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Interior stain removal

October 11, 2010
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Efficiently and effectively eliminating interior stains adds directly to your bottom line. Nearly every day I have one customer or another who stops by with a stain.

The customer says, “I need this fixed before my wife gets home.” I listen to his story about how he managed to spill ketchup or drag in grease, look at the stain, say “no problem,” and watch his face light up. I give him a price and put my chemist to work cleaning the stain.

While the technician is busy removing the stain, I make conversation with the customer. Usually I try to ease his mind by assuring him I see this all the time. He pays $20-$50 for 5-15 minutes work. Most customers don’t even consider the cost, they’re just relieved the stain is gone.

If the situation is right, I sometimes do the work for free — a great way to establish a regular customer for life!

Soils & cleaners
In the science of car cleaning/detailing, dirt can be classified in one of three ways:
  • Organic soil: Anything that contains carbons. This includes all proteins, animal fats, body oils, mold, yeast, bugs, bacteria, animal and bug excrement (waste mater), and others. (The ketchup and fries you spilled on the front seat are a classic organic soil.)
  • Non-organic soil: Composed of minerals rather than living material, chemical compounds that contain no carbon, excluding the oxides of carbon, carbon disulfide, cyanides, and their associated acids and salts.
  • Petroleum soils: Classified as substances that do not contain water and will not mix with water. Petroleum soils do not have a pH factor. Petroleum soils include common chemicals like motor oil, grease, and road tar.
Not much else by way of dirt exists in the car world. If you can figure out the type of soil, you can select the proper cleaner. With the proper cleaner, 99 percent of all stains can be removed.

There are three basic types of cleaners:
  • Acids;
  • Alkalis; and
  • Solvents.
Each is composed of a few basic chemicals:
  • Surfactants;
  • Solvents; and
  • Wetting agents.
The word “surfactant” is a fancy term for any soap or detergent. Surfactant molecules are created with two compounds. One molecule is attracted to the soil itself, and the other is attracted to water. The chemical compound that’s attracted to water is called a hydrophilic. Its job is to surround the soil, and rinse it away.

A surfactant that is a good detergent (detergents break a soil’s bond to a surface) will not be a good penetrating agent. Penetrating and wetting allows water to surround soil so it can be removed. The chemist can improve the performance of a good detergent surfactant by including a second surfactant that has good wetting and penetrating qualities.

Every cleaner also needs a solvent to dissolve soil. The most common solvent is one you might not even think of: water.

Some solvents work great on petroleum soils. Mineral water is a great example of a solvent that works terrific on tar and grease (petroleum soils). These solvents may also be necessary on surfaces damaged by water (like the fabric covering the inside of the roof of a vehicle).

Another popular solvent in car-care chemicals is d-limonene, the chemical name for citrus oil made from orange and lemon peels. Solvents containing d-limonene are a bit more expensive than other cleaners but are safe to use throughout the car.

Stain removal basics
For any stain type, it is important to act quickly. The first step is to identify the fiber to be cleaned; this will give you some indication of its colorfastness and resistance to spotting chemicals.

Next, pre-test all spot-removal agents in an inconspicuous area. Use small amounts of cleaning agent and blot frequently. Always blot; do not rub or brush.

Then treat the stained area with the proper spotting solution based on the type of stain. Work from the outer edge of a spot toward the center to prevent stain rings. I have found that using this method pushes the stain inward rather than out, preventing that ugly ring.

If you are dealing with fresh spills, clean by daubing with white absorbent materials. Avoid using color towels as they will bleed from the rag to the surface you are cleaning. Also, they will prevent you from seeing the progress you are making during the removal process. Cotton terry towels are best because of their high absorbency.

If you are dealing with an older stain, first remove solid, built-up materials with a tablespoon, spatula, or brush.

Remember: using a hot water extractor is the best option on fabrics or carpeting.

The final step is always to rinse the area gently with distilled water. Then absorb all remaining moisture with towels.

Be patient: some stains respond slowly depending on the fabric, the dye, the age of the stain, and other factors. Also, remember that not all stains can be removed.

How-to guides
The following are basic cleaning solutions for a few common stains that appear in vehicles. I can get most stains out using these cleaning methods.

1. Carpet and upholstery stains

Use a neutral detergent that has a pH of 7. Neutral detergents will not bleach fabric or remove fabric protection.
  • Use a spatula or putty knife to remove as much of the solid material as possible. The vacuum can also be a lifesaver by removing large particles of any substance that would stain if you rubbed it or moved it around. The idea is to remove as much of the contamination as possible before you begin blotting.
  • Spray the stain heavily with your cleaner, and allow it a minute or so to work. Don’t scrub the stain. Use a terry towel and blot it up. Again, you don’t want to spread the mess. If needed, spray the stain again, and use your scrub brush with warm water and lightly agitate the stain, never scrub you will spread the stain.
  • Rinse with fresh water and a terry-cloth towel then use hot water extractor and extract what remains. If stain persists, it may have oil in it. Try dry cleaner or minerals spirits. Dampen towel and blot the area. The mineral spirit dries very fast, so you may have to do the same process again.
2. Organic and natural stains

For removing organic and natural stains (such as tea, herbal tea, coffee, mustard, wine, vomit, and natural juices) use a system that combines two powerful stain removing solutions that attack these extremely difficult stains.

Part “A” should contain an oxidizing bleach and Part “B” should contain wetting agents and a volatile alkaline activator.
  • Extraction clean (preferably with water) the spot to remove all surface contamination.
  • Blot the spot as dry as possible, with a dry, white clean towel.
  • Mix equal parts of Solution A and Solution B in a clean separate container. Mixed solution must be used within five minutes. Do not place mixed solution in a closed container.
  • Apply the mixed solution to the stain liberally and evenly to wet all the stained fibers and agitate gently.
  • Covering treated fibers with clear plastic will improve performance.
  • Dwell Time: You may see the stain disappear immediately, or it may require 1-2 hours for the chemical reaction to reach completion.
  • Rinse with hot water extraction.
3. Food and drink stains

This two-part system is especially formulated for removing food and drink stains (such as highly sugared drinks, fruit punch, candy, cough syrup, sports drinks,) and other products containing food and beverage dyes. This is also effective on other stains like iodine based liquids, children’s gooey playthings and lipstick.

The system combines two powerful stain-removing solutions that attack food dyes and other stains, breaking them down for easy removal during extraction.

Part “A” contains wetting agents and reducing bleach. Solution “B” contains wetting agents, solvent, and water softener.
  • Extraction clean (preferably with water) the spot to remove all surface contamination.
  • Blot the spot as dry as possible with a dry white terry towel.
  • Mix equal parts of Solution A and Solution B in a clean container.
  • Apply the mixed solution to the stain liberally to wet all the stained fibers.
  • Prepare a damp towel and wring out until moderately damp.
  • Cover the stain with the damp towel.
  • Apply steam heat to the towel for 1 – 3 minutes, using a steam iron filled with water and set at the lowest setting. Do not set iron directly on fabric or carpet!
  • Apply the iron directly over the towel covering the stain. Check the stain once every minute.
  • When the stain disappears or changes to a light yellow, discontinue heat and remove the iron and the towel.
  • Be alert for fibers that are not colorfast - if you see color loss, discontinue the heat immediately!
  • Extraction rinse the treated area to remove any residue and dry thoroughly.
All of these tips and words of advice will help you on your way to becoming a successful stain removal expert. Consider asking someone in the industry to be your mentor. This is the best way to learn from another’s experience and expertise. Remember, becoming a successful detailer takes time and dedication.

Jim Pyatt is the owner of Tender Rubbing Care, published author and consultant. Jim has over 10 years experience as a detail shop owner operator, and is a member of The National Association for Professional Detailing and Reconditioning (NAPDR). He can be reached at:

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