Auto Laundry News - October 2012

IDA Certification — Study Guide: Equipment, Continued

By Prentice St. Clair

In the September column, I began discussing equipment used by professional detailers. The column covered equipment used during the prep wash, specifically the option of pressure washing versus standard garden hose. This was followed by the important topic of waste-water collection.

Then, the “can of worms” was open-ed as I started the discussion of equipment utilized in paint perfection. First covered was the use of detailer’s clay or similar solutions for the removal of surface contamination. This was followed by an overview of polisher options. It was stated that the random-orbit or dual-action polisher is a great choice for applying wax as well as light polishing.

By the same token, the simple rotary (or “high-speed”) polisher is the better choice for high-volume paint perfection that must be performed in a highly efficient and effective manner. That is, to get the best result in the fastest way possible, simple rotary is the choice for making the paint look great.

Nonetheless, for applying the final coat of wax, regardless of how many steps of high-speed polishing are performed, the choice is the random-orbit or dual-action polisher. This is because the simple rotary device just does not work well for wax application.


A separate discussion should be had about the pads that are available for use with polishers. The rotary polisher can be used for several levels of paint damage, from cleaning up fine washing scratches to reducing deep scratches or removing heavy oxidation. The type of damage to be removed or ameliorated will determine the type of buffing pad to use. Another variable is the chemical to be used, but we’ll save that potentially lengthy discussion for another month.

In general, three main categories of pads are available, wool, foam cutting, and foam finishing. In my travels I have heard everything from “I wool pad every car that comes in the shop” to “wool can be a great buffing tool, but only in extreme situations.” I know this much for sure: wool pads are the most aggressive and should only be used when nothing else works.

In fact, the myriad of available foam pads make wool almost unnecessary for standard detailing operations. Foam cutting pads can do wonders on heavier paint damage. Follow this with one or two steps of diminishing-strength foam finishing pads and the appropriate chemical, and you will likely have a paint finish that looks fantastic.

The random-orbit or dual-action polisher also has a range of available pads. Typically, when used to apply wax or sealant, a fine finish foam pad will be used. For an initial step of light polishing, a light-cutting foam pad can be used with an appropriate polish.


The interior detail begins with removing the loose dirt, dust, debris, and trash through the use of compressed air and vacuuming. Many operators love having a compressor for blowing out debris from under the seats. Although this is an optional piece of equipment, a vacuum is not. I recommend using one that has a 25-foot hose so that the technician does not have to keep moving the vacuum around the car.

Good vacuum attachments also make the job much easier and more effective. I recommend a crevice tool (for between the seats, etc.), a duster brush (for the dash and door panels), and an upholstery brush (for fabric seats and the carpeting).

At some point in your detail process, those fabric seats and the carpeting will have to be cleaned. The old combination of a bucket of soapy water, a brush, and a wet-dry vacuum is just not acceptable anymore. This combination doesn’t clean well and leaves the carpets wet with soap, water, and leftover dirt. Any detailer that calls him or herself a professional utilizes, instead, a hot-water extractor.

This device has a special nozzle head that combines the capability to spray hot water and suck it out with a highly focused vacuum head. It is essentially a great way to rinse carpets. To clean them, carpet cleaner is first sprayed on the carpet and then agitated with a brush, or better yet, a random-orbit/dual-action polisher fitted with a scrubbing brush head. This technique of “spray, agitate, and rinse” with the proper equipment will leave the carpets looking and smelling fresh.

A high-quality extractor will have enough power to deliver hot water and good suction, thus minimizing the remaining water content in the cleaned carpets. Nonetheless, even the most powerful extractor will leave some dampness behind. As such, once the carpets and fabric seats are clean, they must be dried. For this, there are a number of air movers of various designs and levels of power. In combination with the heater/AC in the car, air movers can help dry out the cleaned carpets.

Special note: using a hot-water extractor on headliner material is not recommended. The injection of the hot water may loosen the adhesive that attaches the headliner material to the backing. If that doesn’t cause a problem, then the powerful suction of the extractor vacuum head just might.

Another option for cleaning carpets and fabric seats is the dry vapor steam machine, which delivers not hot water, but actual steam, which is a very powerful cleaning agent with minimal water content. Carpets that have been cleaned with a steam machine can typically air dry in minutes whereas those cleaned with a hot-water extractor may require up to an hour or more to air dry completely.


The first consideration for the mobile operator is a source of power and water. If you cannot rely on a source of electricity at the site of your appointments, you must bring your own by having a gas powered generator on your rig. There are many options when it comes to generators. Two of the main factors to consider are total wattage of the unit and noise.

The generator that you choose will need to be able to power the devices that are running simultaneously while you detail cars. So, considering the equipment that we have already discussed, the generator must be able to run your vacuum, your extractor, and your polishers.

For example, if you have multiple technicians working on multiple vehicles using these devices at the same time, then your generator must be able to produce enough power to support the total wattage and amperage of all the devices that are running at the same time. On the other hand, if you are a one- or two-person show, you may be able to get by with a less powerful generator that is just strong enough to handle the tool that takes the most power (probably a heated extractor).

The other consideration in purchasing a generator is the amount of noise it gives off. Powerful generators are available at relatively reasonable prices, but these are typically quite noisy during operation. For the comfort of those who might be impacted by the noise of your mobile operation, you might consider investing the extra money into one of the many generator models that are designed to run quietly. This will also be more comfortable for you — there is the very real consideration of “noise fatigue.”

The same discussion can be had regarding your supply of water. If you do not expect to be able to use water at the job site, then you must consider bringing water with you. This will typically require a water tank as well as a way to pump the water. The size of the tank will depend on the number of vehicles you expect to process during
a typical day, as well as the flow output of your washing devices (e.g., pressure washer).

Finally, as mentioned in last month’s column, you will need to be able to collect the wastewater from your mobile operation. This typically involves using a wash mat, a pump, and a “dirty water” recovery tank.


Maintenance of the equipment is as important as having the equipment in the first place. It does not do you much good if your equipment breaks down in the middle of a job due to lack of preventative maintenance.

Equipment comes with owner’s manuals that describe preventative maintenance procedures. Take the time to read these directions and follow them religiously so that you are less likely to find your operation at a standstill while everyone stands around the broken-down machine scratching their heads.

Some of these maintenance procedures are not due until after hundreds of hours of use. For example, gas-powered generators will need oil changes and tune-ups, pressure washers will need new fittings and seals, and polishers will need new motor brushes. Other maintenance routines occur more often.

For example, a vacuum canister should be cleaned out weekly if not daily. The hot-water extractor will also need daily cleaning of the tanks and vacuum hose, as well as less frequent, but still necessary, flushing of the clean-water supply with manufacturer-recommended de-calcifying agents.


There are some large pieces of equipment that are quite important to have in the professional detailing operation. Each piece adds in its own way to the efficiency and effectiveness of the detail performance. And each piece requires maintenance to help ensure trouble-free reliability for years to come.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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