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Old Aug 9, 2007, 5:25 PM   #1
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A couple of recent posts here about the use of alcohol for cleaning, has prompted me to see how prevalent this advice is. I searched these forums for the word 'alcohol', and found that every post that referred to alcohol as a cleaning agent, advised that it be used incorrectly. (Most of the posts referred to alcohol within the context of beverages, and I finally gave up checking, so I don't know if all the references to alcohol as a cleaning agent gave bad advice, but I never found one that didn't.)

For cleaning purposes, only 100% pure, 200 proof, ethyl alcohol should ever be used. Every other form of alcohol contains some impurities for various purposes, most of which are to make it indigestible, and some of which are corrosive. If the container says anything like "For external use only." or "If ingested, induce vomiting.", then it is not pure ethyl alcohol.

This is the only type of alcohol that should be used for cleaning. All other types of alcohol contain other ingredients that will deposit a residue of some kind after the alcohol evaporates. The best source for pure ethyl alcohol (in the US) is the local liquor store, where it is most often used as an ingredient in recipes for homemade Kahluaand other liqueurs.

Alcohol should never be used undiluted. Alcohol is a great solvent. Pure alcohol is only ever distributed in glass or metal bottles or jars. Pure alcohol in a plastic bottle will dissolve it's container. If you use alcohol undiluted, it will damage everything it touches except bare metal and glass. If you use it undiluted on your lenses and filters, it will damage the coatings on the glass surfaces. If you use it undiluted on electrical contacts it will damage the plastic housing for the contacts, and could damage electrical insulation which may result in a short circuit.

A number of references in these pages also recommend that alcohol be applied using cotton swabs. Undiluted alcohol will dissolve the cotton and especially the plastic swab handle, and leave a residue of the dissolved cotton and plastic on whatever you're trying to clean.

When I use alcohol for cleaning, I dilute it with water from my reverse osmosis water purification system, but any distilled water will work as well. Do not use tap water or spring water, as they will leave a residue as well, though 'filtered' water might be OK. And I always use at least 10 parts water to one part alcohol. I use cotton swabs to apply the water/alcohol mixture, but I swab only once or twice, then discard the swab and use a new one for the next swab. This keeps the diluted alcohol from having much opportunity to dissolve the cotton and plastic of the swab, and keeps the same swab from spreading around the dirt it may have just removed.

Alcohol is great for cleaning, but I only use it as a last resort. I usually use just pure water, which is also a very good solvent, though not as good as alcohol.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 5:42 PM   #2
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I would question whether beverage grade alcohol is pure enough for optical cleaning purposes. There could still be contaminates left that could leave a residue such as trace amounts of toxic benzene. Perhaps people should look for reagent or absolute grade ethanol to minimize the quantity of contaminates. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol for reference.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 5:56 PM   #3
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I used to run into pure ethanol for cleaning when I was contracting for TVA (although, most of the guys laughed about it & said it was their Friday cheer). Personally, (for electrical contacts) I use contact cleaner from Radio Shack. I use Eclipse solution for glass.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 6:03 PM   #4
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Bob Nichol wrote:
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I would question whether beverage grade alcohol is pure enough for optical cleaning purposes. There could still be contaminates left that could leave a residue such as trace amounts of toxic benzene. Perhaps people should look for reagent or absolute grade ethanol to minimize the quantity of contaminates. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol for reference.
How very odd. While I was composing a response, I had intended to include a link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethyl_alcohol, but before I finished, I noticed that you had editted your post to include the same link.

Go to that Wikipedia page and search for the word'consumption'. You will find that the most pure version of ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is the kind that is fit for human consumption, though its consumptionwon't be without it's consequences (you'll get drunk very quickly). Every other form of ethyl alcohol is less pure, and therefore, not fit for human consumption, or cleaning for that matter.

And whether you think I'm absolutely correct or not, I'm sure you'll agree that the advice I've given is more correct than the other references herein to alcohol as a cleaning agent.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 6:14 PM   #5
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Kalypso wrote:
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I used to run into pure ethanol for cleaning when I was contracting for TVA (although, most of the guys laughed about it & said it was their Friday cheer). Personally, (for electrical contacts) I use contact cleaner from Radio Shack. I us Eclipse solution for glass.
When I was in the Navy, whenever a ship was out to sea for a long time, the Torpedomen used to get drunk, even though the Navy prohibits alcoholic beverages aboard ship. Torpedoes use ethyl alcohol as fuel, and Torpedomen always had a plentiful supply of the stuff.

I used to be an Instrumentman and we used to clean things with Freon 113. But when the use of Freons became prohibited, Instrumentmen switched to ethyl alcohol. The only sailors permitted access to ethyl alcohol were Torpedomen, Instrumentmen, and Opticalmen (a sister rating of Instrumentmen, Opticalmen repaired binoculars, telescopes and periscopes, and used diluted ethyl alcohol for cleaning lenses.) Even Hospital Corpsmen couldn't get ahold of the stuff.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 6:27 PM   #6
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The Quebec Liquor Commission sells "grain neutral spirit" which is ethanol in the high 90% range for mixing with syrups to make cordials but of course some people insist on drinking it neat!

My response was only to ensure people used the proper grade of alcohol to avoid streaking or damage.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 7:04 PM   #7
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Bob Nichol wrote:
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My response was only to ensure people used the proper grade of alcohol to avoid streaking or damage.
And as the Wikipedia article points out, the only impurity in 200 Proof ethyl alcohol is water, while 'Absolute Alcohol', the result of an attempt to refine alcohol even further, contains a small amount of benzene.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 8:34 PM   #8
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TCav wrote:
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When I was in the Navy, whenever a ship was out to sea for a long time, the Torpedomen used to get drunk, even though the Navy prohibits alcoholic beverages aboard ship. Torpedoes use ethyl alcohol as fuel, and Torpedomen always had a plentiful supply of the stuff.

I used to be an Instrumentman and we used to clean things with Freon 113. But when the use of Freons became prohibited, Instrumentmen switched to ethyl alcohol. The only sailors permitted access to ethyl alcohol were Torpedomen, Instrumentmen, and Opticalmen (a sister rating of Instrumentmen, Opticalmen repaired binoculars, telescopes and periscopes, and used diluted ethyl alcohol for cleaning lenses.) Even Hospital Corpsmen couldn't get ahold of the stuff.
That's pretty funny! My Dad was a 1st Mechanic stationed on a PT boat in the Philippines. He often said that if they ever had to fire a torpedo, it might get 12ft.
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Old Aug 9, 2007, 9:15 PM   #9
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Bob Nichol wrote:
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The Quebec Liquor Commission sells "grain neutral spirit" which is methanol in the high 90% range for mixing with syrups to make cordials but of course some people insist on drinking it neat!
I do hope you mean ethanol. Methanol is quite poisonous, known as wood alcohol, as opposed to ethanol, generally called grain alcohol.

Similar beverage is sold in US as 'Everclear'. I have seen it recommended for sensor cleaning, but not used it. Anhydrous Isopropyl alcohol is also fine for cleaning and is less aggressive than either ethanol or methanol.

I disagree with Tcav on diluting with even pure water. It takes too long to evaporate, and picks up dust. While there are plastics which are attacked by alcohols, coatings on glass lenses and sensors are quite robust.

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Old Aug 9, 2007, 9:55 PM   #10
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I stand corrected Brian, and have edited the post!
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