Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Become a stain expert

October 11, 2010
An area of detailing that most detailers struggle with is stain removal. The problem is that early detailers did dealer work and they paid too little money for the detailer to pay attention to time consuming stain removal. If the stain didn’t come out with the shampoo, that was it.

As well, the chemical companies did not offer or promote the use of stain removal chemicals, probably because there was no market for them.

But things have changed with the advent of retail detailing. We have a customer who wants their vehicle “clean” and that includes the removal of coffee stains, red juice stains, pet stains, rust, etc. Unfortunately few detailers have the skill, chemicals, tools nor the knowledge to really tackle this job as a professional.

The purpose of this article will be to provide some of the answers to successful stain removal.

What are spots and stains?
A knowledgeable detailer must first know the difference between a spot and a stain because one is easier to remove than the other. The dictionary defines a spot as something marred or marked by a foreign substance. A spot sits on a fiber’s surface and is easily removed with the proper tools and chemicals. A detailer’s standard application of shampoo and friction scrubbing should remove most spots.

Stains, the dictionary states, are any coloring that chemically affects the material. In other words, the staining agent bonds with or enters the fiber. This is where you need special knowledge and chemicals to break that bond. Red juice stains, for example. So, stain removal is a challenging task if the detailer is not knowledgeable and does not have or use the proper chemicals, tools and procedures.

Keep in mind that stains are actually discolorations in the material and are rarely removed without some risk involved. You need to keep that risk in mind when asked to remove difficult stains in a vehicle.

As mentioned, most detailers, let alone customers, don’t know the difference between a spot and a stain, so they expect the detailer to remove all spots and stains with equal success. The detailer must be able to evaluate the interior and explain the differences in stains and spots and advise the customer of the risks should they have to use aggressive methods and chemicals to attempt to remove certain stains.

Identifying troublesome stains
Like anything in detailing, if you are to correct a problem, you have to be able to identify it, in this case, the stain. The best way to know the “what” of a stain is to ask the customers. If they don’t know, then it is up to you to be the diagnostician. It all begins with analytical observation:
  1. First, make a visual examination, taking note of the color of the stain;

  2. Next, the tone of the carpet;

  3. Then, determine the depth of penetration; and

  4. Finally, decide if the origin of the stain is at the top or the base of the tufts.
Carpet and upholstery cleaning professionals offer numerous methods that can be used to determine some of the basic stains.

Water is helpful in a visual examination. Just pour a little water on the stain and if it beads up you have an oil-based stain. If the water dissolves then it’s a water-based stain.

Should you not be able to determine the type of stain by visual examination, you can use a less conventional method. For example, smell can be a very good indicator of the type of stain because some stains give off a very pungent odor, providing clues as to what they might be. Examples might be urine, milk, wine or beer. Of course if there is no smell or odor, then this method is of no value.

Know the basics
It is important to know the basics when it comes to treating and identifying stains. Most stains break down into four categories:
  • Water stains that leave rings;

  • Fiber stains resulting from some type of colored liquid;

  • Stains that result in discoloration of fibers, bleach and urine;

  • Stains that are due to liquid containing corrosive elements such as wine, food coloring, rusty water, blood or sweat; and
  • Stains from solid deposits such as wax, paint, food grease or glues.
The first three types of stains can be removed with water and a basic cleaner. The fourth type of stain will require a type of organic solvent. For example, for a greasy stain, a cleaner with an emulsifier will break down the stain for effective removal.

The most difficult stain to remove from carpets and upholstery is anything with a greasy substance in it. As well, coffee and red juice stains are a huge problem for detailers.

Be sure to remove residue
The biggest offenses that most cleaners, detailers or not, make is that they do not properly remove the stain removing chemicals and cleaners they put into carpets and upholstery. The typical detailer’s method for cleaning carpets/upholstery is to spray or splash an improperly diluted shampoo on the surface, brush it in and vacuum with a shop vacuum.

But the rule for proper cleaning is anything you put into the fibers must be removed. If you do not, the residue that is left will make the carpet re-soil much faster because you are leaving soap or detergents solvents in the fibers and you are not going to get them out with a vacuum only. They have to be rinsed out. That is why a soil extractor is a must in the business.

Not only will it make the stain worse but the cleaning agents are capable of making a stain surface again. Reappearance of soil can happen for two reasons:
  • The cleaners and soil were not properly suspended or emulsified in the first place;

  • The cleaning agents were not “flushed” out.

Inefficient removal of a stain will create further problems. If you do not get the stain out completely it could attract other residues so that you may end up with a completely different stain than you started with.

Research indicates that using two mixable ingredients that do not have the same elements, one being more volatile than the other, can assist in removing stains. For example, when water is used, apply isopropyl alcohol around the damaged area. By doing this the water will dry out quicker which helps to prevent rings from appearing.

As mentioned, probably one of the hardest stains to remove is “water-based red dye stains.” Kool-Aid is one of the hardest, if not the hardest stain to remove from carpets. Try the following steps to remove a red dye stain:

  1. If still wet, use an absorbent cloth or an extractor to remove as much of the stain as possible.

  2. Treat with a special spot-remover formulated for red dyes.

  3. Allow the remover to dwell for 3-5 minutes and then blot or extract
You can also use the heat transfer method whereby after applying the remover place a clean white towel over the spot and place a steam iron on top of the towel to draw out the red dye or better yet, use a vapor steamer to lift the stain out of the fibers.

If this doesn’t work you can attempt these steps:
  1. Apply an acid-based cleaner to neutralize the stain. Be sure to follow the use of an acid-based cleaner with an application of a mild alkaline product to return to a normal pH.

  2. Thoroughly rinse the entire area with cold water.
Facts about fibers
Detailers also need to remember that there are fibers that are less susceptible to staining than others. One of the fibers is nylon which is fortunate because nylon is the fiber most used in automobile interiors. Nylon’s soft-texture resists most food and beverage stains, and some oil-based stains. Additionally nylon fibers are also easy to clean and only absorb about seven percent of moisture.

Stains on non-resistant fibers penetrate into little boles in the fibers called dye sites. Coffee for example, gets into these boles and dries. Eventually the stain seeps up from the dye sites and comes to the surface.
Sometimes after you have spot-treated a stain and shampooed the carpets /upholstery the stain will reappear in a few days. This is called “wicking.” It is sometimes necessary to go over a stain two or three times to truly remove it so that it will not reappear.

No fast answers
Detailers should remember there are no fast answers for stain removal. Many factors must be taken into consideration when dealing with stains. The key is to educate your customers that a stain must be taken care of immediately. Get them to come to you immediately after a spill. Indicate that the stain can be more easily removed before it dries.

Detailers who are armed with the proper knowledge, chemicals and training, can make any stain removal problem quite simple and become a recognized expert in the area of stain removal just like some detailers are recognized by their peers or customers as top buffers.


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 atbuda@detailplus.com.