Here’s a valuable lesson one pilot learned the hard way: commercial-grade glass cleaners and avionics display lenses are an expensive combination.
Of course, if he read the pilot’s guide for the new Aspen, Garmin and Avidyne flight displays installed in his panel, he would have left the Windex at home.
But there are several new products on the market which claim to safely clean and protect avionics and tablet displays. Are they safe? To find out, we put some serious money on the line and gave them a try. We also asked manufacturers for official guidance on cleaning displays.
Consider that the display lenses (the lens is the outer surface covering the actual display) on most modern avionics displays are manufactured with an antiglare and anti-reflective coating. While most do a good job of cutting sun glare and reflections, none succeed at resisting smudges from your sweaty, oily fingers. Got touchscreen? You understand the challenges of keeping it clean.
We asked several avionics manufacturers if they recognize any of the specialized cleaners as a safe and effective means of caring for displays. None of the products we rounded up were condoned or condemned. Instead, they referred us to the official cleaning instructions stated in the product operating guides.
For instance, Aspen Avionics pointed us to page 2-21 of its Evolution PFD pilot’s guide, which cautions that using any chemical or material other than isopropyl alcohol will void the product warranty. The manual warns that the PFD display lens is prone to damage from scratches, smudging and clouding from cleaning agents and abrasive cloths.
Instead, Aspen says to only clean the display (when the power is off) by using a lint-free cloth dampened with a 50/50 solution of isopropyl alcohol and water, a premoistened lens cleaning tissue (it says to use Bausch & Lomb Sight Savers) or a cleaning solution made specifically for LCD displays. A replacement display lens for a single Evolution PFD or MFD is approximately $800.
Avidyne has similar caveats for all of its display lenses, including the new touchscreen IFD540 navigator and larger Entegra glass displays. These too have an antiglare and anti- reflective coating. Avidyne says to use a lint-free 3M Ultra-Brite 2011 Cloth and a cleaning solution composed of deionized water or isopropyl alcohol.
For the touchscreen on its IFD540, it goes on to say that methanol and other acidic solutions can damage the optical filter display surface, as can excessive or unnecessary cleaning. Additionally, it warns to never allow excess amounts of cleaning agents to dry if they have formed into pools, streaks or droplets. This avoids spotting of the glass surface.
Here’s an important caveat: “The use of any third-party screen protector, especially those that adhere directly to the IFD display glass, is not endorsed by Avidyne due to the touchscreen nature of the display and may void the warranty for any display related issue.” Previous cleaning kits supplied by Avidyne include the ammonia-free Sparkle household glass cleaning product made by AJ Funk.
Garmin supplies a microfiber cleaning cloth with its GTN-series touch navigators. These units have a Clean Screen mode which makes the touchscreen inactive for cleaning. Garmin advises to use a soft cloth dampened with clean water, or the supplied cloth.
In our trials, some of the eyeglass cleaning spray and wipes we sourced left a haze on the coated lens. Further, we found that most of the dampened optical wipes were made of a harsh, paper-like material. These created tiny surface scratches, especially as the wipe dried. We advise not to use them on avionics lenses.
During our research, we spotted the pre-cut screen protectors sold by Sporty’s, so we ordered one ($20) to try on a Garmin GNS530. This is a peel-and-stick antireflective adhesive film (it is removable) which has good scratch-resistant properties. It was a pain in the shorts to put on and we think it slightly reduces screen readability. The product is available for a wide variety of portable and panel displays, including the G1000. As we describe in the sidebar on page 23, these covers could void the warranty on an Avidyne display.
iCloth Avionics has been making cleaning products for sensitive optical surfaces since 2001, first for eyewear and eventually for the entertainment screens and flight deck displays in major airline fleets.
The iCloths are individually wrapped wipes premoistened with a proprietary cleaning solution (the company wouldn’t disclose the exact solution) consisting of purified water, less than one percent surfactants and isopropyl alcohol. iCloth Avionics says the wipes—which are the aerospace-grade DuPont Sontara cleaning towels—are safe on polycarbonate, glass, plastics and specially coated lenses.
iCloth says a single 5×7-inch cloth is soaked with enough moisture to wipe one side of an airliner flight deck avionics suite, plus a pilot’s eyeglasses. In our trials, the wipe was barely moist enough to clean an Avidyne MFD and two Garmin GNS430 navigators. To be fair, these screens were filthy after we purposely smeared sweaty and greasy hands across the display. Additionally, the screens were coated with a fairly thick layer of tree pollen, so we worked the wipe pretty hard. On a cleaner display littered with some fingerprints, a fresh iCloth dried quickly and didn’t leave any streaking or fogging.
It’s worth noting that there is a correct process for using these and any wipes on a display lens. It’s important to not apply too much pressure on the lens, or rub in a circular motion because surface contaminants will scratch it.
iCloth advises to first remove visible surface debris with the folded edge of the wipe when you remove it from the package (roughly the size of a condom wrapper), and then unfold it for the final swipe.
Once the wipe dries we found that it wasn’t as effective, creating some smudging. iCloth’s Peter Hartlen cautions that a dry cloth won’t absorb surface debris, essentially becoming a microfiber towel—polishing the debris back into the screen.
As for microfiber cloths, there is reason not to use them on coated lenses. While they are effective the first time you use them, they need to be cleaned before every use. Who has time for that?
A pack of 48 iCloth wipes sells for $24.99, or $34.99 for 100 wipes. If you want to buy in bulk, a pack of 500 is $129.99. We found them on Amazon.com for a bit cheaper.
Another avionics/tablet computer prepackaged cleaning product is the ArmorWipe sold by MyGoFlight. These wipes are made of a spun, lint-free soft fabric that MyGoFlight says is similar to the 3M aviation cloth. Unlike the iCloth, the ArmorWipe doesn’t contain isopropyl alcohol. Instead, it has a mixture of Alkyl Polyglycoside (APG) and water. APG is a widely used non-toxic household cleaning agent that’s effective at removing dirt by loosening it from the surface, while providing good anti-streaking characteristics.
The ArmorWipes ($9.99 for a box of 25 wipes) are similar in size to iCloth’s DuPont Sontara wipe, but seem to be more saturated. In our evaluation, this created more pooling and liquid trails that required more wiping than the iCloth. Still, they didn’t streak, cloud or leave any swirls on our test displays. MyGo-
Flight also sells the $9.99 ArmorWax. This is a liquid that you rub into the display with a fingertip and then buff it off. We didn’t use it on our cockpit display, but instead on a few tablet computers and smartphones. It leaves the surface smooth and our sense is that it reduces smudges.
Do you really need these products?
In our estimation, we think they are inexpensive and convenient enough to make it worth the effort. If you are germophobic, you’ll appreciate the Benzalkonium Chloride antibacterial added in the ArmorWipes, the same agent used in hand sanitizers. We do.
Remember, how you clean the display is about as important as the products you use. Push too hard—grinding in surface debris—and you’ll damage a lens, no matter how safe the cleanser is.
We like that the iCloth and ArmorWipe products are conveniently packaged and can serve double-duty for cleaning other stuff in and outside of the cockpit. We used them on instruments, rocker switches, radio bezels, side windows, on an expensive motorcycle helmet face shield and on sunglasses, with good results.
If we had to pick one product over the other, we would choose the iCloth. We’re mainly sold on the commercially approved DuPont cleaning towel iCloth uses, which seems softer than the MyGoFlight’s. The benefit here is potentially less screen damage when the cloth dries.
Alternatively, carefully follow the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions we outlined here, while avoiding eyeglass cleaning sprays and harsh wipes. Ultimately, this could be the best way to avoid writing a big check for a new display.