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Because the nose knows

October 11, 2010
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Interior odor issues are a fact of life that we as professional detailers are expected to properly deal with. The days of simply masking an odor with fragrances and expecting the customer to be satisfied are long gone. Today’s consumers are flooded with advertisements highlighting products that offer odor removal and while many of these products may not truly work, that customer expects his or her detailer to be able to properly deal with odors and remove the smell, not mask the smell.

Like many elements of the auto detailing industry, odor removal techniques have witnessed remarkable changes with the advancement of technology. When one speaks of technology within the auto detailing industry, most technicians automatically think of equipment advancements, but today chemical companies are developing new products that just a couple years ago were only figments of own imaginations. While there is no doubt that equipment advancements are fascinating and changing the way in which we deal with such problems as interior odors, the changes within the chemicals we have available to assist us is simply remarkable.

Within the trainings I perform at detail centers and carwashes across the country, I am amazed at how many within the car care community are confused or simply not educated on the processes, products or equipment that are available to assist the professional within the topic of proper odor removal.

The equipment and products
Both the vacuum and the extractor play a role within odor removal and both of these items are commonplace within detail operations. In addition to the vacuum and extractor, the vapor steamer is a tool that remains new to most detailing professionals.

The vapor steamer has become an irreplaceable interior cleaning and odor removal tool with top performing shops for good reason; these units greatly reduce labor while improving quality within both interior cleaning and proper odor removal. Within many industries, steam is recognized as a superior agent to clean and sanitize surfaces. When used within auto detailing operations, units with vapor steamers assist detailing professionals at neutralizing both interior stains and odors like few other tools within our available arsenal.

While most within our industry have heard of ozone machines, few utilize these tools. Ozone generation machines create 03, which is also known as activated oxygen or trivalent oxygen. Ozone is within the air we breathe daily but found in lower quantities or simply missing from interior environments. Ozone is a powerful natural oxidizing agent that has the ability to break down most organic chemicals and can gain access to nearly every part of the interior including the ventilation ducts and vents.

Ozone machines come in array of shapes and sizes. There are units specially designed to be used within the auto detailing industry and there are commercial units. We prefer the commercial units due in part that we can use them with large trucks, RVs and rent the units out to motels and hotels for additional profits.

When we ozone an interior, we request that we have the vehicle all day or over night. To properly treat an interior with ozone will take 3-8 hours. Shorter durations are possible, but heavy odors will require these longer time frames.

Another tool that many within the auto detailing industry are utilizing is the
fogger. Fogger units reach into tight areas much in the same way that ozone machines work, but utilizes chemicals instead of ozone. In the event foggers are utilized, follow-up with an interior detail as foggers often leave chemical residues behind on surfaces that will give the interior a smeared, dull look.

Chemicals to consider
The chemicals we as professionals have available today are very advanced but can be mind-boggling and confusing to new– comers to say the least. Odors and their causes are wide spread, yet thanks to some very creative chemists, the professional can now treat just about any odor and only maintain an inventory of three to four odor-related products. Within our locations we maintain chemicals that treat nearly all odors and like to have on hand the following product types:

General use odor eliminator: I prefer to utilize a liquid form, non-scented based product. We look for products that kill a wide range of odors. Usually these products will note that they are a non-masking type product but instead work by killing the bacteria (bugs) that thrive on spilled substances.

Urine/pet odor eliminator: Pet urine is a common challenge within interior odor elimination. I have found that you must utilize a specific pet urine removal product for this treatment.

Smoke remover: I prefer to utilize products that have been specially used for smoke removal when dealing with vehicles that have smoke specific issues. While ozone, foggers and bombs may deal with smoke odors, I still prefer to first treat the smoke issues chemically first before moving onto more advance methods.

Protein-based odors: Most common within many vehicles is the dreaded food smell and this smell can be one of the most challenging to remove. The key to removing any odor is removal of the source; one must remove the entire source if he or she expects to see success. This may mean removal of the carpet shell to clean the underside of the carpet and the base board of the vehicle.

The odor removal process
The first step within odor removal is proper communication with your customer. I am careful to never sell 100 percent removal of odor. A vehicle’s interior is simply too small, with too many absorbing surfaces to be 100 percent certain one can effectively remove all signs of odor. I am more out to instruct our customers that we will most likely remove 70 to 90 percent of the odor. In many cases we are much more successful and can often remove the entire odor; I simply hate to promise 100 percent success when many odors may simply not be totally removable.

When we receive a vehicle into one of our shops that has odor issues, we immediately identify the cause and location of the odor. Identifying the cause of the odor may not be obvious and may require that you discuss the odor with the vehicle owner.

Not all odors are the same
Not all odors are created equal and the process, equipment, products and techniques utilized may be slightly different for each odor you encounter. If the odor has been caused by milk that remains wet, you would want to start your process by dry extracting the area, being careful to not add more liquid to the area causing the milk to spread to a larger area. In the event you have a coffee or milk spill that has dried, you would start by vacuuming the area, followed by steaming the area with your vapor steamer, then dry extracting, repeating the process until all contaminants are removed.

One of the most common mistakes made when it comes to odor removal is water or cleaning solution over-saturation of the area that contains the odor causing elements. If a technician over-saturates an area, he or she has simply increased the area involved in causing the odor.

I prefer to remove all possible odor-causing contaminants, including anything liquid or dried. I do this by starting with a very in-depth vacuuming of the entire interior. I follow the vacuuming with a “dry” extraction followed by going over the effected area with the vapor steamer. Steam allows contaminants to “rise” onto the steamer head unlike a wet extraction that will simply sink the materials deeper into the nap or backing of the carpet or upholstery.

Proper odor removal most commonly requires that the entire interior be cleaned. If the entire interior is not detailed, chances are that the odor could return or at minimum linger behind somewhat.

Before I start cleaning the interior hard surfaces, I choose my cleaning agent and go to work on the tough carpet and upholstered areas. Once all possible contaminants are removed via vacuuming, steaming and dry extraction, I once again liberally add my cleaning chemicals to the surfaces and allow them to dwell. I then clean the hard surfaces, vents and leather.

After allowing my cleaning agents to dwell, I start on the final vapor steaming or wet extracting of the entire interior, removing all residual contaminates. I repeat these steps until the desired outcome is reached.

Following the completion, I like to keep this vehicle for 2-4 hours so that I can inspect the final outcome once the interior has dried and the interior has been exposed to natural sunlight and heat. Keeping the vehicle for a few hours after you are complete will allow you to witness the outcome of your efforts and is a great learning tool to view your work after the vehicle has had time to cure.

Renny Doyle is the founder of Attention To Details, a company that trains and consults with a wide range of carwashes, car dealerships and car care professionals worldwide. He can be reached at:

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