This page is all about how to remove rust and clean parts using electricity,
a bucket, water, and some laundry soda. All of my information comes from finding
the information at http://antique-engines.com/electrol.asp
and trying it out myself. The information on Bill's site is extensive and
informative - I've condensed some of it here and incorporated some details I
think are helpful to call out, but his site is still an excellent resource that
your should read before doing this. I can tell you first hand that this really does work,
and it really is safe, eco-friendly, easy, cheap, and fun.
What do you need to make this work? Not much, really:
- A large non-conductive container that will hold the part in water -
A Rubbermaid tub, a plastic bucket, or a large non-metal trash can all work
great as long as they don't leak.
- A battery charger or other source of 12V DC power.
- Wires or cables to connect the electrodes together.
- Sacrificial electrodes. Iron re-bar works great, but stainless steel is
very bad (and the result is illegal and dangerous).
Sodium Carbonate. Arm & Hammer LAUNDRY Soda, also known as
washing soda, is a
good choice and what I used when I originally did this. I've also been
informed by one of my readers, Chuck Wuest, that DuPont's Pool Care pH
Increaser is 100% sodium carbonate, is readily available at home centers and
pool stores, and comes is a nice moisture resistant container. Thanks,
- Some chains or steel wire to suspend the part in the solution -
copper wire is bad and messy.
The basics are pretty simple.
- Find a container big enough to hold your part, plus some room to spare for
the electrodes - they must not touch the part for this to work.
- Fill the container with water and add 1/3 to 1/2 cup sodium carbonate
(aka, laundry soda, etc.) per
every 5 gallons of water. Mix thoroughly.
- Position the sacrificial electrodes around the edge of the container and
clamp them in place so that you have at least 4" of electrode above the water
to connect to. The more the merrier - this is essentially a "line of sight"
process between the part and the electrodes.
- Wire all of the electrodes together so they are, electrically speaking,
one big electrode. Make sure all connections are on clean metal and
sufficiently tight to work.
- Suspend your part in the solution using the wire/chains so it is not
touching the bottom and is not touching any electrodes. The part must be
electrically connected to the support mechanism and not connected to the
electrodes for this to work.
- Attach the battery charger NEGATIVE lead to the part and the
POSITIVE lead to the electrodes. Do not
get this backwards! If you do, you'll use metal from your part to de-rust
your electrodes instead of the other way around -the positive electrodes are
sacrificial and will erode over time. That's how the water becomes iron-rich.
- Double check everything to be sure the right things are touching, the
wrong things are not touching, and the cables are hooked up correctly.
- Turn on the power - plug in the charger and turn it on.
Within seconds you should see a large volume of tiny bubbles in the solution
- these bubbles are oxygen and hydrogen (very flammable!). The rust and gunk
will bubble up to the top and form a nasty gunky looking layer there. More gunk will form on
the electrodes - after some amount of use, they will need to be cleaned and/or
replaced - the electrodes give up metal over time. That's why re-bar is such a
nice choice - it's cheap and easy to get in pre-cut lengths.
The process is self-halting - when there is no more rust to remove, the
reaction stops. This is handy because you don't have to monitor it, and because
you can do large parts where they are not totally submersed at one time (aka, by
rotating them and doing half at a time) without
worrying about "lines" in the final part.
Once you are done, the part should immediately be final cleaned and painted -
the part is very susceptible to surface rust after being removed from the
solution. There will be a fine layer of black (I think it's black oxide) on the part that can be easily
removed with your favorite cleaning method. Once it is removed, the part can be primed/painted as needed.
You're playing with serious stuff here, so stay safe. It's not rocket
science, but if you're new to this, you might not know all of this - so read up
before you do any of this.
- This process produces highly flammable and explosive hydrogen
gas (remember the Hindenburg?), so do it outside, or in some other well
ventilated area. Hydrogen is lighter than air (like natural gas), so it will
collect near the ceiling - not sink to the floor
like some other flammable vapors will (like propane and gasoline). If you have open flames near this (Hint: gas appliances
like water heaters and furnaces have pilot lights!) you will most likely
severely injure or kill yourself (and others near you) and become a contender
for the Darwin Awards in the process.
- Assuming you used re-bar and steel wire/chain like you were told to,
the waste water resulting from this is iron-rich - it's perfectly safe to pour
it out onto the grass and your lawn will love it. Beware of ornamental shrubs
that don't like iron-rich soil though, unless you like making your wife
mad at you.
- Make sure the battery charger (or whatever source of power you use)
stays dry. All of the usual cautions about any electrical device in a wet
environment apply here.
- The solution is electrically "live" - it is a conductor in this
system. Turn off the power before making adjustments or sticking your hands
into the solution. You can get a mild shock if you stick your hands into the
water with the power on.
- The solution is fairly alkaline and will irritate your skin and
eyes. Use gloves and eye protection. Immediately wash off any part of your
body the solution comes into contact with with plenty of fresh water.
- Don't use stainless steel for the electrodes. The results are toxic
and illegal to dump out.
- Don't use copper for the electrodes and anything else in the water -
the results are messy.
If you are unsure of any of this or unsure about your safety -
STOP! Get help before you do something stupid. Use common sense, be smart about
what you're doing, and stay safe so you can finish your restoration project and
Here are some pictures of the Rubbermaid 30 gallon tub we're using to clean a
valve cover for a 225 Slant Six engine for a
1964 Plymouth Valiant. You can see the two electrodes on each
side of the part (2' lengths of 1/2" re-bar bought from Home Depot for $0.56
each), the flat bar across the top that the part is suspended from, the battery
chargers hooked up to the rebar on each side, and the wire that connects the two
pieces of rebar on each side. You can also see some of the "spooge" that is
collecting near each electrode as the process operates. Looking at the later
photos, you can see the amount of goo that collects directly on the electrodes
(the re-bar). Compare the photos of them fresh out of the tank with the ones
where they have been scraped and hosed off. Yuck! Also check out some of the
photos of the valve cover after the first round of cleaning, and then after
coming out of the tank and being just hosed off, and then after a quick
scrub-down with a "scotch-bright" pad. Wow! The rusty sheet metal is off of the
front of my 1958 Buick Special - once I
have some after pictures, that should be pretty fun to see and compare.