Auto Detailing - February 2009

At the Car Wash — Part 8: Detailing Chemicals
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the eighth column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, we discussed the professional equipment that is necessary to properly deliver full-service and express detailing.

It was noted that full-service detailing requires a longer list of equipment when compared to express detailing. This is due to the difference in the extensiveness of the two services.

Because the detail services are being provided at a carwash, prep wash equipment is not as critical. Nonetheless, a pressure washer and compressed air will be necessary if engine compartment detailing is included in the menu of full-service detail items. Interior full-service detailing equipment needs include a vacuum with attachments; a hot-water extractor for carpets and mats; a dry vapor steamer for cleaning leather and fabric seats; and an assortment of tools, brushes, towels, applicators, and dispensing bottles.

Exterior full-service detailing requires polishing equipment, pads, towels, and a similar assortment of smaller tools and supplies. Additional equipment recommendations include stepladders, chemical dilution equipment, and detail carts to hold all of the active supplies.

Finally, it was recommended that the car wash owner interested in equipping a detail center make a commitment similar in concept to that needed for equipping the car wash. This commitment includes researching the various equipment options and suppliers or investing in a consultant who can help make the job easier.


At the car wash, chemicals are an important adjunct to the equipment. Chemicals aid the performance of the equipment in the removal of dirt, rinsing, drying, and the protection of the vehicle. Without the correct chemicals, the car wash would be far less effective, the vehicles would come out looking worse, and the customers would be unhappy.

On the detailing side, chemicals play an even more important role. Along with the proper equipment and appropriate techniques, detailing cleaning chemicals assist in the removal of the grime and residue that will not come off with standard car washing equipment. Moreover, protective detailing chemicals — like waxes and dressings — provide superior protection to those applied in the car wash.

In fact, it is truly the combination of chemicals, equipment, and technique that allows the detailing technician to recondition and protect vehicles, which, in turn, defines the value of automotive detailing.


Choosing detailing chemicals can be a confusing matter — there are many good suppliers and each of them has a varied offering of concentrates, goops, pastes, and liquids. Additionally, sometimes the label names of the chemicals can be confusing. It is important that the purchaser of detailing chemicals has a working understanding of basic chemical types. This includes knowing essential facts that can help answer such questions as:

  • What is the active ingredient in the product?
  • For what vehicle surface is the product designed?
  • What purpose or effect does the product have?

With this information, the educated detail chemical purchaser can work with the supplier of choice to select chemicals that are the most appropriate for the goals and activities of the detail center.

Find a supplier that provides convenient delivery options. In some cases, this is a matter of buying off of the supplier’s truck that pulls into the car wash once a week. In other cases, this might be having products delivered. When communicating with sales representatives from detail chemical suppliers, make sure that the sales rep has a working knowledge of detailing chemical applications. The rep should be able to clearly answer each of the questions above.

Note: In many cases, it is worthless to pay any heed to the product name, as it often has little relation to what the product is actually designed to do. For example, the words “wax” and “polish” or often used interchangeably, even though the true definition of each indicates that they have quite different purposes (i.e., wax protects the painted surface whereas polish cleans and shines the surface).

If you are not sure about what chemicals to use and you cannot get adequate answers from local suppliers, consider consulting with a trusted detailing expert for advice on shopping. There are several around the country — some are affiliated with a particular detailing chemical manufacturer, and some are independent.


The early establishment of rules regarding the appropriate use of detailing chemicals in the detail center will help to avoid problems during operation. Here are a few suggestions.

Use only the appropriate chemical for the surface at hand
There are a dozen or so different surfaces in the interior and exterior of the vehicle, including leather, fabric, velour, vinyl, carpet, plastic, wood, glass, chrome, aluminum, painted surfaces, and rubber. Each of these surfaces needs to be cleaned with a chemical that will not damage the surface. Additionally, each of these surfaces can be protected by a chemical that is designed specifically for that surface.

Unfortunately, it is common to see detailing technicians using inappropriate chemicals. Examples include using an alkaline all-purpose cleaner on leather seats, using degreasers for general carpet cleaning, and cleaning stubborn stains off of the exterior paint with lacquer thinner.

Now, there will always be exceptions to these rules. Occasionally, situations will arise that require cross-use of chemicals, but this should be done only with proper supervision and careful application, and always following the precautions discussed in the last case scenario.

Start with the least aggressive chemical available for the job at hand
When cleaning, reconditioning, or restoring a particular surface, it is best to start with the mildest chemical that you have. No sense increasing the potential for harm to the surface by going first with the strongest chemical available.

A great example is in removing brake dust from wheels. I always start with my standard dilution of all-purpose cleaner. Most wheels can be cleaned effectively with this. When the APC doesn’t work, then I will move (with great caution) to an acid-based wheel cleaner. Contrast this to operations that automatically use acid on every vehicle that comes in. It is not necessary and greatly increases the risk of injury to the technician and damage to the vehicle.

Ensure proper dilution rates for concentrated chemicals
Another common mistake at the detail center is under-dilution of chemicals. Beware of the common misconception in American culture that is summed up by the statement, “if some of it does a good job, then a whole bunch of it should do an even better job.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth, when it comes to concentrated chemicals.

Of course, the experienced car wash operator already knows the critical nature of proper dilution of car wash chemicals. Over-dilution causes poor wash results. Under-dilution causes damage to the vehicle.

The detail center can benefit tremendously from the cost savings of concentrated chemicals. But this must be tempered by the careful monitoring of dilution rates. I recommend placing the responsibility for dilution with the detail center manager or other appropriate person on the car wash management team. Technicians allowed to dilute their chemicals will often make mistakes or inappropriate adjustments to the dilution rates.

Automated dilution systems take many of the potential problems out of diluting concentrated chemicals. Assuming the appropriate dilution rate has been set, the technician can refill spray bottles at the dilution station without any concern about dilution rates. Also available are simple stands that hold five-gallon containers with spigots. The detail manager can use these containers to pre-dilute concentrated chemicals, and then keep the concentrates locked up.

Understand and adhere to the safety precautions of the chemicals
Make sure that all parties have a clear understanding of the hazards and dangers of each chemical in the shop. Regular educational safety meetings will go a long way to accomplishing this goal. Some chemicals require the use of protective safety equipment like gloves and safety glasses. Institute a zero-tolerance approach to make sure that technicians are appropriately protected when using dangerous chemicals.


Since this is an important topic, it will take more than one column to completely cover it. Next time, we will get into the specifics about what chemicals need to be on board for express as well as full-service detailing. For now, the basic categories of detailing chemicals include: water-based cleaners, solvent-based cleaners, dressings and protectants, chemicals for paint perfection and protection, and specialty chemicals for specific surfaces.


Detailing chemicals play a key role in the effective and efficient production of a beautifully detailed vehicle. Chemicals form part of the “trinity” of high-quality detailing, the other two being equipment (which we discussed the last couple of months), and technique (which we will discuss in upcoming issues).

Educate yourself about detailing chemicals, especially with regard to the active ingredient and purpose of each chemical. Establish rules at your detail shop for appropriate chemical use, dilution, and safety to avoid problems. With these in place, detailing chemicals will help you and your crew provide excellent results for your 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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