Auto Detailing - January 2009

At The Car Wash—
Part 7: Service-Appropriate Equipment?
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the seventh 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 importance of having professional equipment in order to properly deliver such services.

Utilizing professional equipment has many advantages. It increases efficiency (the speed with which service is performed) by automating movements that would otherwise be performed by hand. It also increases effectiveness (quality of the final results) by offering greater power and performance.

Proper equipment will also reduce fatigue among detailing technicians, allowing them to perform more jobs per day. Finally, chemical costs will be reduced because good equipment typically uses less chemicals when compared to application by hand.

Hopefully, this list of advantages will make it clear that purchasing high-quality detailing equipment can be viewed as an investment in the profitability of the car wash. Car wash owners understand the importance of having high-quality wash equipment that performs well with minimal problems. The old adage “you get what you pay for” also applies to detailing equipment. I recommend shopping for quality versus price. If you are unsure of what specific brands or types of equipment to purchase, seek the advice of an independent detailing consultant.

In this month’s installment, I will talk about specific recommendations for equipment. In general, express detailing requires quite a bit less equipment than full-service. But each service has its own specific list of equipment that is necessary for the technicians to perform well.


Because of the extensiveness of the service elements provided in full-service detailing, it requires a somewhat large list of equipment.

The full-service detail typically begins with the prep wash, the purpose of which is to prepare the exterior of the vehicle for detailing. The detailer working at a car wash has the distinct advantage of having the automatic wash to perform the bulk of the work involved in the prep wash. Whether or not additional prep wash equipment is needed depends upon the type and set-up of the car wash.

For instance, it may be necessary to have a pre-wash set-up at the entrance to the automated car wash. This set-up might include a pressure washer, scrub brushes, long-handled truck brushes, stepladders, and buckets holding cleaning chemical solutions. The detail technician may need this equipment to provide the more concentrated cleaning that the automated washing equipment is not capable of performing.

If you are providing engine compartment detailing, you will definitely need a pressure washer. Compressed air is handy here for blowing off the excess water from the engine components. So a compressor with air hose and chuck will be necessary in this case.

In order to prevent delays in the wash line, it may be necessary to have a separate wash area for the full-service detailers to perform engine cleaning and prep-washing.

Once the prep wash is completed, the vehicle can be moved to the detailing bay. At this point, most technicians like to purge the exterior cracks and crevices of water with compressed air.

The interior detail requires a powerful vacuum with attachments to remove loose dirt and debris. Many choose an inexpensive wet-dry vac from the local hardware chain store. Instead, I recommend taking the time to make a wise investment in a vacuum that runs quietly and has a smaller diameter long hose that is easier for the detailing technicians to use. Additionally, some technicians also like to have compressed air to blow out debris from under the seats and out of pockets and crevices.

Heavily soiled carpets and mats can be cleaned with a hot-water extractor. There are several sizes available; the size you choose will depend mostly on the volume of vehicles you expect to handle during the day. For example, a three-gallon unit might be fine for one-to-two vehicles per day, whereas a larger unit can handle carpet cleaning on several vehicles without having to change out the water.

A dry vapor steamer is highly recommended for cleaning leather and fabric seats. It is also a highly efficient way to clean lightly soiled carpeting and some other interior surfaces. Although the steam machine is not on a traditional list of equipment for a detail shop, it is becoming increasingly recognized as an important tool for interior detailing.

The interior detail will also require the use of a number of small tools, including an assortment of brushes, towels, and product applicators. Additionally, several spray and dispensing bottles are necessary.

The exterior detail requires, most of all, polishing equipment. Most high-end detail operations have two types of polishers. The random-orbit or dual action polisher is the tool of choice for applying wax. It is also helpful for minor polishing. For paint perfection activities (removing heavier scratches and oxidation), a simple rotary or high-speed polisher is essential.

Each polisher will have a selection of pads that can be interchanged as necessary, depending on the job at hand. It will be important to have a good supply of these pads, as well as pad cleaning tools.

There are emerging polishing technologies that appear to combine the best of random-orbit and simple rotary technologies, but for the moment at least, most professionals still go the two-polisher route. In addition to polishers, the exterior detail technician will require various small tools, including detailer’s clay, various detailing brushes, specialized towels and applicators, and a number of spray and dispenser bottles. Stepladders will also be handy to reach the roofs of larger vehicles.

In addition to the equipment that is used directly on the vehicle, I also recommend a few items for organization. First, a detail cart is a great way to store all of the active small equipment and tools. The cart can carry all of the spray and dispenser bottles, the towels, and the polishing equipment. In addition, the cart can be equipped with bins to toss trash and used towels. It is portable and can be brought out to the car for the technician’s convenience, then rolled inside at the end of the day for secure overnight storage.

Second, I recommend having chemical dilution equipment. Many of the cleaning chemicals involved with full-service detailing come in concentrated form for value and convenience. In order to ensure that technicians refill their spray bottles with the appropriate dilution concentration, dilution should be automated in the detail storage area and managed by the detail manager.

Finally, I recommend some kind of secure storage equipment (like locking cabinets) that can only be accessed by or with the permission of the detail manager. These will hold the back-up supplies and chemicals that should be dispensed to the technicians under the detail manager’s supervision.


Compared to the equipment required for full-service detailing, the express detailing equipment list is rather light. Interior express begins with a vacuum step that is markedly more thorough than that typically provided with a standard car wash package. Thus, a separate shop vacuum with specialized attachments might be necessary in the express detailing area. The same recommendation for a high-quality vacuum applies here.

If the express area is connected to a central vacuum system, then it is simply a matter of equipping the express area with vacuum attachments such as a horsehair duster brush, crevice tool, and upholstery tool with brushes. In other words, the typical “claw” attachment popularly used at many car wash operations is simply inadequate for detailing purposes.

For express carpet and seat cleaning, I strongly recommend using a dry vapor steam machine. Hot-water extractors simply leave carpets and fabric seats too wet for the customer to drive away in 15 minutes. The steamer will effectively clean and refresh lightly soiled seats and carpets. And the truth of the matter is that anything that is more than just lightly soiled does not qualify for the quick-service nature of express detailing and really belongs in the full-service area.

Interior express services will also require a limited set of brushes, spray and dispensing bottles, and towels and applicators.

The exterior express service is limited to the application of wax to the painted surfaces and perhaps some limited final detailing touches to the other exterior surfaces. Many express operators choose to apply a spray or liquid express wax by hand and wipe off with towels. Others use a random-orbit polisher to apply this wax. Either method works fine, since all we are trying to do is place a layer of wax on the vehicle.

Some customers might perceive that using a polisher has some other beneficial effects to the paint other than just wax application. Other customers are more comfortable with the concept of “hand-applied wax,” with no polishing machines involved in the exterior express service.

The express detailing area can also benefit from having a dedicated cart for storing all of the express equipment. Moreover, there are companies that offer complete express detailing carts with all of the dispensing and vacuuming equipment on board.


Those owners who built their car washes from the ground up probably spent months researching automatic wash equipment options. You probably scoured the car wash convention floors and spoke to several different company representatives before investing in your current equipment.

Shopping for detailing equipment should involve the same level of commitment to researching the different options. It will not take months, but it will take some time to educate yourself about the various companies offering detailing equipment and the options that each company offers. I often visit operations that have unused equipment gathering dust in the back room because it was hastily purchased but turned out to be inappropriate for the operation’s needs.

Avoid this problem by doing your homework on detailing equipment. If you don’t have the time to figure out your detailing equipment needs, then I recommend investing in a trusted detailing consultant to help you put together a shopping list that will best fit the service offerings and goals of your operation.


In order to perform automotive detailing, it is necessary to have specialized equipment to do the best job in the least amount of time. Full-service detailing, because of its more thorough goals, has a longer list of equipment than express detailing. Regardless of which service you decide to provide, take the time to research your equipment options to ensure you make the best purchases.

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.

AUTO LAUNDRY NEWS is published by EW Williams Publications Company
2125 Center Avenue, Suite 305, Fort Lee, NJ 07024-5898, USA Phone: 1-201- 592-7007 Fax: 1-201-592-7171