Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Solutions to a smelly problem

February 18, 2009

Editor’s Note: This article is included in the August 2006 issue of Professional Carwashing & Detailing®. If you would like to submit an article or topic idea for the Management Tip of the Week, please e-mail Editor Kate Carr.

Let’s face it — the days of simply masking an odor with fragrances and expecting a satisfied customer are long gone.

Today’s consumers are flooded with advertisements pushing products that not only remove odor, but also destroy the agents that cause odor. While many of these products don’t truly perform, the customer still expects his or her detailer to properly deal with odors and remove, not mask, the smell.

Like many elements of the auto detailing industry, odor removal techniques have witnessed remarkable changes along with the advancement of technology. Many technicians automatically consider equipment advancements, but chemical advances are just as important.

Chemical manufacturers are developing new products that only a few years ago were figments of our imaginations. While there is no doubt that equipment advancements are fascinating and changing the way in which we deal with interior odor, the changes within the chemicals we have available to assist us is simply remarkable.

My chemical toolbox

Odors and their causes are widespread, yet thanks to some very creative chemists, the professional can now treat just about any odor and maintain a minimal inventory of three to four odor related products.

Our locations maintain chemicals that treat nearly all odors, but we like to keep the following product types on hand at all times.

* General-use odor eliminator: I prefer to use a liquid, non-scented product and look for products that kill a wide range of odors. Usually these products will note they are a non-masking product which works by killing the bacteria that thrive on spilled substances.

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

* Smoke remover: I prefer special smoke removal products when dealing with smoke-specific issues. While ozone, foggers and bombs may deal with smoke odors, I still prefer to first treat the smoke chemically before moving onto more advanced methods.

* Aerosol odor bombs: When time is an issue, or advanced tools such as foggers or ozone machines are not an option, odor bombs are a very effective alternative. Many times we use odor bombs in place of more advanced methods since these products are a fast-acting solution.

Equip yourself

There are a few basic pieces of equipment every detailer needs for proper odor removal that have not yet been fully discussed. The vacuum and the extractor play an important role within odor removal and both are commonplace in detail operations.

Your vacuum and extractor will be invaluable in removing contaminants before using vapor steam or chemicals on an area.

Extractors remove stains, spills and dirt from carpets and upholstery by shooting a stream of chemical cleaner at the base of the carpet fiber, then immediately lifting the chemical and dirt from the surface serving as a very useful tool for odor removal.

At training sessions I give at detail centers and carwashes across the country, I am amazed at how many in the car care community are confused or simply not educated on the processes, products or equipment available for proper odor removal.

For example, consider the ozone machine. These machines create 03, which is also known as activated oxygen or trivalent oxygen.

Ozone is in the air we breathe, but found in lower quantities or simply missing from interior environments. It is a powerful natural oxidizing agent with the ability to break down most organic chemicals and can get to nearly every part of the interior, including ventilation ducts and vents.

Ozone generation machines are widely known in our industry, but generally ignored.

The machines come in array of shapes and sizes, with units specially designed for the auto detailing industry as well as commercial units. Commercial units can be used on large trucks and RV’s and can even be rented out to motels and hotels for additional profits.

When we ozone an interior, we ask to keep the vehicle all day or overnight. It will take three to eight hours to properly treat an interior with ozone. While shorter durations are possible, heavy odors require longer time frames.

Another tool for a detailer’s equipment line-up is the fogger, which reaches into tight areas in the same way as ozone machines, except foggers use chemicals.

If using a fogger, follow-up with an interior detail since the fog often leaves a chemical residue on surfaces. This residue will give the interior a smeared, dull look if ignored.

The vapor steamer is a third tool that remains new to most detailing professionals, but it has become an irreplaceable interior cleaning and odor removal tool for good reason. These units greatly reduce labor while improving quality for both interior cleaning and proper odor removal.

Steam is a superior agent to clean and sanitize surfaces, In auto detailing operations, steamers can neutralize both interior stains and odors like few other tools in our arsenal.

The odor removal process

The first step -- before even identifying the cause of the odor -- is to communicate with the customer.

I am careful to never promise a complete and total removal of odor. A vehicle’s interior is simply too small, with too many absorbing surfaces to offer a 100 percent guarantee.

Instead, inform your customers you will most likely remove 70-90 percent of the odor. In many cases, you will be successful and remove the entire odor, but guaranteeing a promise you can follow through on is a much safer bet.

The next step is identifying the cause and location of the odor. These may not be obvious, and require a discussion with the vehicle owner. Not all odors are created equal and the process, equipment, products and techniques used may be slightly different for each odor you encounter.

If the odor has been caused by milk which is still wet, start the process by dry-extracting the area, being careful not to add more liquid. If liquid reaches the area, the milk will spread to a larger area.

In the case of a dried coffee or milk spill, first vacuum the area, then steam it. After this process is complete, use the dry extractor until all contaminates are removed.

A common mistake when it comes to odor removal is over-saturating the area with water or cleaning solution. Over saturation simply increases the area causing the odor.

I prefer to remove all contaminants that might cause odor, including anything liquid or dried. I do this by thoroughly vacuuming the entire interior. Then vacuum with a dry extraction, followed by going over the affected area with a vapor steamer.

Steam allows contaminates to rise onto the steamer head, unlike a wet extraction which forces materials deeper into the nap or backing of the carpet or upholstery.

Proper odor removal commonly requires the entire interior be cleaned. If not detailed, chances are the odor could return or linger.

Before cleaning hard interior surfaces, work on the tough carpet and upholstered areas. Once all possible contaminates are removed via vacuuming, steaming and dry extraction, liberally add cleaning chemicals and allow them to dwell.

Follow this by cleaning the hard surfaces, vents and leather. After allowing the cleaning agents to dwell, start the final vapor steaming or wet extracting of the entire interior, removing all residual contaminates. Repeat these steps until the desired outcome is reached.

Once done, I like to keep the vehicle for two to four hours so I can inspect the interior after it has dried. The interior should also be exposed to natural sunlight and heat.

Keeping the vehicle for a few hours after it is complete will allow you to judge 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 and has been in the detailing industry for over 25 years. He can be reached at