Auto Laundry News - September 2012

IDA Certification — Study Guide: Equipment

By Prentice St. Clair

In the July column, I started what is likely to become an on-again-off-again series that will offer, for lack of a better term, a “study guide” for the certification tests that are available from the International Detailing Association (IDA).

In that column, I first made the case for the importance of “independent” third-party certification for professional detailers. The IDA-Certified Detailer (IDA-CD) program is unique to the industry in that it is the only one offered by a not-for-profit organization.


I have fielded calls recently from readers of this column complaining about the fact that the IDA put out a certification test with no study materials. Please remember that the IDA-CD program, although designed by several highly qualified industry experts, was done so on a volunteer, non-compensated basis. This process took long enough — believe me, I was there. We put together these tests on our own time over the course of a year or so.

For the same set of volunteers to write study materials would have taken far longer. It is believed that the information needed to pass the tests is widely available through the existing myriad of detailing seminars, books, DVDs, formal training, and schools, as well as published Internet materials. Thus, it was deemed to be a better service to the industry to first put forth the certification opportunity (i.e., the tests), then worry about study materials later.

I don’t want these study guides to be dead giveaways — that’s not the point. Instead, I will offer general information that, if understood, should provide you with information that you can tap into to answer the questions correctly. You will find that these study guides provide generally more information than is on the actual test.


So, back to the concept of a study guide for the IDA-CD program. The next topic I would like to cover is that of equipment for a professional detailing operation. Let’s talk about what is commonly accepted as necessary equipment for a professional detailer.

The professional detail typically starts with a prep wash. The object here is to remove the loose dirt and some of the grime from the exterior of the car, as well as the doorjambs (and the engine bay, if that is included in the job). This typically involves the use of chemicals, agitating tools, and water.

It is possible to get a lot of dirt off a car simply by using a pressure washer. Nonetheless, there will remain some grime that really only comes off with some type of agitation from a soft-bristled brush or wash mitt. Additionally, stronger chemicals might be needed for the removal of bug, tar, and heavy surface contamination.

A pressure washer is not absolutely necessary for a prep wash, but it certainly helps. A standard garden hose with a nozzle can certainly rinse off the car after appropriate chemical application and agitation. But a non-pressurized nozzle cannot match the power behind the pressurized water blasting out of the pressure washer nozzle, which will help to remove things like caked-on mud, as well as cleaning nooks and crannies that are otherwise unreachable.

However, there is such a thing as too much pressure, which can cause damage to exterior vehicle trim parts
if used incorrectly. For that reason, most professionals find that a pressure range of 800 to 1,200 psi allows for safe washing of the vehicle exterior while still providing the advantages of dirt-loosening pressure.


There is an additional equipment concern for those who wash vehicles on a mobile basis or in a wash area that allows flow into non-treated storm drainage. According to the Federal Clean Water Act, contaminated water may not be discharged anywhere that it might eventually reach natural waterways.

This federal regulation is variably enforced by local municipalities. None-theless, aside from the fact that we all should be careful about what we release into the environment, more and more local authorities are requiring the control of dirty water discharge. This makes it necessary for the professional operator who is without proper drainage capability to consider water reclamation equipment.

The fixed operator may be required to ensure that wastewater drains into sewer lines where it will be treated by the municipality’s facilities before being released. The fixed operator whose facility does not have such a drain, as well as the mobile operator, will have to find some other way to collect and dispose of wastewater produced by vehicle washing.

Some operators wash vehicles in a spot where the water drains to a low point on the pavement and then collect the water from that point, to later be disposed of properly. However, municipalities with stricter interpretations of the Clean Water Act language will not find this situation acceptable because the chemicals used during the prep wash will still be on the ground, simply to be washed away into the environment during the next rain.

A common solution for this situation — and one that is more and more commonly required by government agencies — is the use of a wash mat. The wash mat for standard vehicle washing is typically a thick vinyl material that measures about 10 by 20 feet and has a built-in “dam” around the edges to trap water. Then, a sump pump is used to move the wastewater from the lowest corner into an appropriate wastewater collection device, to be later disposed of in a manner that is in line with wastewater regulations.


Surface contamination — like “rail dust,” ferrous oxide deposits, and overspray — has, for a couple of decades now, been removed with the use of detailer’s clay. The recently introduced “surface prep towel” is gaining popularity as a cost-effective substitute for detailer’s clay. Some professionals remove surface contamination during the prep wash while others choose to perform this activity as a separate step between the prep wash and polishing steps.

The next step in the exterior detail will either involve polishing the paint or applying protection to it, depending on the service order. The vast majority of professional detail technicians will use some type of polishing machine for this work. Very few professionals polish vehicle paint by hand because it simply takes too long and is far less effective than proper use of a polishing machine.

The choice of polisher will depend on the goal of the application. For example, if the next step is to simply apply protection — such as wax or polymer paint sealant — to the paint, the appropriate device will be a random-orbit or dual-action polisher with a foam finishing pad. These devices have polishing heads that spin or rotate but also oscillate about a center point, thus reducing the amount of heat and friction that builds up while in contact with the paint surface.

Essentially, the random-orbit or dual-action polisher imitates hand motion, but with these advantages over manual application: a lot less work, more thorough, more even, and less chemical usage. Plus, the remaining chemical residue will be far easier to remove.

A little side note: what is the difference between a “buffer” and a “polisher”? The terms “polisher” and “buffer” are interchanged often in this industry. A “polisher” is a machine that polishes. A “buffer,” according to the dictionary, is a mechanical device that buffs or polishes. So, the bottom line is that it is correct to use either name for the machine that we use to polish the exterior paint surface of a vehicle. There is no distinction.

However, there is a very important distinction between a random-orbit/ dual-action polisher/buffer and a simple rotary polisher/buffer. The former, as described earlier, spins and oscillates. The latter just spins. It simply rotates. Hence the name. The simple rotary buffer is also known by many as a “high-speed polisher.” This label comes from the fact that, in years past, the simple rotary polisher used a relatively high rpm (revolutions per minute). As we will see later in this discussion, “high-speed” may no longer be the best moniker for this device.

The simple rotation of a high-speed polisher makes for a difference in the effect that the polisher has on the paint surface to which it is being applied. The simple spinning motion allows for the potential for a tremendous build-up of friction and heat. It is this heat and friction that makes the rotary polisher the best choice for efficient and effective perfection of the appearance of the paint.

It also makes the high-speed polisher a device that, if used incorrectly, can cause paint damage. Most of us are familiar with the two most common types of paint damage that can be caused by a simple rotary polisher — swirl marks and paint “burning.” It is important to realize, however, that this damage can only happen if the device is being used inappropriately.

Inappropriate use of a high-speed polisher can occur due to any one or more of the following variables: choice of paint correcting chemical; choice of polishing pad; speed at which the polisher is set; and polishing technique.


Well, I have successfully dived into the deep end of the equipment discussion, and it’s going to take more than one column to swim to the side of the pool. So, stayed tuned until next month, when I will continue the lengthy topic of detailing equipment.

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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