This is the third in a series of short articles submitted for publication; “Five Key Factors in Understanding the Role of Soluble Salts in Coating Failures” was followed by “Salt Limits to Prevent Premature Coating Failures,” which brings us to this point of offering a proven way to remove what is known and documented to be a leading cause of premature coating failures.

These failures have been linked directly to the presence of residual surface salts that have not been identified and removed during surface preparation. Case studies documenting steps taken to achieve life cycle coating performance, as well as the present technological advancements in testing and the cost-effective removal of surface salts, provide accurate and environmentally sound methods to clean surfaces of contaminants. These methods will provide short and long-term cost-savings benefits due to the potential of extending protective coating maintenance replacement cycles.

For some historical perspective, the process of surface preparation and treatment for steel has been in practice in various forms for about 90 years. We can and have borrowed from the experiences of the metal fabrication segment of the auto industry and, more recently, the experiences of the pipe coating industry. Free machined parts are cleaned in a disciplined A-A-A three-step process. An Alkaline cleaner is used to remove machining oils and dirt. This step is followed by an Acidic solution to decontaminate the surfaces of any residual salts.

Lastly, an Alkaline dip is used to passivate parts, keeping visually unpleasant or unacceptable rust from forming. The three steps are distinct and cannot be combined because each has a separate chemical functionality (see ref. 1 below). The pipe coating industry tests pipe prior to processing to determine the presence of salts.

Should salt contamination exist after using automated abrasive blasting equipment to remove mill scale and rust, a phosphoric acid solution is sprayed on the surface to displace the soluble salts. Excess phosphoric acid is removed with a deionized water rinse, and the pipe is then dried and coated (see ref. 2 below). For projects in the field or in other non-protected conditions, the benefit of enclosed and controlled environments does not exist as outlined in the above examples, where systems are in place to handle waste chemicals, with the treatment and disposal of these meeting local and federal requirements. Yet, similar chemically functional products can be used to cost-effectively achieve the objective of salt decontamination.

The first step is to accurately identify and quantify the presence of the anionic salt species of concern or that are specified because of their deleterious effect on coating performance. Should the levels be above specified limits after abrasive blast deoxidation (removal of mill scale and oxide layers), a proven and approved acidic soluble salt remover can be applied in a pressure washer solution with fresh potable water to remove surface-bound salts. The rinse from the pressure-washing step can be channeled as an industrial waste without concerns about the costs associated with hazardous waste disposal. The one-step process can and should be confirmed with the retesting of affected surfaces to ensure that the application of the acidic salt remover has been completed as instructed in the manufacturer’s directions.

It is important to dwell on the cost benefits of incorporating testing and the removal of salts to improve life cycle coating performance because it is these parameters that provide justification for the consideration of changes in procedures and the enforcement of revised project specifications. Early adopters have generally not experienced additional or incremental costs for incorporating testing and removal, in large part because compliance to surface cleanliness standards is representative of contractors' compliance to all the requirements, thus reducing the risk of failure and rework. More importantly, if there are any incremental project costs, these become meaningless because the potential for life cycle coating performance is improved, and this has been proven repeatedly by those who have incorporated the outlined steps.

To summarize, once the surface-bound soluble salts have been identified during surface preparation for a protective coatings project, an environmentally friendly acidic soluble salt remover should be applied to meet the growing stringent surface cleanliness requirements that will allow the coating to achieve full life cycle.


1. “Passivating Stainless Steel Parts,” Terry DeBold, Machine and Tool Blue Book, November 1986.

2. “Has the Critical Art of Surface Preparation for Pipecoating Been Forgotten,” C.R. Bates & M. Keynes, JPCL/PCE August 2004, pages 26-34 (Note pages 29 and 30 specifically).

More in the "Understanding the Impact of Soluble Salts in Corrosion" series:

Five Key Factors in Understanding the Role of Soluble Salt in Coating Failures
Salt Limits to Prevent Premature Coating Failures