ worth of accumulated gunk under the hood. It also had an oil leak somewhere south of the valve cover, but things were so grubby that it was impossible to locate the source. 

Adding to the mess, the Mercedes factory had liberally applied Cosmoline, a yellow waxy goo meant to protect the car during ocean shipping, under the hood. Three decades later, the stuff was still clinging to multiple places, including the plastic intake manifold. 

So we visited CryoMode, a dry-ice blasting service aimed at the car community. Ruben Alanis, one of the proprietors, explained that dry-ice blasting works similarly to other blasting techniques, but it substitutes tiny pellets of dry ice–frozen carbon dioxide–in place of other media. 

“When the dry ice hits the surface,” he explains, “the dirt is immediately frozen. Simultaneously, the impact of the dry ice shakes the dirt loose and it falls to the floor. The dry ice pellets sublimate cleanly into the air, leaving no liquids or additional residue to dispose of.” 

This last point is one of the key advantages of dry-ice blasting: Unlike sand or glass, which can create a massive mess that must be either contained in a cabinet or cleaned up, these tiny snowballs of CO2 magically vanish into the air once they hit the target and remove the dirt from the surface. 

“Since there is no scrubbing, scraping or other abrasive technique involved,” Alanis continues, “cleaning with dry ice can drastically reduce the length of time required for deep cleaning. There is no need to disassemble or mask parts, reducing labor and downtime.”

The process can be used to safely clean leather and cloth, steel and aluminum, and every surface in between. “Some of my favorite before/after photos are from rubber hoses and plastic shields because the black comes out looking like it just rolled off the assembly line,” he adds. 

How’d the process work for us? In a word, great. As with media blasting, the grime and dirt fell off, but unlike media blasting, it left very little mess to clean up. 

While the dry-ice blasting loosened some paint on the valve cover, it did rejuvenate nearly everything under the hood, including all of the rubber and plastic components. 

So, how much? We paid $250 for the job, which took about an hour. Prices vary from locale to locale and, as with most technologies, may decrease over time as more competitors enter the marketplace. For now, though, dry-ice blasting applies a welcome new technology to an age-old problem.

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