Once upon a time, it was common to grab a case of oil, an oil filter and a bag of Kitty Litter when doing an oil change. The idea of course was that spills are inevitable and Kitty Litter is cheap! Well some things never change and some do. The materials that are available to control and manage fluid spills is something that has changed, and for the better.
Kitty Litter or oil dry, as it is better known, is a product that has been around in garages for many years. In about 1950, the first Kitty Litter was made by a company called Edward Lowe Industries. The product was actually called Fullers Earth and was nothing more than granulated clay. One of the original members of the Lowe family offered the item to a neighbor who was frustrated with using ashes for the cat box. Lowe quickly realized the marketability for the product and dubbed it “Kitty Litter.”
The original oil dry, which is still used today, has some good characteristics and some bad. The product is inexpensive and readily available. The downside to the original formulation is that it struggles to absorb some fluids, and it is usually quite dusty, which cannot only make a mess, but can also cause breathing problems for some folks (and cats).
There are several variations on the oil dry concept that are used in different applications. One that has some usefulness for keeping a shop and work area clean is a product made not from dirt or clay, but from wood products. The product is actually a coarse sawdust that has been saturated with a very fine oil-type product. OK! You say, why would I put down oily sawdust on an oily shop floor? The answer is, in most cases, you wouldn’t, but there are some exceptions. This product is designed to be put down and then swept around the floors of your shop, work areas, etc. The fine oils actually act as cleaners to eliminate and capture dust, and the product is still absorbent enough to pick up fluids that have spilled. This type of product may also be scented, which can help neutralize the strong odors in workshops.
A Drier “Bottom”
One of the newer solutions to capturing and containing spills in the automotive shop is actually an outcropping from an entirely different product. Some of you will be very familiar with what I am talking about. Here is a hint: they come in lots of different sizes, some have pictures of Barney on them, some are called Pull Ups — OK, if you haven’t gotten it by now, I am of course talking about disposable diapers!
Oil absorbent pads and socks were first used extensively in the marine industry, usually in high-end boats. These pads, which can absorb many times their own weight in oil and fluids, were placed under the motors in million-dollar yachts to keep Mr. Howell from yelling about seeing a drop of oil on the deck.
These products were originally fairly expensive, which prohibited the average shop from using them as a solution for oil control. The cost of the product continues to come down as production is increasing and the product is gaining a wider audience.
Neat and Clean
The reasons for needing oil absorbents are primarily safety and cleanliness. The first is obvious. If there is loose oil on the shop floor, the technicians and customers are in danger of being injured. It only takes one slip-and-fall case to pay for several truckloads of oil absorbent. The other reason is cleanliness. While customers don’t expect your shop to be like a hospital, they do expect and deserve to see a well-run and cared for shop environment. Since they may have spent upwards of $30,000 or more for their car, they understandably expect you to have a clean and neat work environment.
When deciding what product you plan to use in your shop, you need to consider several factors. The first is what kind of spills you deal with most. If you are rebuilding transmissions, you not only have to worry about the product absorbing the fluid, but you need to be aware of it getting in the delicate equipment you are working on. The next issue to consider is cost. The price for absorbents ranges from a few cents per pound to many times that for some of the more elaborate treated or dust-free products. You will have to make the decision based on requirements like your shop’s volume, shop size, health considerations, etc.
One final thing to consider with absorbents is disposal. Some municipalities require special handling for oil absorbent pads versus oil dry type of products. If you use an oil recovery company to remove your waste oil, they will be able to advise the best route for you to take and the cost of disposal.