Water Spots Appear After Ceramic Coating Installation: Explanation & Removal Method

This Porsche 911 suffers from extreme phantom water spots that appear after ceramic coating installation.

By Christopher Brown of OCDCarCare 

This is a common reaction, when Phantom Water Spots appear after ceramic coating installation– hours or days later.

AAAArrrrrgggggghhhh, damn it! cries the Detailer. 

Followed by a string of obscenities, hair pulling, high blood pressure, and sometimes flying and broken mobile devices or machines.

When water spots appear after ceramic coating installation, it’s one of THE MOST frustrating issues in auto detailing!

With no knowledge of the issue, it’s a mind boggling situation that can lead to endless frustration. The problem is more serious and compounded when the phantom water spots are discovered on vehicle delivery day. To a detailer, this issue feels like it’s erased all time and effort put into a paint correction and ceramic coating job.

Unfortunately, this a somewhat common issue, occurring much more frequently than reported or admitted by detailers.

Since automotive ceramic nano coatings became a standardized form of vehicle paint protection, this problem has shown up with increasing frequency.

Also, with IR curing becoming a common procedure to cure coatings, the introduction of heat during the curing process additionally swells the paint.

This has a number of implications, but most immediate is that the heat causes paint swelling. Automotive paint swelling may display defects previously unnoticed because the defects were created when the paint was vulnerable because it was hot and swollen wide open. When the paint cooled the defects were locked deep within the paint system. They are then generally unavailable for detection unless the paint again experiences severe swelling due to extreme heat and or/or chemical exposure.

One reason for the increasing occurrence rate of phantom water spots may also stem from aggressive solvents contained within ceramic coatings. Some coating solvents are aggressive enough to partially open up (swell) paint and display defects previously hidden deeper than surface level.

The type and strength of a ceramic coating’s solvents greatly vary, depending on manufacturer and individual coating formulation. So not every solvent, within every coating, is powerful enough to swell paint to display phantom water spots. This might be why it is not a constant problem at the forefront of online detailing discussion groups or automotive forum posts.

A Slow & Steady Mind + Process Wins the Phantom Water Spot War

** WARNING: the removal method explained here requires a great deal of PATIENCE and FINESSE for proper execution.

If someone is upset/frustrated after regular attempts of phantom water spot removal fail, THEY SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT THIS METHOD.

First, they need to take a break and allow their emotions to clear before proceeding.

It is ridiculously frustrating to work on this issue for 1, 3, 5, 8 hours, only to make little to no progress and having worked yourself up into an anger ball.

This is why Patience and Emotional Stability are important virtues to access when tackling difficult issues.

THE LAST thing anyone wants is to worsen the issue. An overly aggressive approach could easily turn this process into phone call into a body shop for repainting. And then into a call to the vehicle owner. And, nobody wants to make the call informing an owner of a damaged panel on account of a detailing error.

Note: The removal method in this article may seem counterintuitive. However, at its core, this issue is definitely caused via automotive paint swelling.

How Automotive Water Spots Generally Occur

The Types of Water Spots discussed here are classified as moderate to severe in nature. This is because they are at or below the painted level and are not removed with simple wash techniques. This means they have caused some level of damage to the paint system.

During their creation the sun, or another source, heated the panel when stagnant water sat on the surface. Or the surface was already hot as water contacted the Surface.

The heat caused the porous paint to swell and open up its porous structure. As the water dried, the mineral content of the water, the contamination on the surface, or the contamination collected when rain contacted polluted air, was able to penetrate down into the swollen paint structure. It eventually sunk deep down into the paint’s structure or chemically damaged (etched) the hot swollen paint.

When the paint cools, the paint system closes up again. This brings the paint back to its normal size, hiding the water spots and some of the visible mineral etching damage.

This explains why the most extreme water spotting tends to occur on the horizontal panels of vehicles. These areas receive the majority of sun exposure and therefore the most heat on a regular basis. Additionally, horizontal panels are the flattest and have the ability to concentrate the most water (and minerals) into concentrated pools.

Automotive Water Spots: The Physical Creation Factors

Phantom water spotting from mineral deposits seems to be a specific issue. Generally the water spots tend to appear only after the application of a ceramic nano coating.

Mineral content levels within water, sitting on vehicle paint, are not enough to cause this alone.

HEAT is the X factor here that really ties the room together.

The etching capabilities of water’s potential mineral (alkaline), acidic, or contamination content, are considerably enhanced with the introduction of heat into the equation.

So, while there is no definitive explanation . . . there are two likely possibilities how phantom water spots occur:

A] Water contacted a pre-existing hot vehicle panel.

B] Stationary water sat on top, as a vehicle panel heated up.

Why Phantom Water Spots Aren’t Detected or Fixed During Paint Correction

Automotive Paint (Clear Coat) is porous structure. This engineered characteristic deals with heat via constant thermal expansion and contraction. This allows the paint to maintain its integrity and protective characteristics on different vehicle substrates, in response to ambient or vehicle generated heat.

In general, the majority of detailers who service vehicles with moderate to heavy defects and water spots tend to begin with an aggressive approach. This is done because they understand a certain level of intensive labor is necessary to remove these defects.

These aggressive approaches often include a combination of some or all of the following:

  • large stroke DA polishers
  • microfiber cutting pads
  • heavy cut compounds with aggressive chemical cut
  • heavy pad pressure
  • over-cycling compounds & polishes
  • slow arm speed

On top these variables, many detailers use aggressive chemicals to strip the vehicle of contaminants in the preparation process leading to paint polishing. Additionally, detailers frequently use heavy solvent wipe products to remove the carrier oils of compounds and polishes after paint correction.

The combination of aggressive polishing variables, listed above, combined with strong solvent chemicals may cause massive amounts of heat and automotive paint swelling.

Paint’s thermal dynamic structure is exactly what causes the issue of Phantom Water Spotting. And some paint systems are more sensitive to heat than others. These sensitive or finicky paint systems have a higher tendency, and a higher capacity, to swell. This directly leads to a greater capability of hiding defects with ease.

This swelling increases the size of the paint. As the paint swells larger and larger the water spots become more hidden by the swelling. This condition is very similar to an ankle that is almost immediately hidden–minutes after a severe twisting.

With enough heat and friction introduced, the paint system eventually swells to the point there the water spots (mineral deposits) are completely undetectable. These water spots remain unseed until the paint system returns to its normal state. For some paint systems the reduction of paint swelling occurs within hours, and for others it takes 2-3 days for the swelling to fully subside.

The removal procedure for phantom water spots, explained below, piggybacks off the engineered thermal dynamics of automotive paint. Porous paint systems must be opened up by heat to enable water spot removal. Heat allows access to remove the defects at the level where currently sit within the paint. Catalyzed paint and heat are enemies, therefore introducing motorized friction to pre heated paint requires extreme care.

The theory behind preheating the paint before polisjhing is similar to the reasoning why barbers or aestheticians place hot towels on the face before services.

The heat introduced to the paint allows it to open up just enough to access, and carefully remove, the contaminants and paint defects at the point they were A) Created or B) Where they currently sit.

Removal Procedure When Water Spots Appear After Ceramic Coating Installation 

NOTE: This method can only be performed AFTER any and all coatings are removed.

As explained previously, mineral deposits from water seep into and attach themselves within paint’s porous structure after the paint cools down.

Mineral deposits must be accessed at the depth they currently sit, within the paint’s structure, to ensure full removal.

The addition of heat swells the paint system to allow the access and removal or mineral deposits and their damage.

  • Heat the panel, use either an IR lamp, tuning it to 100°F on a surface temperature dial (or use distance to regulate temperature) or put the panel in direct sun the sun for 3-5 min. BEFORE starting paint correction, make sure to let the panel cool so it feels warm but not scalding hot. If you have an infrared thermometer then wait till panel temperatures read 100°F.
  • GENTLY polish the area (preferably with a 21mm Dual Action Polisher) using a ‘NON Diminishing Abrasive’ Polishing Liquid containing a low solvent content on a Microfiber disc. When adding product, make sure to overload the amount of product evenly over entire pad.
  • When performing the paint correction, ONLY PERFORM ONE SECTION PASS — meaning a single down and back pass with moderate pressure. Move the polisher at 1 inch per second and allow the polish on the microfiber disc do the work. After a section pass, allow the area to cool for 30-60 seconds, then re-evaluate the surface.

Methods of Testing Mineral Deposit Removal from Paint

Using steam or a water wipe are probably the easiest and most effective methods to test if phantom water spot (mineral etching) removal is complete. Testing multiple times, over the entire panel, is best to ensure each panel or area is free of spots.

Using Steam to Test for Remaining Phantom Water Spots
Prepare a steamer, with DI or RO water. Pull the steamer’s trigger to ensure only steam, not water, dispenses before using it on vehicle surfaces. When ready, run the steam over the panels that previously displayed water spots.

Using a Water Wipe to Test for Remaining Phantom Water Spots
Lightly dampen a towel with DI/RO (distilled or reverse osmosis) water and wipe it evenly over a surface. This will display the the ghosting (silhouette) of water spots on the surface. Similar to drying vehicle windows, faint levels of water will display the minerals contained within paint. If the towel wiped across the surface contains too much water, minerals will not show. In case this occurs, immediately follow with a dry towel and inspect the trail behind the dry towel.

If steam or a water wipe displays a clear surface, water spots are gone. If the steam or water wipe displays silhouette like rings; then the spots remain. For remaining spots, carefully perform another round of paint correction in the same manner as described above.

Other methods to test the removal of phantom water spots may include using: IR lamps, a heat gun, or even your breath (if nothing else available) to heat or ‘fog up’ areas where water spots previously appeared.

After successfully testing for the removal of mineral deposits, allow the panel(s) to cool as along as possible. Then reapply the ceramic coating to the freshly corrected panels to finish the vehicle.

Final Words of Caution About Phantom Water Spot Removal Process

Warning: there is no quick fix when phantom water spots appear after ceramic coating installation.

Additionally, the removal method mentioned here is a delicate to say the least. This is because the paint correction procedure flirts with approaching the heat threshold of catalyzed clear coat.

Therefore, use extreme patience with this process. Allow the process to go at its natural pace (slowly), exercising extreme caution when heating the panel and then performing the correction process.

DO NOT try to be a HERO and attempt to remove all water spots with a series of back to back (or more) section passes, attempting to catch up for lost time!

Rushing the removal process will only raise the heat and friction levels too high, placing the affected areas in jeopardy of paint burning.

The intricacies of this procedure are many, but the basic overview is simple. Use heat to access the phantom water spots by opening up the porous paint system.

Once the panel is warm, use a ‘non-diminishing’ correction liquid to correct the water spots. All the while, make sure not to over-heat the panel past 150°F since catalyzed clear coat HATES heat, especially when coupled with friction.

In NORMAL paint polishing situations, it is best to avoid heat like the plague. However, in this instance heat was the most likely the catalyst of defect creation and is the key variable for removal.

There you have it a method of removal when phantom water spots appear after ceramic coating installation.

This is a tricky procedure to write out and explain fully, but it has proven ultra effective for removal. Care and patience are vital during this entire removal process.

“ALWAYS Keep Learning to Strengthen Your Passion & Your Business.”

© Christopher Brown – OCDCarCare Los Angeles

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Christopher Brown