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Tips on using an extractor

October 11, 2010
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Summary: This month, Professional Carwashing & Detailing® asked Rick Michaelian, detail product manager for C.A.R. Products Inc., to answer a question submitted by an anonymous detail shop operator regarding tips on using extractors for a better cleaning.

Question: How can I use my extractor more effectively? Do you know any tips or helpful tricks?

Rick Michaelian: Upholstery extractors were once thought to be for home use only and were built with features for home applications.

The lack of portability and affordability forced most detailers to resort to using manual methods of shampooing. Today the extractors offered to the detail market are more compact, have tools that are designed to fit into smaller areas and are more affordable.

Shampooing using a machine system as compared to manual methods is now cost effective, helps save on labor and is highly efficient.

Although each detailer may have adopted a specialized way of shampooing by hand, most follow these basic steps.

  1. The area is dry vacuumed to pick up loose dirt and debris.
  2. A concentrated mixture of chemical and water is applied to the areas to be cleaned.
  3. Those areas are scrubbed with a brush.
  4. Lastly, the area is vacuumed again with a wet/dry vacuum to pull out as much liquid and dirt as possible.

Several problems can occur using the hand cleaning method.

For instance, there is no regulation of the amount of chemical cleaner used. Many people have a tendency to use too much chemical, which will leave behind a chemical smell.

Another problem is the residual staining that can occur because the solution breaks up the dirt or stains, but then spreads out even more, leaving slight rings.

In addition, the upholstery stays wet or very damp. Usually the upholstery appears cleaner, but light grey or beige rugs may still have brownish-yellow stains left behind.

Using an extractor reduces these problems. You will get cleaner, drier upholstery plus a more efficient use of chemicals and virtually no chemical after smell.

Chemical costs are also reduced as smaller amounts are needed to perform the same job. There are even machines available that heat the solution, which boosts the cleaning power.

To operate an extractor, mix your cleaning solution with water. Depending on the chemical strength you may need as little as one ounce of low or non-foaming cleaner to one gallon of water.

Only low or non-foaming chemicals can be used. Hot water machines require the smallest amount of chemical because the heated water will do a great deal of cleaning by itself.

Once the machine is warmed up, turn on the pump and the vacuum. Start applying the solution by squeezing the tool handle while holding the vacuum nozzle to the surface of the upholstery.

The nozzle will spray the solution onto the fabric at high pressures, which is vacuumed up right away.

The spray nozzle is located in close proximity to the vacuum head, so as you pressure the solution into the fabric it loosens and almost pops the dirt into the vacuum nozzle.

Compare and contrast
When comparing extractors keep in mind the key components of the machines.

  • Power supply: It is important to determine your shop’s power supply restrictions. Some extractors may require a 20 amp or higher circuit to operate correctly. Be sure your shop has an adequate power supply to properly run the extractor.
  • Water lift: Another specification to consider is the amount of water lift. Eight to five inches of water lift is acceptable but 120 inches or more will give you great vacuuming power.
  • Heaters: Heaters should have a minimum wattage rating of 800.
  • Solution pump: Pumps of 55 pounds per square inch (psi) or greater are acceptable. The higher the psi the harder the solution is pushed into the fabric and the greater ability to loosen and lift dirt.

There’s more…
Other things to look at that are necessary to satisfy your own requirements may include:

  • Solution capacity;
  • Physical size;
  • Quality of the tools (plastic or stainless steel);
  • Length of solution and vacuum hose; and
  • The power draw in amps.

If you’re a high volume shop — 25 or more cars a week — you may want to lean towards getting an extractor with a six gallon or better capacity.

A few tips
Pre-spot heavily soiled or stained areas by spraying a stronger concentration of the cleaning solution five minutes before you start extracting. This allows more chemical dwell time in those tough spots.

Use a trigger sprayer and only a low or non-foaming chemical.

First, move the nozzle forward while applying the solution, pause for a couple of seconds, and then draw the nozzle back slowly.

Repeat the forward and back motion on the same area without applying solution. This ensures good chemical coverage to the area and two passes with a vacuum will leave the fabric only slightly damp.

Be very careful when cleaning headliners with extractors. The adhesives holding the headliner can be affected by the pressurized water/chemical causing the headliner to sag.

Keep the solution tank clear of sand and dirt. Small particles can pass through and plug the pump or spray nozzles.

Empty the vacuum tank every time you add more to the solution tank. This way you won’t overfill the vacuum tank by mistake.

Don’t overuse chemicals. Use the manufacturer’s suggested ratios when mixing. By using too much you will leave a chemical smell behind. You can also damage some seals in the pump and valves.

Rick Michaelian is the detail product manager for C.A.R. Products Inc., and can be reached at

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