Ultrasonic Cleaning and Electronics: Myth vs. Reality

July 12, 2005
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One bitterly cold winter night about 15 years ago, I was completely snowed in at my office wondering what to do with my time. On a whim, I decided to immerse a non-salvageable television from a fire restoration job in an ultrasonic cleaning tank.

The results were astonishing. To my amazement, the television was smoke and odor free within seconds, and after several weeks, the television actually functioned properly.

Over the next two years, working in concert with Morantz Ultrasonics Inc., a process for cleaning electronics with ultrasonics was developed. The turnaround time to clean and use electronics has since been reduced to an average of 24 hours.

Word of this technology spread through the fire-restoration industry, and many myths evolved. When I attend trade shows and seminars, I realize that, although ultrasonics has become an established tool within the trade, the myths are still prevalent (and are, in some cases, actually being taught). Let me dispel a few of the more predominant myths:

Myth No. 1: Ultrasonics will cause the solder joints to loosen and the item will not function properly. It should be noted that when computer manufacturers solder parts to the circuit boards, it creates debris called flux. Many manufacturers clean the flux with an ultrasonic system. Accordingly, the process is deemed safe in the manufacturing process and holds up after repeated cleanings.

The misunderstanding primarily revolves around how ultrasonic cleaning works. Ultrasound does not "shake" dirt off with vibrations. The vibrations actually form and collapse tiny bubbles, creating a cleaning action known as cavitation. These bubbles are safe and effective as long as the machine is set to the appropriate frequency (for fire restoration, a 27-to-40 KHZ frequency is recommended by all manufacturers).

For those who believe they have had problems, check to see if the machine is set to the proper frequency. There are ultrasonic machines being manufactured for the medical field for cleaning instruments and the like that are not appropriate for fire restoration work. Dealing with the proper manufacturer to have your specific needs met and proper training is important. Not all ultrasonic machines are built for the same applications.

Myth No. 2: Electronics cannot be placed in water. We have all been taught since childhood that you cannot place electronics in water. This is simply not true (of course, we are talking about unplugged devices here). Anyone who takes a fire-restoration training class knows that while secondary water damage can do most of the damage to items from a fire, this can be corrected with proper drying. The same is true with electronics. With proper drying techniques and the appropriate chemical, any damage that would have resulted from water is eliminated.

In my restoration business, I have personally dipped thousands of electronic items in water and have had all of them come out working. Not once have I had to replace an item that I have cleaned with ultrasonics, and I guarantee my work to the insurance adjusters.

Myth No. 3: De-ionized water must be used in the ultrasonic cleaning process. As I understand it, somehow de-ionized water is supposed to keep the contact points from becoming contaminated. However, whether utilizing de-ionized water or just plain tap water, once you place a smoky piece of electronic equipment in an ultrasonic bath, the tank will become contaminated. Therefore, soot particles could conceivably end up attaching to and drying on the contact points, rendering the electronics non-functional.

The proper drying process includes spraying the contact points with a chemical that serves as a cleaner, water displacer and lubricant so that contamination of the contact points does not occur. Accordingly, tap water is fine to use in the cleaning process, eliminating an additional expense and allowing the machine to be set up anywhere there is access to water.

Myth No. 4: Ultrasonic cleaning is an exact science. An exact science is a precise combination of chemical and heat that is not deviated from in order to produce consistent results. While it is important to know appropriate chemical-quantity usage and temperature ranges, this is only a fraction of the procedure needed to produce successful cleaning results. Proper drying and use of the appropriate chemical after cleaning has proven considerably more important. This results in ultrasonic cleaning being more of an art than a science. A good manufacturer will distinguish these facts and give you excellent guidelines rather than a workbook filled with factors that really do vary from cleaning to cleaning.

Myth No. 5: Ultrasonic cleaning is limited to cleaning small collectibles. Even if this were true, it certainly would be a boost to content cleaning because of the detailed work ultrasonics provides. However, ultrasonics is a multi-faceted cleaning process capable of restoring items such as electronics, stuffed animals, oriental rugs, small electrical appliances, lamp shades, golf clubs and window blinds.

Myth No. 6: Ultrasonic cleaning simply doesn't work. To this day, many of the experts in the fire-restoration industry maintain their claim that ultrasonic cleaning simply doesn't work. In my very first IICRC smoke-damage class, I learned that all cleaning can be broken down into four parts: time, heat, chemical and agitation. And whenever one element is increased, another is decreased. In keeping with this theory, by utilizing the proper ultrasonic equipment, agitation is being increased by several hundred times, therefore decreasing cleaning time. Cleaning is usually accomplished in seconds versus minutes or hours. With respect to electronic items, ultrasonics provides the capability to clean items that could not be cleaned by more conventional methods.

Ultrasonic cleaning has been in existence since the 1940s, and utilized in our industry since the 1980s. It is now 2005, and this technology is still struggling to be understood. With the proper training, fire restoration contractors can de-mystify the ultrasonic process and learn the value of this technology as a restoration tool and a means of adding money to their bottom line.

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