By now, you have probably already heard that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is phasing out the AK-225 solvent at the end of this year. This means that if you are currently using an AK-225-based cleaning solvent, you will need to find a regulatory- compliant replacement product by December 31, 2014.

Fig. 1 – AK-225 is often used as a flux remover to clean printed circuit boards. Look for a supplier familiar with alternative chemistries that will clean circuit boards as good if not better than the AK-225.

The transition will go smoothly if you assess your cleaning needs and affected production areas, choose a supplier with experience, and stick to a conversion timeline. Keep in mind that the easiest transition with minimal expense will combine new solvent technology with your existing vapor degreasing equipment. With the phase out drawing near, below are guidelines for making a successful transition.

Assessing Your Cleaning Needs

Before selecting a replacement solvent, the first step is to assess your exact cleaning needs and affected production areas. Her are some steps to follow.

Identify all parts that are cleaned in your current system. Make note of the cleaning challenges with these parts (dead-end holes, low stand-offs, special cleaning fixtures, porous substrates, etc.). Be ready to provide details on how you define a part as being clean.

Collect data on the soils you are currently removing (stamping fluids, fluxes, vanishing oils, etc.). Make sure to confirm that all of the working fluids and soils used in your facility have been accounted for. You do not want to spend weeks on an evaluation, only to find that you somehow missed testing a difficult soil that is not soluble in your chosen replacement.

Meet with your degreaser operators and maintenance personnel to confirm that your cleaning equipment is working properly. Ask if solvent usage has gone up with no apparent cause, or if some of the parts are not coming as clean as they used to, etc. Find out whether cleaning performance changes on hot or rainy days. These are classic symptoms of improper degreaser set-up, or you are using the wrong solvent. Finally, consider scheduling a degreaser tune-up during the conversion.

Check with your production department to understand upcoming workloads and scheduled maintenance shutdowns.

Speak with your customers to determine when they will need new test parts for evaluation, and what time frame they need to accept parts made with the new fluid.

Plan for the necessary maintenance, labor, or union personnel to be available during the conversion.

Now that you have collected the necessary data from production and have confirmed critical dates from your customer(s), schedule an internal meeting, inviting the department managers, safety, and sales personnel. Explain the upcoming necessary change, and your proposed path forward. It is important that you check with the other groups within your company so that there are no conflicts on upcoming projects, and to make sure you have team support. Now, you are ready to contact potential suppliers to select a new cleaning fluid. (See Figure 1)

Choosing a Supplier

Transitioning from AK-225 will involve many technical questions and regulatory concerns. It’s important to have expert technical support that goes beyond someone sending you a website link. Therefore, you may want to consider looking for a full service partner rather than just a solvent vendor.

What to look for in a partner:

  • A company with a successful track record in helping customers through previous conversions (from CFC-113 phase out, HCFC-141b phase out, or 1,1,1 Trichloroethane phase out).
  • A company that offers multiple cleaning options tailored to your application. One-size-fits-all chemistries no longer exist, and generalized cleaning fluids may not be formulated for ideal cleaning of your parts.
  • A company with laboratory and analytical capabilities to pre-test your parts in various cleaning fluids to confirm results and material compatibility before you make a change.
  • A company that will provide on-site expert technical assistance during the transition to a new solvent.
  • Technical experts who understand your AK-225 vapor degreasing equipment and can help troubleshoot issues at your facility that may arise before and during the conversion.
  • A company whose technical experts will routinely visit your facility after the conversion to make sure that everything is working correctly.

Asking the Right Questions

When you meet with your potential partner, ask specific questions about what they are offering, and how they will help you through this conversion.

How do these new fluids compare to the solvent I am replacing? Suppliers of replacement fluids should be able to tell you how their solvent specifically meets your needs, not just in generic terms.

How long has this company been providing fluorinated-based solvents? Numerous companies that specialize in selling nPB-based solvents or aqueous cleaners, have recently jumped into the business of blending other solvents. Because these solvents behave differently, if they are not formulated properly, it may lead to cleaning problems over time. Choose a supplier with long-term experience with established formulas that can help you avoid such problems.

Is a current safety data sheet (SDS) and technical bulletin readily available on the supplier’s website? Be wary of formulations with missing or “secret” ingredients. You need to understand what chemical ingredients are in your replacement formula to ensure long-term performance, safety, and regulatory compliance.

Is the replacement solvent better than what I was using? Now is the time to choose the best solvent technology available. If the proposed supplier only offers one or two formulations, it may limit your cleaning options. Look for a supplier with multiple options in terms of chemistry technology, and can offer a solution that is compatible with your existing vapor degreaser equipment and product cleaning requirements.

How long will my current vapor degreaser last? A well maintained vapor degreaser can last for decades. However older machines may not be as efficient as new ones. A good solvent supplier will give you an unbiased assessment of your machine and let you know if a retrofit or replacement is in your best interest and what you will need to budget for a successful transition. The supplier should provide you specific details on why your machine needs attention, and not just tell you that it needs to be replaced.

Fig. 2 – Parts can often be cleaned in AK-225 solvent without special fixtures or complicated set-up.
Can I use my existing cleaning equipment with these new replacement solvents? Most of the newer commercially available solvents can be used in existing vapor degreasing equipment with little or no modification. However, some new solvents with very low boiling points will require extensive retrofits to the machine, where those costs may easily exceed the cost of a new degreaser. If your degreaser utilizes a heat-pump design for heating and cooling, or centrifugal pumps for solvent recirculation, it will not be suitable for use with a lower boiling solvent. (See Figure 2)

What will these new fluids cost? On a price per pound basis, fluorinated solvents cost more than other halocarbons or hydrocarbons, etc. However, on a price-per-part cleaned basis, they are much more efficient. There are white papers available detailing how fluorinated solvents out-clean what seem like lower cost chlorinated solvents, and do so at a lower price-per-part.

Can these new solvents be recycled? The supplier should be able to answer this question. A vapor degreaser is a working still, and can distill its solvent content over and over as part of its designed operating process. Properly formulated fluids can be efficiently recycled on site by an external still. This recycling reduces waste and provides excellent economies of use, with the distillate being pumped back or stored for later use. On-site distillation is becoming favored, as trace contaminants that come back with second-party recycled solvent can be disastrous.

Can I use this new solvent at my company’s locations in other countries? Numerous international manufacturing companies want to standardize their process by specifying a single cleaning solvent that can be used in multiple regions. This provides purchasing power for best prices and lowers engineering costs associated with making the transition. Your supplier should be able to offer you a fluid that can be used at different sites around the world.

Can I use one fluid for all of my different cleaning requirements throughout the plant? In solvent cleaning, “like dissolves like”. For example, if your soils include polar contaminants, like salts from flux residues, you will want a formulation that can solvate and carry away those residues. If you are removing a fluorinated grease, such as Fomblin® or Krytox®, you will want a solvent that is higher in fluorine content. Therefore, it will depend on the variety of soils, and materials of construction as to whether one fluid will meet all of your requirements. However, when it comes to equipment allocation, it is better to use separate vapor degreasers for separate processes, so that you do not introduce contaminants from one production process into another process. When this happens, you can have product failures across multiple production lines; so instead of saving a little money by not having dedicated equipment, you end up spending a lot of money on rework.

The solvent vendor who can meet the above criteria is someone who will be a strong partner to help you through this conversion.

Sticking to the Timeline

Now that you have collected the necessary data from production, have confirmed critical dates from your customer(s), and identified your replacement fluid, the next step is to establish a transition timeline and stick to it. If you have selected a replacement fluid backed by technical experts available to be on site and mitigate any issues that might arise with the conversion, this will help to ensure you stay on track and meet the deadline. Schedule another internal meting advising all the departments of the decisions and your timeline. You will need their support and they will need to be aware of the time tables in order for this conversion to be seamless. Plan ahead, and when possible, use the support and test services of your vendor to quantify and qualify your choices.

This article was written by David A. Ferguson, Senior Market and Technical Manager for MicroCare Medical, New Britain, CT. He is based in Hampstead, NC. For more information, Click Here .


Medical Design Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the May, 2014 issue of Medical Design Briefs Magazine.

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