Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Odor eaters: Control interior smells

October 11, 2010

Sprays, hanging air-fresheners, and other odor camouflaging units will only temporarily mask interior odors. Most customers prefer a clean natural-air smell in their vehicle and hope that certain odors don’t reappear a few days later after the fragrance dissipates.

If a detailer really wants to remove the odor, he or she needs to seek actual odor-removing equipment that can scientifically eliminate the odors.

Ions and other airborne agents need to be neutralized and altered, or they will continue to produce foul smelling odors. Live bacteria needs to be killed, or the odors persist.

Where the odor lies
Presently, there are is a variety of equipment that detail shops and carwashes may purchase to help remove odors. These can be great add-on services.

New technology allows a detail shop to vanquish the foul-smelling odors within a vehicle’s interior.

Used car lots are in high need of these services simply because the trade-ins are often filled with years of smoke, spilled-milk, and a variety of children’s messes.

Removing odor is often seen as a process involving carpet, or upholstery. To a degree this makes perfect sense because this is where people eat, sit, sleep, spill, and step.

However, some odors, like smoke, seek out every possible square inch of space.

Molecules in gasses are not attached like solids, or loose like liquids. Therefore, they will take up any and all spaces where they are confined.

Thus, an odor caused by cigarette smoke will take up the space of the entire car and all its surfaces, including air vents.

A detailer can’t stick a vacuum hose down an air vent and purify the air that way. He or she needs to completely change the air inside of that space.

Odor removal is a science, and it takes highly specialized professional products to get the job done right. In order to do that, the proper equipment is needed.

4 odor removing forces
After researching the opinions and equipment recommended by industry leaders, there are four main consistent choices for removing interior vehicle odors.

1. Chemicals: There are chemicals that can be applied by hand, or sprayed to remove odors and kill bacteria.

Such chemicals will remove:

  • Smoke;
  • Pet odors;
  • Odors on headliners;
  • Upholstery; and
  • Heating and air conditioning ducts.

When applied by hand, these chemicals attack every layer of bacteria and do a good job of ridding the car of the odor causing bacteria.

They do not mask the odors, but will kill the bacteria and remove the odor. Best of all, the latest odor-removing chemicals are non-toxic, non-allergenic, and fast acting without an offensive smell.

This method is the easiest and least expensive. The drawback is that the chemical must come into contact with the bacteria in order to take it out. Read and follow the manufacturers’ directions carefully for best results.

2. Ozone machines: These units have long been touted as the best option to permanently remove odors and purify the air in autos, planes, and boats.

These machines do not require chemicals and run on their own.

Ozone is heavier than air. Try to set it just inside the opened window and turn on a fan if possible.

Training is necessary as each odor or amount of bacteria requires differing lengths of time and levels. There are some who caution its use in regards to health.

However, upon close examination of articles and reports, the proper use of an ozone machine to remove odor and kill bacteria requires the levels to be turned up to a point that allows the air to be changed to O3.

A high parts-per-million concentration is a must to kill bacteria and mold spores. The detailer should not be present in the car when this occurs.

Proper use should not cause any problems for the worker or the customer. Air quickly returns to O2 within a home and much quicker in a car.

Ozone is constantly changing back to oxygen, so within minutes of airing out the customer’s vehicle, it should be perfectly safe. Should you detect a bleachy smell, wait a few more minutes.

3. Foggers: These are made for deodorizing larger areas, but some use these units for autos. They require a chemical to be discharged sending the fog into the air.

The surfaces may be slightly damp upon completion and then need to be wiped down. The chemical fog kills bacteria, and foggers disperse chemicals into every microscopic pore of a vehicle’s interior.

Foggers also contain specialized products to eliminate every type of odor. The operation of a fogger is quite simple and many companies offer support over the phone.

Unlike an ozone machine that changes the oxygen, the fogger’s gas is what kills the bacteria. The only drawback is that if the bacteria grow large enough to where the fog only gets the top layer, it may not permanently kill all the bacteria causing odors.

4. Vapor steamer machines: These are the most expensive depending on the unit chosen. Very high-end shops use these units, which can clean just about any surface.

The attraction is that they can clean and deodorize all surfaces extremely well and cut detailing time and chemical use by about 25 percent.

These can run around $1,700, but less expensive models can be found. Also, the surfaces are left virtually dry and chemical-free.

Vapor systems use high-temperature (240-298 degrees) water vapor and pressure to clean and sanitize virtually any surface.

Dry steam vapor dislodges the most persistent stains and dirt by using superheated steam. Hard to clean areas such as cracks, crevices, deep cavities, and air ducts are easily cleaned with minimal effort.

Previously inaccessible places can be easily cleaned and sanitized using this process. Surfaces are dry within minutes.

A vapor steamer machine easily penetrates air vents, crevices in engine compartments, under seats, door jams and headliners. There is no better method for completely removing tobacco smoke film and eliminating bacteria driven odors.

Customer appreciation
With more than a few choices, a detail shop owner will need to do his or her research to decide which method best meets their needs.

However, choosing one of the four options should greatly add to the shop’s services and the bottom line. Odor removal is a true add-on service and an option that customers appreciate.


Robert Regan is a board member of the Professional Detailing Technicians Association (PDTA) and owns Winner’s Circle Detailing Products in Santa Barbara, CA. Robert can be contacted at sales@wcdetail.com.