Auto Detailing for the Cleaning Professional

The Three Most Important Challenges with Auto Cleaning – and the Solutions.

It should not come as a big surprise that when over 200 auto detailers were surveyed what their favorite cars that they like to detail were, Mercedes, Lexus, and Cadillac were their top three. As you may have experienced though, when cleaning automobile interiors, there is no brand or style of car that is exempt  from being exposed to soil, spills, or odors that raises the cleaning and detailing challenge bar to a whole new level. There are three primary challenges when restoratively cleaning automobile interiors.


First, automobile interiors are exposed to high concentrations of soil on the carpet. Most folks do not wipe their shoes before getting in a car, often even stepping through puddles or spilled oil in a parking lot right before getting in. Certainly, automobile carpets get exposed to more mud and sludge and oil than the average home carpet, and that soil gets ground into the carpet as the driver or passenger simply sits there. The second major challenge in cleaning auto interiors is the likelihood of more spills of all different types of food and beverages both on the upholstery and the carpet. In today’s hustle and bustle world, the automobile sometimes seemingly almost becomes a mobile home. Some experts suggest that over 25% of Americans eat fast food at least once a day. Much of that is consumed and spilled in cars. Think about the amount of Starbuck’s coffee that gets spilled in American automobiles every day. The third challenge in restorative cleaning of automobiles is that any malodor that is created within the vehicle, whether it be purposeful like tobacco smoke, or accidental like spilled gas, milk, or the pot roast that slipped out of the grocery bag underneath the seat; is going to be greatly intensified by the heat created within the vehicle from the sun, and the fact that so long as the doors are closed, it is difficult to get the interior contents to dry after cleaning or deodorization treatment.


Intensively Soiled Automobile Carpet

So, let us tackle the first challenge. Most automobile carpets are made from synthetic olefin or polyester fibers. These fibers are manufactured to be naturally stain resistant, but they also do not have the resiliency of nylon carpets. Because they are often intensively soiled, they need to be vacuumed often and deep cleaned on a regular basis. However, remember that all the cleaning in the world is not going to help the fact that these carpets have very little resiliency and will often look “worn” very rapidly. Floor mats are a great way to extend the life of the carpet in an automobile, but they will need to be vacuumed and cleaned on a periodic basis also.


In order to maintain the long-term appearance of the carpet, it will need to be deep cleaned with hot water extraction on a regular basis. This is an area where the carpet cleaning professional usually has an advantage over the auto detailer. Many auto detailers still employ shampoo as their cleaning method. These shampoos are often sticky in nature and cause the carpet to get dirtier faster after cleaning. Some are equipped with the most basic extraction machine – low in pressure, low in vacuum power, and without any ability to heat the water. The cleaning professional has access to better equipment. When cleaning carpets with hot water, the higher temperatures, typically around 212 degrees (F) at the wand tip, assist in the cleaning process by improving the effectiveness of the cleaning chemicals. In some cases, this may mean less chemical is necessary. The heat breaks down embedded soils and oily residues so that they can be more easily removed from the carpet. Heat also tends to soften and fluff carpet fibers, so they regain some of their original loft and resilience. Many cleaners find that using a high flow upholstery tool, one that uses the power of your truckmount, or high-performance portable is the best way to deep clean auto carpets. Some specially designed upholstery tools such as the HydraMaster DriMaster 3 Upholstery Tool use a patented jetless technology to shear the solution across the carpet rather than directly down into it. The solution is applied in a thin, flat stream for even application, and the cleaning solution is immediately recovered so the carpet will be faster to dry even with only one dry vacuum pass. Another excellent option for an upholstery tool is the HydraMaster EVOLUTION GLIDED Upholstery Tool. Its sleek design will allow you to get into some tighter places, and the laminar flow will help your carpet and upholstery dry faster. In order to get a really dirty carpet clean, you will need to also use a cleaning prespray that will most effectively break down the soils, A carpet prespray specifically designed for olefin and polyester carpets is a good bet for cleaning automobile carpets. Our two favorite choices for heavily soiled automobile carpet are  HydraMaster PolyBreak or HydraMaster Blitz with Greasebreaker. In addition, the professional cleaner will find that they will be using their oxidizing (HydraMaster Knock Out 1)  and reducing (HydraMaster Redbreak 1) one part stain removers to effectively remove many stains from spilled food and beverages in the carpeting. The strength and power of the stain removing solutions available to the professional cleaner will provide a superior stain removing performance over what is generally available to the auto detailer.


Soil and Spills Make for Dirty Upholstery and Seats

Most automobile upholstery is either going to be fabric, leather, or vinyl. The fabrics used in most automobiles are different from the fabrics used for home upholstered furniture. Fabrics selected for cars are designed to withstand heat, cold, humidity, and most important, the sun’s ultraviolet rays. They are also designed to hold their colors much longer than home upholstery because they are solution dyed with higher pressure and using stronger grades of chemicals and dyes. Further, the fabrics are selected first for durability. Most auto manufacturers want to know how durable a fabric is before considering it for their product lines. Leather and vinyl upholstery are in many ways easier to clean and maintain than fabric upholstery.


As always, start with effective vacuuming with specially designed upholstery vacuuming tools on both fabric and leather upholstery. You may even want to take a preemptive step in removing pet hair with your favorite brush or tool if the owners have been transporting their pets around.


If you want to effectively clean and detail a lot of cars, you will want to get your hands on a leather cleaning kit that contains a cleaner, a conditioner or revitalizer, and a protector. Since almost all auto leather is protected, it is usually relatively easy and safe to clean. But because of the intense UV light and heat that auto leather is subjected to, cleaning alone will not be enough. We have found it best to avoid “one cleaner does all” leather cleaners with automobile leather. It will be incredibly important to use a separate revitalizer or conditioner to soften and condition the leather, and a protector to replenish the stain resistant nature of protected leather. Washing vinyl with an appropriate cleaner is quite easy, though labor intensive.


We should also note that just as home upholstery styles change, so do they change in car upholsteries. For auto detailers in the past, the big concern was not the colors or patterns, but the type of fabric installed. For instance, for many years velour seat coverings were very popular. Velour is a type of velvet and as such can be somewhat fragile. Initially, caring and cleaning velour seat coverings could prove difficult. However, and fortunately for car owners and for you as the professional cleaner, over time velour has become more durable. And what might be even more fortunate for cleaning professionals, it is not used as much today as it once was.


Instead of velour, fabrics made of nylon, polyester, and olefin fibers, or a combination of all three, are the preferred fabric choices for cars, boats, and other types of vehicles that auto detailers may be called on to clean. These are synthetic fibers that have proven to be durable, stain resistant, cost effective, and, with proper know-how and equipment, relatively easy to clean. Today, olefin fibers are the dominant choice of fabric for auto, boat, and RV upholstery.


The most effective way to clean nylon, polyester, and olefin is by “wet cleaning” using a hot-water carpet extractor. The type of extractor used, and its versatility can play a crucial role in how well the upholstered item is cleaned.  For instance, a system that generates approximately 200 degrees Fahrenheit heat will help improve the effectiveness of the cleaning chemicals. Not only will the seat coverings look better, but they will dry faster, a crucial item in auto detailing and cleaning. An extractor with adjustable psi (pressure per square inch) is also recommended. Cleaning more delicate or older fabrics, such as velour, may require a lower psi so as not to damage the fibers.


As to the upholstery cleaning tools selected, there are now several effective tools available. Once again, many cleaners find that using a high flow upholstery tool, one that uses the power of your truckmount, or high-performance portable is the best way to deep clean auto upholstery. DriMaster 3The HydraMaster DriMaster 3 Upholstery Tool is perfect for this application.. Another excellent option for an upholstery tool is the HydraMaster EVOLUTION GLIDED Upholstery Tool. Finally, while you can certainly use the olefin carpet preconditioner you used on the carpet to clean the olefin upholstery, we recommend a preconditioner that is specifically designed for the soil that builds up in upholstery. The craftsperson recognizes the important differences between upholstered fabrics and carpeting, as well as the soils that build up in them. A self-neutralizing, odorless, heavy duty upholstery prespray such as HydraMaster FabricMaster HD  is ideal for automobile upholstery. These specialized formulas are specifically designed to break down, dissolve, and emulsify the soils and spills most common to upholstery fabrics – body oils, hair treatments, shoe scuffs, spilled food and beverages, crocked colors from clothes and newsprint, and even pet hair.


Foul Odors in Automobiles

Your customers do not want to own a car that emits foul odors whenever the doors are opened. When one of their friends accepts a ride, the last thing they want is to be asked, “What’s that awful stench?” or, worse, to watch as their acquaintance pretends not to notice the foul smell. In fact, one used auto specialist told me one time that without effective electronic deodorizing procedures, used cars sat on their lot an average of four times longer if the vehicle had been owned by a smoker. The embarrassment of a car filled with the lingering odor of pets, spilled soda, cigarettes, sour milk, mildew, or any number of sickly scents is enough to send your customer over the edge. They may be a little embarrassed by it and not even want to bring it up to you. That is why you need to make sure your customer knows you can transform the interior of a car that has any number of malodors.


Sometimes malodors in a car accumulate before owners really notice them. Maybe they were at the park with the dogs and it started to rain so they all jumped in the car to leave. Now a “wet dog smell” has been embedded in their upholstery. Perhaps they let a friend smoke cigarettes in the car while they drove him home, not realizing how long that odor would hang around. Or maybe their toddler spilled chocolate milk on her car seat on the way home from the grocery store. That one spill can turn into a “stinking” mess surprisingly quickly. In addition, the sugars in the drink attract even more soil and grime. The spilled milk can serve as a food source for bacteria causing even more malodors to develop. Finally, probably every one of us have also stepped into a vehicle with a moldy or musty smell because the interior of the car got wet and was never properly allowed to dry.


As with all malodors you face, the first step in removing odors from your customers’ cars is cleaning by attacking the source, which in most cases is the car’s carpet, upholstery, and fabric areas. These areas should be deep cleaned in the manner we have already talked about. Typically, with all fabric areas thoroughly cleaned, the source of the odor is gone. However, that does not mean the malodor is gone as well. Some odors, especially smoke, can penetrate leather and other areas of the car’s interior and are still noticeable after using proper cleaning chemicals and treatments. Depending upon the time you have allotted to treat the odor you can choose a deodorizing solution to attack and eliminate the malodor. If you have severe odors, and have more time to eliminate the odor problem, electronic deodorization may be your best choice. HydraMaster manufactures a complete line of deodorizing treatments that do not just “mask” the odor like scented fragrance. They contain specially formulated solutions (bonding, encapsulating, decontamination, pairing) that effectively eliminate the odor. If you are dealing with tobacco, smoke,  or cannabis odors, we would recommend the application of HydraMaster OdorMate Tropical Breeze. Carefully follow the label directions. For odors related to water intrusion, mold and mildew, mustiness, and “gym socks” smell, HydraMaster Botaniphase is your best choice. If you are dealing with decaying protein odors (spilled and spoiled milk, meat or fish accidentally left behind in the car, etc.) HydraMaster MultiPhase is your most effective treatment. Finally, for pet accidents (urine and feces) HydraMaster MultiPhase is your best bet to eliminate the odors. Follow the label directions for application instructions.


When the car can be treated for malodors for an extended period (minimum of four hours to maximum of 24 hours) Professional cleaners may need to turn to a more powerful tool to remove the odor – ozone. Electronic deodorization, or ozone, has been used for years to remove odors out of entire buildings, especially after fires and similar disasters. And it is often used by hotels to remove cigarette and other smoke odors from nonsmoking rooms. Ozone generators are used as a restorative treatment for carpets, drapes, fabrics, and upholstery in a variety of places, including homes, hotels, and now automobiles. Ozone treatment permanently eliminates several odors, and is especially effective in automobiles, boats, and recreational vehicles because of the small amount of airspace being treated. Ozone is a non-selective deodorizer and will virtually eliminate any odor within a vehicle. When using ozone in a vehicle, make sure to protect any natural rubber components either by covering them with plastic or coating them with petroleum while the ozone is in use. If weather allows, use the ozone in the car outdoors rather than in a garage so there is no chance of unsafe ozone levels building up in the garage. For best results, do not put the ozone machine in the car, as it will need access to fresh air to generate more ozone. Pipe it in through a window and seal the remainder of the opening in that window.




There are many additional steps to fine detailing the interior of the car – everything from using cotton swabs to clean the air-conditioner vent outlets to cleaning and conditioning the dashboard. But once you have solved the three most likely challenges – extremely soiled carpet, soil and spills on the upholstery, and the elimination of malodors, you are a major part of the way home on the complete auto cleaning and detailing job. Building awareness of your capabilities to transform and clean the interior of automobiles needs to be a part of your service menu and marketing programs. It is not unusual for professionals to make $150- $250 per hour cleaning and detailing automobile interiors.

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