Driveways tend to have a porous surface — at least those made from solid materials such as concrete, paving stones and even asphalt. Unfortunately, these absorbent materials are particularly prone to oil stains as well as stains from other car fluids like gasoline and transmission fluid. The good news is that concrete and other driveway materials are both hard and durable, so you aren't limited to using gentle cleansers, though it's always a good idea to start with something mild and go from there.
There are plenty of options for cleaning spilled oil and other stubborn stains from your driveway, including the use of kitty litter, powdered laundry detergent, dish soap, degreaser, trisodium phosphate, pressure washers and more, so with a little elbow grease — and sometimes after multiple attempts — you should be able to remove almost any stain.
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How to Clean Fresh Spills
The process for cleaning fresh car fluids, such as antifreeze, transmission fluid, brake fluid or oil, is different than that of cleaning stains. Whatever you do, never reach for your garden hose or a bucket of water after an oil spill because oil and water do not mix, and this will just make the spill spread out on your driveway. Instead, you need to grab something absorbent.
- If you have some paper towels or shop towels on hand when you spill the fluid, place them on the spill immediately to absorb
the liquid but don't try to rub the towels around or you may just push the
fluid further into the driveway.
- Find something powdery and absorbent to put on
the oil spill. While cat litter is one of the most popular options (the cheaper clay-based
products with no perfumes and special clumping properties are the best), if you
don't have any, you can use similarly absorbent products such as sand, sawdust,
baking soda, cornmeal, talcum powder or cornstarch.
- Remove the paper towels and sprinkle a thick layer of
absorbent material on the spill. If you start to see oil on top of your oil
absorber, add more.
- Leave the litter or other material on the spill for 24 hours and then sweep it up with a broom and dispose of it at your local auto parts store or recycling center. (For gasoline spills, contact your local fire department regarding proper disposal since this material could be a fire hazard.)
It's worth noting that some companies sell products specifically designed to be oil absorbers. However, many professionals, such as those from Garage Tool Advisor, warn against buying them because they are essentially just expensive kitty litter mixed with deodorizers.
Cleaning Set-In Oil Stains
Once you've absorbed as much as you can from a fresh spill, move on to cleaning the oil spots left behind. It's always a good idea to start working with gentle chemicals first and then move on to the stronger stuff as you go, particularly if your driveway has previously been sealed, as some chemicals can damage sealers when they are left on for long periods of time. Always make sure you fully clean off the cleansers because these can also damage sealers.
- Start by wetting oil stains with a garden hose and
then add a thick layer of baking soda or powdered laundry detergent. Let it sit
for a few hours and then scrub with a stiff brush. Rinse thoroughly with water.
- If the stain remains, try using liquid dish
soap. Pour a thin layer on wet concrete and scrub with a stiff brush. Let it sit
for 15 minutes and then rinse until clean.
- If dish soap fails, try a degreaser. While there are many commercial degreasers available, Oil Eater is recommended by many mechanics as a top oil remover. If you want to use something you already have on hand, many people have found success using oven cleaner. While you should always follow specific manufacturer directions when working with these products, the general process is to apply the product directly on the stain and then let it sit for five to 10 minutes (do not let the product dry into the concrete). Scrub the stain with a stiff brush and then rinse well with water.
How to Clean With Trisodium Phosphate
Trisodium phosphate (commonly shortened to TSP) is a heavy-duty alkaline cleanser. It should only be used as a last resort. If you have a stain that just won't come out no matter what you try, it might be the only real option to draw the oil out of the concrete. Because the high alkalinity of this cleanser makes it dangerous, always wear a ventilator, protective clothing, gloves and goggles and only use the product in a well-ventilated area.
- Create a paste with 1 ounce of TSP, 1 cup of water and 1 cup of baby powder. For particularly large stains, up the recipe accordingly and switch the baby powder for diatomaceous earth, which is cheaper and easier to get in bulk.
- Spread the paste over the stain in a 3/8-inch-thick layer. Leave it on overnight so the TSP can pull the oil out of the concrete, and the powder can trap it.
- Scrape off the paste with a paint scraper and then sweep away the remaining powder.
- If the stain remains, you can add more water to refresh the residue from your cleaning paste and reapply, which will allow it to further extract stains.
- When you are satisfied with the results, throw away the residue. Scrub the area with a nylon brush and water to neutralize the TSP and then rinse well with a garden hose.
How to Pressure Wash Oil Stains
If you have a pressure washer, your first instinct may be to grab it and start spraying the oil, but there are some things to keep in mind before heading down this route. The most important thing to remember is that oil is hydrophobic, so if you start spraying without any cleaning chemicals, you could end up just pushing the oil stain further into the driveway or garage floor, making it even harder to clean. It's also important to remember that this process should only be used on stains and not fresh oil spills, as this will just spread fresh oil and push it deeper into the concrete.
Ensure that your pressure washer has both a large-area nozzle with a 12-inch spread as well as a high-pressure nozzle that can focus the spray into a specific area. While gas pressure washers are usually more effective, an electric one should be fine for this project. Similarly, you can use either a cold or hot pressure washer for this process.
- Clear the area around the stain and sweep the
concrete to clear away debris. Put on protective glasses, gloves and
closed-toe shoes before rinsing the area with a pressure cleaner filled with
water and fitted with the large-area nozzle.
- Fill the pressure washer with water and a
commercial concrete and driveway cleaner designed to be compatible with
pressure washers, such as Simple Green Concrete and Driveway Cleaner. Always mix according to manufacturer
- Fit the high-pressure nozzle on the pressure
- Use the pressure washer according to manufacturer
recommendations, spraying the stain until it is gone. Be aware that excessive pressure, the wrong nozzle and/or holding the spray too close to the surface you're cleaning can damage many materials, including concrete and asphalt.
- Rinse the area well with the wide nozzle to ensure the cleanser has been fully washed away, as some cleansers can erode concrete when left on the driveway surface.
Cleaning Other Car Fluids
While the process for absorbing most freshly spilled chemicals used on vehicles is largely the same, cleaning the stains is a bit different based on the fluid type. That means before you start cleaning, you should identify the type of stain.
Oil stains are the most common and are generally dark black or brown. Antifreeze should be cleaned immediately because it can be poisonous to children and animals. The stains it leaves behind can be easily identified because they are generally pink or green and have a sweet smell. Gasoline may look similar to oil, but it is lighter, has a distinct smell and often has a rainbow-like appearance when light hits it. Transmission fluid generally looks like motor oil but has a red tinge to it.
To clean dried antifreeze, pour a little water on the ground to rehydrate it. Sprinkle laundry detergent over the stain and then cover it with newspaper. Sprinkle some water over the papers to keep the spill moist and then let it sit for three hours. Scrub with a stiff brush and then rinse completely with clean water.
For gasoline, always use gloves and goggles while cleaning up and be cautious because it is flammable. When dry, pour liquid dishwasher detergent on the stain, spread evenly with a scrub brush and let it sit for 10 minutes. Scrub thoroughly and then rinse away with a hose. This process may need to be repeated a few times to fully remove the stain.
When cleaning transmission fluid stains, spray an oven cleaner or commercial degreaser on the stain and then let it sit for 10 minutes. Scrub with a stiff brush and then turn your garden hose sprayer to its highest pressure setting (or use a pressure cleaner if you have one) to spray away the stain. You may need to repeat this a few times. If a transmission fluid stain still doesn't come out after multiple attempts with oven cleaner or degreaser, try using a commercial concrete stain remover according to manufacturer directions.
How to Prevent Stains
Cleaning oil stains and other messes related to vehicle maintenance or older vehicles can be difficult. That's why it's often better to avoid spills and stains in the first place. If you're working on a vehicle, always put down an oil pan or cardboard under the car before you start. If you have a vehicle that leaks regularly, an oil pan or a few sheets of cardboard under the leak can prevent spills on your driveway or garage floor. Alternatively, you can get a garage floor mat to cover part or all of the area under your vehicle.
You may also consider sealing your driveway, which can prevent future spills from sinking in and causing stains. You'll have to reseal the area every few years since the sealant can wear down, but this can help prevent difficult-to-remove stains from sinking into your driveway. That said, you should still clean fresh spills as soon as you notice them because vehicle fluids can eventually seep into sealed concrete if it is left there long enough.