Auto Detailing - February 2010

The Case for Steam — Increased Efficiency, Happier Customers
By Prentice St. Clair

Over the course of the last few years, readers may have noticed that I have referenced steam machines or the use of steam for various detailing activities. The other day, while working on a Toyota Tundra with extensive sap drippings, I discovered yet another use for the device. So I thought it would be a good idea to summarize my experience using steam.


The typical steam machine has a main body inside of which is a boiler chamber that slowly heats up water under pressure. The technician fills up the boiler, closes the pressure cap, and allows the machine to heat up. When the water has reached a temperature that can produce steam, a hose and nozzle is connected to the unit. Activating the nozzle releases steam from the boiler, through the heavy-duty hose, and out the end of the nozzle.

Now, let’s be clear. When I say “steam machine for detailing,” I am talking about an industrial unit that is designed for commercial use. I am not talking about units that are being sold to the consuming public, made popular by endless TV infomercials. There are four major differences between the commercial unit that we might use and the consumer steam device. They are:

1. Output Temperature
Commercial units put out steam that is over 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The consumer units typically don’t even get close to this temperature.

2. Capacity
Smaller portable commercial units typically have a boiler capacity of 1 to 2 gallons. This is enough to work on one or two vehicles without having to refill the unit. Compare this to consumer units, which typically have capacities less than 2 quarts.

3. Durability
The plastic housings and lightweight hoses of the consumer units will not hold up to the day-to-day battering that is likely to occur in a detail operation, which is typically hard on equipment.

4. Functionality
The consumer units typically do not come with the types of attachments that are essential for efficient and effective operation in a detail shop.

Most commercial steamers come with a large triangular attachment, perhaps five inches at the base, that has towel-holding clips on the top. This allows the detailing technician to wrap the head with a white terry towel. With the steam turned on, the whole contraption is guided back and forth across the surface to be cleaned. The steam comes through the towel and onto the surface, loosening dirt, debris, and grime. As the towel glides across the surface, it takes up all that loosened material.


There are a number of ways to use steam in detailing and most of them are on the vehicle interior. Let’s start from the top and work down. The steam machine provides the first really safe alternative for cleaning headliners. No more worrying about over-saturating the fabric or pulling it down with an extractor.

Next, the steam machine is great for cleaning off built-up grime from the steering wheel. Steam is also better than traditional methods for cleaning heavily textured or porous vinyl surfaces like those found on late model BMW dashboard tops. You will find that you almost never use your extractor for fabric seats anymore because the steamer can effectively clean the fabric upholstery without soaking the foam underneath the fabric.

A surprising use of steam is on automotive leather. It is by far the most effective way I have ever seen to clean leather. Best of all, there is no more need for leather cleaning chemicals. Some professionals suggest that using steam on perforated leather (the kind with the tiny holes for ventilation) is not recommended as repeated use of the steam can cause the holes to expand. I have not noticed this in my experience. It is always wise to check a small area before wholesale attacking the seats. If they have been re-dyed or have a weaker factory dye, it is possible for the steamer to pull off some of the dye.

Steam can also be a great tool for cleaning mats and carpeting, although it is less effective on heavily soiled carpeting. Lightly soiled or dark-colored mats clean up very nicely with the steamer. Deeply set soil may require the use of an extractor, however. The steamer is really helpful for touching up carpeting around the edges that are not covered by the floor mats.

Some vehicles have floors that are covered with vinyl or rubber. The steam machine can make quick work of cleaning this type of surface, without leaving behind slippery residue from cleaners.

A wonderful benefit to having a steam machine is the number of specialized cleaning situations that it can handle. In combination with the proper chemical, it will assist in removing red stains, coffee stains, and sport fabric stains. It will also remove ground-in gum and melted candy, both from carpeting and door pockets.

A quantifiable benefit to the use of steam is the reduced need for using cleaning chemicals. It is possible to detail the entire interior of a vehicle with just steam; this is great for customers who are ultra-sensitive to chemicals. But the truth of the matter is that there will be the need for chemicals from time-to-time. I still use some carpet cleaner on fabric seats and carpeting, spraying it on the surface before applying the steam. But I don’t have to use nearly as much as with an extractor.

Speaking of extractors, the steam machine does not completely eliminate the need for this old trusty friend. In fact, on heavily soiled carpeting, the two machines can work hand-in-hand to achieve results that are better than either of them alone.


The old way of removing after-market window tint was with a heat gun, a scraper, and a lot of elbow grease, not to mention the adhesive remover and the mess it makes. The steam machine loosens the tint adhesive so fast, that you can often pull off tint from a side window in one piece and in only a few seconds. There is far less adhesive residue left on the window, so there is much less follow-up cleanup.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I discovered yet another great use of steam. It can be very effective in assisting with the removal of tree sap. Just focus the tip of the pointed nozzle onto the sap dropping and blast it for several seconds. You will see the sap melt and disperse into the shape of a coin. Then take your favorite bug and tar remover and wipe the remaining residue off with an older towel.

Dried-out, older sap drips may require a longer application of steam, as well as several alternations between steam and solvent wiping. But gone are the days of picking at the sap with fingernails or plastic putty knives, and gone are the days of scratching the paint.


Remember to market the fact that you use steam in your detailing operation. The primary benefit is that it generally provides superior cleaning power. Another benefit is that the hot steam disinfects and sanitizes upon contact with the surface. That is why these machines are so popular in the medical cleaning industry. So remember to tell your customers in your advertising and sales pitches that you clean and sanitize the vehicle’s interior.

You can also toot your own horn a bit by pointing out the fact that you are probably the only detailer in town using true steam for interior cleaning. Many operators use terminology in their marketing pitches like “we steam clean the carpeting,” when in fact they really only use hot water extraction. If you use a steamer, on the other hand, you are actually using steam to clean.

Also don’t be shy about playing the “green” card. When using steam, you are using less chemicals. And, as I mentioned before, you can use exclusively steam and no chemicals, if the customer so desires.


Many professional detailers around the country are adding steamers to their detailing tool kit. I personally find two or three new uses for the machine each year. I don’t know what I would do without it. Yes, you will make a significant investment in your steam machine. Choosing and caring for the right unit, however, will give you years of trouble-free service. It will pay for itself in increased efficiency, increased effectiveness, and happier customers.

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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