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Why every detailer needs a steamer

October 11, 2010
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Inventions that harness the power of steam have been around for centuries. Their purposes vary greatly, from transportation (the first steam locomotive debuted in the early 1800s, followed a century later by the Stanley Steamer, a steam-powered automobile) to housekeeping and cleaning, (think of steam irons and steam cleaners).

For the detail industry, steam has always been synonymous with cleaning. And in recent years, advances in steam technology have created ways to make it possible for the highest quality vapor steamers to generate steam in small portable units that are now sold in the detail industry.

Let’s discuss cleaning
The importance of cleaning is obvious, but the methods used to clean can vary. For example, in detailing we often clean carpets by scrubbing them (physical abrasion); we also use chemicals to clean along with physical abrasion. Heat is used in soil extractors and recently, we have learned to clean with steam.

Detailers use physical abrasion on stubborn soils. Chemicals are effective for certain types of soils, and on certain surfaces. The use of heat or steam has proven effective for removing many types of soils, but they require electricity to function.

Why vapor steamers?
Water has the ability to hold heat energy, making saturated steam a very efficient way to deliver heat energy to a surface.

The transfer of this heat energy (steam) to surfaces such as carpets, leather, vinyl, wheels and glass, disrupts the icon bonds that hold soils to these surfaces and literally liquefies the soil making it easy to simply wipe off. This is done, in most cases, without chemicals.

One advantage of using steam in detailing is the ability to get into nooks and crannies and hard to clean areas like map pockets, air conditioning vents, etc. Steam releases the heat energy upon contact with the surface so accumulated soils and other residues are disintegrated and easily wiped away without labor-intensive scrubbing.

Something vapor steam cleaning offers that traditional detailing methods do not is disinfected cleaning. Microorganisms are small and invisible to the eye. These microorganisms reside in all sorts of small spaces, especially on textured and porous surfaces like carpets and fabric seats, as well as A/C systems that are literally impossible to otherwise remove.

With all of the new pathogens that can cause health issues for a driver today it is important to clean beyond what you can see. Some microorganisms are spread by aerosols, food, or water, yet there are others that are transmitted by contaminated surfaces. The same surfaces you clean in a vehicle interior.

As you can see, how you clean the vehicle interior takes on an entirely new meaning. It is important to disinfect surfaces that can transmit harmful microorganisms.

Methods of disinfection
Now that you realize you are involved in more than just detailing an interior, you must know how to disinfect the car’s insides.

There are two basic ways you can kill microorganisms on interior surfaces:
  1. Use of a liquid chemical disinfectant which contains sodium hypochlorite, quaternary ammonium compounds, or phenols. They are effective when used in strict compliance with manufacturer’s instructions, but should be used with personal protective equipment (PPE). They also have some limited ability to disinfect porous surfaces;

  2. Use of antimicrobial compounds on, and into, the surfaces themselves. These technologies have proven promising. They are only in the early stages of development and are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also they have not been proven to keep surfaces free from microorganisms.
Enter portable vapor systems
Heated steam simply kills germs. Once a surface has been “hit” with steam it kills any microorganisms on the surface and you have a disinfected surface. Steam is a reliable and proven method for disinfection and leaves no chemical residues behind. Steam is even effective against many microorganisms that are resistant to chemical disinfection.

Today’s portable vapor steam systems require only a small amount of electrical power and water. They convert common tap water into super heated “dry” steam which overcomes the problem of wet carpets and fabric seats and requires no toxic chemicals and the need to keep Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).

There is little risk in the use of vapor steam systems for humans and they eliminate the need to maintain long “wet dwell” times or the need to rinse surfaces. Vapor steamers can be used for any washable surface and are especially effective on irregular, uneven or textured surfaces such as carpets and upholstery.

Without question, vapor steamers are an essential item for a detailer to have in their cleaning arsenal of tools and methods. They are effective in cleaning fast and provide the customer a much cleaner vehicle than they ever imagined that they needed, or that you knew you could provide.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car-care industry. He is also a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted at

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