Often times in the midst of all of the wonderous technological advances of our age, small innovations we use everyday are overlooked, or taken for granted.
Most often when people get excited about a new product in this era, it is one of the digital variety, the result of an eager millenial tapping away at a keyboard, coding some newfangled smartphone app or website, or the like. I would like to bring attention to an invention from a simpler time, when inventors did not tinker away on a computer, but in their garage. Modern technological advances in automobiles are primarily on the electronics and hardware side of things as well; Smarter anti-lock braking systems, more accurate GPS, the evolution of automation from cruise-control to self parking to autopilot, camera systems, packing an endless array of media options into a dashboard mounted touchscreen display, these are but a few examples. Many of us know the history of the automobiles primary mechanical components such as the engine, the transmission, the drivetrain, differentials, onboard safety systems, but what about what is collectively referred to as “the windshield cleaning system”? In this essay I will pedantically and painstakingly document at length the history, composition, and subtler machinations of windshield washer fluid and it’s delivery system. Mary Anderson of Greene, Alabama, is credited with the invention of the windshield wiper in 1903; the earliest documented idea for having a windshield wiper unit hooked up to a windshield washer fluid reservoir however was in 1931, by Richland Auto Parts Co, in my current city of residence, Mansfield, Ohio. The system sprayed a 50/50 alcohol and water mixture as needed, out of a nozzle mounted under the windshield when a handle inside the vehicle was squeezed. This primitive model used air pressure to aerosolize the liquid similar to an antique perfume bottle.
Uruguayan racecar driver and mechanic Héctor Suppici Sedes of Trico industries patented the first windscreen washer in 1936 which made use of a 6v DC electric pump. The system was first adopted by the luxury brand Cadillac followed by Ford. By the mid-fourties combination windshield wiper-washer systems were commonplace. In the late 1950s another novelty was introduced whereby a driver could push the washer button and automatically activate the wipers for a few swipes across the windshield. Nowadays that’s accomplished by means of an electronic timer, but at the time a small cylinder connected to a switch provided the delay as the vacuum that powered the wipers leaked off.
Some modern windshield washer delivery systems still have the nozzles mounted directly below the windshield while other have them mounted on the hood in front of the windshield, or a tube which attaches to the windshield wipers. The stylish and revolutionary Citroen C4 Cactus SUV is the first vehicle to have the fluid sprayers built directly into the windshield wiper blades which the design team claims provides the most efficient and economical use of the fluid in the reservoir. This is still under debate by experts on the efficient and economical use of fluids. Other recent advances in windshield washer system technology include pre-heated fluid reservoirs, standard in vehicles such as the Buick Lucerne, beginning in 2006, but aftermarket pre-heating systems are available.
Pre-heated windshield washer fluid is especially desirable in colder climates for the clearing of thin layers of ice and frost from the the windshield, as it eliminates the need to manually scrape it. According to GM this “intensive” washer fluid is also much more effective at clearing insects and other stubborn debris from the windshield. BMW has developed a system that begins by spraying the windshield with heated “intensive” windshield washer fluid and follows up with unheated “unintensive” fluid for maximum cleaning effectiveness. Future windshield washer systems could eliminate windshield washer fluid and wipers entirely. McClaren is currently researching the use of sound to clear debris from windshields, where a phased ultrasonic vibration transducer array would actively power away debris, including of course rain and snow, from the surface of the glass.
As you can see the windshield washer system has a long and storied history with boundless potential, not at all painful to research. On the subject of the fluid itself. Windshield washer fluid, usually dyed blue, and unpleasant in smell and taste in order to deter consumption (if the labels warning of it’s fatal toxicity are not enough) is sold in grocery stores, gas stations, and automotive specialty shops all over the world for use in all windshield washer fluid reservoirs. The most common formula is a 50%/25%/25% solution of water and various types of alcohol respectively. Distilled water (H20), Methanol (AKA “wood alcohol” CH3OH) to denature (make undrinkable as a spirit), and ethyl alcohol (C2H60) and/or isopropyl alcohol (C3H80) which lowers the freezing point and ensures the fluid is sterile, along with a brightly colored industrial dye, usually blue dye such as HI-pH Blue 6010. Windshield washer fluid generally comes in 1 gallon premixed containers but can also be found in smaller undiluted concentrates that need to be mixed with water before being added to the reservoir. Distilled water is the preferred dilutent in windshield washer fluid, since it will not leave trace mineral deposits on the glass, resulting in a streak-free shine.
In the past 30/70 water/methanol mixtures were more common but inhalation of aerosolized methanol was discovered to have serious detrimental health effects, prior to that the fluid was simply a 50/50 of water and ethanol, which people drank to become intoxicated, thus the need for denaturing (more specifically to avoid liquor tax). There are actually many different varieties of windshield washer fluid now besides the standard mix. Other common washer fluid solutions are given labels such as “All-Season”, “Bug Remover”, or “De-icer”, and usually are a combination of solvents with a detergent. Dilution factors will vary depending on season, for example in winter the dilution factor may be 1:1, whereas during summer the dilution factor may be 1:10.
It is sometimes sold as a sachet of crystals, which is also diluted with water. Anti-freeze, or methylated spirits, may be added to a mixture to give the product a lower freezing temperature. But as stated methanol vapor is harmful when breathed in, so more popular now is an ethanol and ethylene glycol mix for wintry conditions. Many cars display a warning when the fluid level is low, and some car makers have replaced the float sensor generating this signal with a simple two-pin probe in the tank. This requires a conductive fluid, but most common windshield washer fluid mixtures will work.
Mercedes sells a special fluid for their cars. Consumer advocacy groups and auto enthusiasts believe that the alcohols and solvents present in some, but not all, windshield washer fluid can damage the vehicle. These critics point to the corrosive effects of ethanol, methanol, and other components on paint, rubber, car wax, and plastics, and groups propose various alternatives and homemade recipes to protect the finish and mechanics of the motor vehicle. Fascinating stuff. Strap yourself in, and hold on to your pants and panties as we prepare to delve even deeper into this magnificent subject. Windshield washer fluid, as important and useful as it is, has raised numerous health and environmental concerns over the years. Methanol, the denaturing agent in the fluid, is extremely toxic.
As little as 4 millileters have been known to cause blindness, and an also rather small amount of 30-60 millileter often results in extreme epigastric pain, ataxia (paralysis), liver failure, obtundation (extreme fatigue), delerium, coma, and DEATH. Children and pets, who are of course unable to read warning labels, are at the greatest risk for death by windshield washer fluid. The majority of methanol poisoning related deaths in adults however are usually attributed to Moonshine. On an interesting note: the cure for methanol poisoning and also ethylene glycol (antifreeze) poisoning is to consume a larger amount of a strong spirit.
If ethanol is more readily available, the liver will break it down into harmless acetic acid (vinegar), and the toxic chemicals will pass through the digestive tract instead of being converted into formaldehyde. Dangerous levels of Methanol can also be absorbed via inhalation, such as through a vehicles air vents after it has been aerosolized and sprayed on a windshield. Environmentalists argue that the use of denaturants in windshield washer fluid should cease entirely, for fear of the chemicals washed away in the rain contaminating ground water. The official statistics on plants and wildlife injured by windshield washer fluid are inconclusive- if such statistics exist at all.
Such environmentalist recommend pure distilled water being used by itself in windshield washer fluid systems as the, albeit far less toxic, ethanol could still also have a negative effect on plant and animal life. This practice would pose significantly more risk to drivers however. A 2010 study by UK’s Health Protection Agency showed a significant correlation between windshield wiper fluid and legionaires desease. It was found that proffesional drivers, who’s companies all used plain water in there washer fluid reservoirs (likely for cost effectiveness), were five times more likely to contract the desease. When tested, all of said reservoirs did indeed contain the virus. It is my pleasure to enlighten you on this thrilling revelation.
Behold, the confounding mysteries of windshield washer fluid, unravelled before you