Comparing aqueous and solvent cleaning solutions

Selecting a cleaning solution for your parts is making a business choice for the long term: annual cost, sustainability (including vulnerability to regulatory action), and performance that will meet your needs. Whether you’re considering a new aqueous or solvent cleaning system, replacing nPB or TCE, or looking to solve a particularly difficult cleaning challenge, learn about your options for sustainable, effective cleaning with 3M™ Novec™ Engineered Fluids.

  • Illustration of a large aqueous cleaning system, typical of one that uses water, detergents and additives
    What is aqueous cleaning?

    Aqueous cleaning is “water-plus.” A range of detergents, surfactants, emulsifiers or buffers are added to water, and work in combination with heat, agitation and time to remove contaminants from industrial parts. Generally, multiple wash stations are followed by a rinse step to remove cleaning agent residues. Finally, parts are dried with hot air or solvents like isopropyl alcohol.


    Aqueous cleaning is often highly effective at:

    • Combining cleaning with deposition of protective coatings such as rust preventatives
    • Combining cleaning with surface finishes such as brighteners
    • Removing ionic contaminants such as salts
  • Illustration of a small vapor degreaser machine, typical of one used with 3M™ Novec™ Engineered Fluids and other cleaning solvents
    What is solvent cleaning?

    Solvent cleaning, often conducted in a vapor degreaser, uses a specially formulated cleaning fluid. Parts are immersed in a continuously filtered and distilled fluid – sometimes also combined with ultrasonic agitation – and contaminants dissolve off their surfaces. Parts then undergo a brief vapor rinse and drying process, where the fluid condenses and drips back into the degreaser to be reused, and are removed dry.


    Solvent cleaning is often highly effective at:

    • Cleaning mechanical and electronic parts with complex geometries
    • Cleaning with zero residue
    • Cleaning high volumes of parts rapidly
    • Cleaning sensitive parts that need a low-temperature drying process

Not all solvents are created equal

  • Two light blue beaker icons with Xs in them and one purple beaker icon with Novec printed in it, representing that not all cleaning solvents are equal

    Modern chemistry has overcome many of the environmental and safety challenges of older cleaning solvents like hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), tricholoroethylene (TCE), and n-propyl bromide (nPB). 3M™ Novec™ Engineered Fluids were specifically invented to combine strong cleaning performance with sustainability (zero ozone depletion potential and low global warming potential) and a high margin of worker safety (low toxicity and non-flammability).

    Read more about how Novec fluids compare to legacy solvents like nPB and TCE.

Aqueous and Novec cost comparison

Per gallon or kilowatt hour, water and electricity are cheap. But when used in quantity, the costs begin to add up – and are subject to potentially large price fluctuations due to droughts, water restrictions or load on the power grid. Plus, the more complicated your cleaning system, the more time and resources that need to be spent on maintenance.

So while the cost per gallon of solvents like Novec fluids is higher than that of aqueous cleaning detergents, the total cost of the cleaning process is often significantly lower. For example, we compared costs for cleaning printed circuit boards with aqueous cleaning and Novec fluid over the course of an average year:

  • Bar chart illustration comparing the typical costs per day of aqueous cleaning system’s energy, cleaning solution and DI water costs ($68.29) vs. a vapor degreaser using 3M™ Novec™ Engineered Fluids energy and solvent usage costs ($48.96).

Cleaning cost per day

Based on cleaning 10 circuit boards per cycle, 8 hours per day, 52 weeks per year*

Aqueous cleaning

  • Fluid usage: Aqueous cleaning requires a cleaning solution including detergents, surfactants, etc.
  • Water: Deionised water is important to a thorough rinse step, and waste water must be treated post-cleaning.
  • Electricity: Heating water and drying parts is energy-intensive.
  • Solvent cleaning with Novec fluid

    • Fluid usage: Vapor degreasers automatically recycle and reuse Novec fluid, limiting fluid use per day.
    • Water: No water is needed.
    • Electricity: Significantly less energy is required to heat Novec fluid and to dry parts.
  • *Learn more about the data behind our Novec fluid and aqueous cleaning comparison. ##discLink1##

Manufacturing Engineer dropping basket of brass hydrolic line connector parts into a vapor degreaser

Find the best Novec cleaning fluid for your business

We offer a wide variety of tailored cleaning solvents for light, medium and heavy-duty applications. Our experts can help you find the combination of cleaning strength, materials compatibility, boiling point, drying time and more that meets your needs.


Aqueous and Novec performance comparison

Water and oil don’t mix, but Novec fluids are specifically engineered to reliably dissolve common manufacturing greases, oils, fluxes and more off a broad range of substrates. Whether you’re cleaning plastics, metals or ceramics, precision machined parts or electronic components, there’s a Novec fluid that meets your needs. 

Learn more about the data behind our Novec fluid and aqueous cleaning comparison. View the infographic (PDF, 685 KB).

  • Clock icon labeled Aqueous, with blue shading filling half and a another clock icon labeled Novec, with purple shading filling a much smaller portion, representing the variation in process time lapse.
    Shorter cleaning cycle

    You can increase your output per hour by shortening your cleaning cycle with Novec fluids.

  • Bubble above grooved surface icon labeled Aqueous and a bubble penetrating grooved surface icon labeled Novec, representing surface tension
    Better cleaning and rinsing

    Specifically engineered with low surface tension (less than 20 mN/m), Novec fluids easily penetrate complex part geometries.

  • Dirty blue glass icon labeled Aqueous and clean, sparkling purple glass icon labeled Novec
    No residue

    Novec fluids clean parts with no hard water or detergent residue.

  • Small purple footprint icon labeled Novec and large light blue footprint icon labeled Aqueous
    Smaller equipment footprint

    Typical aqueous cleaning equipment requires 2-3x more space than vapor degreasers. Vapor degreasing with Novec fluids requires fewer tanks and no dryer or water purification system.

Effective cleaning without the downside

With Novec fluids, manufacturers can gain the performance advantages of solvent cleaning without the environmental and safety compromises of legacy solvents like nPB, TCE and HCFCs.

  • Purple icon of the earth being wrapped with a leaf and stem, representing environmentally friendly

    All Novec fluids have zero ozone depletion potential and low global warming potential.

  • Purple shield icon with heart in middle, representing safety
    High margin of safety

    Novec fluids have a high margin of safety. For example, Novec 73DE has a margin of safety 20x greater than typical exposure levels.

  • Purple fire icon with a diagonal strike-through, representing non-flammability

    All Novec fluids are non-flammable and have no flash point.

  • Purple balance beam icon, representing thermal stability
    Stable composition

    Novec fluids are highly stable over time, leading to consistent cleaning performance and ease of recycling. And unlike nPB and TCE, acid acceptance testing is generally not needed.

The HFC phasedown continues

Solvents such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are targeted for phasedown under global treaties such as the Montreal Protocol due to their high global warming potential, as well as being restricted by numerous national regulators such as the U.S. EPA. Avoid the HFC phasedown altogether by adopting Novec fluids – a sustainable, low global warming potential alternative not targeted for phasedown or phaseout.

Contact us to learn more about Novec cleaning solvents

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