Interior Detailing - Clean, Condition, and Sanitize
By Prentice St. Clair
We can capitalize on the hysteria that has gripped our nation. The funny thing is that it is well documented that the typical vehicle interior — under normal circumstances — has more germs, microorganisms, viruses, and bacteria than a typical bathroom. Remember that COVID-19 is only one of 300,000 or so viruses that we come into contact with each day. But we can definitely play the sanitation card on the table in front of our customers.
Being that the interior of the vehicle is where the driver and passengers reside, the cleanliness of the vehicle interior can be a matter of personal comfort. You may find that some drivers are more concerned about the exterior, since this is the part of the car that others see. However, those who drive with multiple passengers, those with children, and those who have occasion to transport clients (like real estate agents), may be quite concerned about the appearance of the vehicle inside.
The vehicle interior is composed of several types of material, including fabric, carpeting, vinyl, plastic, leather, and more. The professional detailer will be familiar with the cleaning and protection of each of these materials, as well as essential tools and chemicals needed for interior detailing. Combining the proper tool and chemical for each interior area, the professional detailer will develop a process by which the inside of the vehicle is cleaned and conditioned in the most effective and efficient manner.
Disinfecting interior surfaces begins with thorough cleaning. The simple wiping with normal cleaners and scrubbing with the various detailing appliances that are available to us will actually eliminate most microorganisms. Further disinfection can be achieved with disinfectant cleaners as well as the use of dry vapor steam, which is hot enough to kill virtually all microorganisms.
The interior detail begins with removing the customer’s belongings and placing these into re-sealable bags or a small box. At the same time, the technician can also remove any large trash or debris, so have a small wastebasket handy. Next, the excess dust and loose debris is removed. Some prefer to use a vacuum for this, others prefer to “blow out” or air purge the interior with compressed air, while others use a combination of these two.
Air purging is great for getting stuff out from under the seats and pockets and other hard-to-reach areas. As the stuff is blown out, however, it ends up elsewhere in the car, necessitating vacuuming. Nonetheless, with long crevice tools, a vacuum can do virtually the same job, without sending flying debris everywhere else in the car. Typically, then, high-production shops will prefer air purging because of its speed, whereas retail detailing shops will prefer vacuuming alone.
The typical shop vacuum available from major retailers is bulky, extremely noisy, and cumbersome to use. I strongly recommend finding a professional-grade quiet vacuum with a long hose and a long cord. It can be very frustrating working with a noisy and cumbersome vacuum. Ideally, use a vacuum with a hose (or extension) that allows you to place the vacuum in one spot while vacuuming the entire vehicle.
Take advantage of the accessories that are available with many vacuums, including the duster brush and crevice tool. The duster brush gives you a quick way to clean vents and other multi-level surfaces. You may also want to have a soft vent-and-dash brush to loosen dirt and debris from hard-to-reach areas like door pockets.
As with each step in the interior detailing process, I recommend that the vacuuming process be performed one passenger compartment at a time, from top-to-bottom within each compartment. Move the seats to their extreme positions for full access under the seats, and remove floor mats, ashtrays, cup holders, and other removable inserts. Vacuum also the vehicle trunk or rear compartment of mini-vans and SUVs. In the case of more neglected vehicles, the vacuum step can be one of the lengthiest in the entire process. The impact that a thorough vacuum has is unquestionable and it will make the rest of the interior detail job go faster.
Vinyl, Plastic And Leather
Next, clean the interior vinyl, plastic, and leather surfaces, one seating area at a time, top to bottom. For vinyl and plastic, use a mild dilution of your favorite multi-purpose cleaner — the kind you get from your detail supplier, not the store. A soft-bristled brush is a great help in lightly scrubbing the multi-shaped interior surfaces. An assortment of smaller detail brushes will help with those hard-to-reach areas. Then wipe the surface dry and clean with a clean towel (terry or microfiber, whichever you prefer).
Leather can be cleaned using either a brush and chemical combination or using a dry vapor steam machine. If using chemical and brush, make sure the cleaner is designed specifically for automotive leather. Do not use multi-purpose cleaner (or anything else) on vehicle leather. A hogs-hair brush is gentle enough to help agitate the dirt and grime from the leather surface. Wipe the leather clean and dry with a clean towel. Proper use of a dry vapor steam machine can eliminate the need for chemicals and brushes, and the steam sanitizes the seat surface while it cleans.
Many are finding that melamine sponges (e.g., “magic foam”) are a great help in cleaning tough stains or scuff marks off of hard plastic and leather.
Carpets, Mats and Fabric
Next, clean the carpets, mats, and fabric seating. There are two options here — hot-water extraction or steam.
Standard practice is to use a hot-water extractor. The professional extractor produces hot water (at least 170 degrees F) and good suction (about 140 inches of water lift capability). I do not recommend putting cleaning solution into the extractor’s clean-water tank because this will leave excess cleaner in the carpeting, which attracts dirt, causing the customer’s carpets to become dirty again much faster. Instead, spray the carpet cleaning solution onto the area, scrub it with a stiff brush, and “rinse” the area with the extractor’s hot water (only). Then, to avoid wicking, buff the area with a clean terry towel to help further dry the fibers.
For lightly soiled carpeting, steam can be a great alternative because it does not leave the carpeting damp like an extractor will. The extractor is great for deep cleaning of heavily soiled carpeting. The steam machine will clean mostly the top fibers. Sometimes I use both machines if the carpet is really bad, starting with extraction and finishing with steam.
Both cleaning options are available for fabric seats as well. Realize that an extractor will push much more liquid into the seats, however. The steam machine cleans only the upholstery on top of the seat foam, so the seats are virtually dry within minutes. If using an extractor, clean the driver’s seat first and place an air mover on it as soon as possible, because we don’t want the driver to have to sit in a damp seat upon picking up the vehicle.
If the mats have a lot of ground-in dirt or have previously been soaked with some kind of beverage spill, you may want to “blast” them off with the pressure washer before using the above cleaning process. You may also want to clean the mats before beginning the interior detail so that they have time to dry. Place them in direct sunlight or use an air mover to dry the mats quickly.
Next, clean the interior glass. Use alcohol-based window cleaner, which will not attack window tinting in the same way that standard ammonia-based glass cleaners will. Which kind of towel to use is really your preference. I have tried all kinds, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. It seems to me that the “trick” (if there is one) to cleaning windows is to wipe them several times and check and re-check for streaks.
Remember that interior glass includes the sunroof, vanity mirrors, rear-view mirror, and gauge panel cover. Also, clean the tops of the roll-down windows by lowering them a few inches.
Next, condition the interior of the vehicle. Use water-based vinyl and plastic dressing for those surfaces and use automotive leather conditioner for leather seats. Apply these dressings generously, using a soft and clean applicator pad. Then buff off the excess with a clean terry towel. Don’t use a microfiber towel for this buffing step because it will take off too much of the dressing.
If you have complaints from customers that the interior windows fog up a day or so after the interior detail, it is likely that your vinyl dressing evaporates when the vehicle is left in the sun. Ask your supplier for an interior dressing that is guaranteed not to cause window fogging.
Finally, re-assemble the vehicle by replacing the mats, cup holder inserts, and ashtrays. Place the collected customer belongings in one of the front seats. You may want to spray some odor neutralizer onto the carpeting under the front seats to help refresh the air in the vehicle cabin.
Remember to ask your customer about carpet and fabric protection. It’s an easy thing to apply and has a great mark-up potential.
You can also offer deodorization service as an add-on to the standard interior detail. Deodorization service can be performed after the vehicle is detailed by spraying an odor-neutralizing chemical, fogging the interior (with the same type of chemical), or using an ozone generator. “Chlorine Bomb” treatments are increasingly popular as it is a small cost per treatment and very effective as a sanitizer.
Stain removal is another service that may not be a part of a standard interior detail package. There are a number of specialized chemicals available for such things as red-stain and coffee-stain removal.
Interior detailing is a fairly straightforward activity, if it is approached systematically using a standard procedure that includes appropriate equipment and chemicals. It is a valuable service for the customer because you can return the interior of the vehicle to “close-to-new” status. The price for a high-quality, thorough interior detail should reflect the amount of time it takes and the value to the customer.
Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or email@example.com.