Professional Carwashing & Detailing

The power of steam

October 11, 2010

Without question, vapor steamers are fast becoming a staple in the cleaning tool arsenal of many detail operations. The benefits of steam are many. For instance, steam cleaning is:

  • Green — no chemicals are needed;
  • Fast and effective;
  • Easy to use; and
  • Viable on just about any surface.

How they are used
Detailers are using vapor steamers in nearly every function of the detail process. Including:

  • Body washing; (Steam the car and wipe off the dirt with a microfiber towel. Again steam the car, apply a waterless wash, and then wipe it off.)
  • Engine and engine compartment cleaning;
  • Cleaning vinyl, leather, door panels; map pockets, glove boxes, and consoles;
  • Carpets and fabric seats;
  • Stain removing on carpets and fabric upholstery; and
  • Glass cleaning.

Of course, the particular job you will use the vapor steamer for and the number of times you will use the vapor steamer will determine the size of machine you purchase and its durability. Many of the machines presented to detailers are residential units to be used once in a while and will not hold up to for detail use.

Understanding the components
Boiler: Bigger is not always better when it comes to boilers. This is because when boiler pressure is released during the cleaning process a bigger boiler will take longer to reheat. In some cases, up to seven minutes. In larger boilers, three to four quarts of water can take as much as 20 to 25 minutes to reheat.

Therefore, the smaller the boiler, the easier it is to maintain pressure and temperature. Boilers 1.5-2.5 quarts (or continuous fill boilers) heat up much faster, taking about 3 to 9 minutes. Heavy users, such as higher volume detail operations, should consider only continuous fill or single boiler units to meet their needs.

Also, choose stainless steel, which is easier to maintain and more durable than aluminum.

Pressure: A residential type vapor steamer would need no more than about 58 psi. With a vapor steamer, like a heated extractor, the cleaning comes not from the pressure, but from the heat. Detailers should look at heavy-duty, high temperature, high-pressure units designed for difficult cleaning jobs.

Heating Elements: There are two types of heating elements used in vapor steamers:

External plates — which are attached with no contact to water.

Internal plates — which are encapsulated in the boiler and have direct contact with the water.

Both elements work because the machine utilizes the heat in the most efficient way for that machine.

Temperature: This is very important when judging the merits of a vapor steamer. There are many different temperatures and pressures cited in the various vapor steamers on the market. This is no doubt very confusing for the buyer.

For your reference here is some information that can help clear up the confusion:

Pressure Boiler Temperature
50 psi 281 degrees F
58 psi 293 degrees F
65 psi 298 degrees F

Almost all of the vapor steamers on the market are designed for 65 psi or less, unless we are talking about a commercial unit with a heavier gauge boiler.

It’s important to remember that a unit with an aluminum boiler should never exceed 58 psi.

Pressure gauge: A pressure gauge on a vapor steamer assures you that the machine is functioning properly and that you are maintaining the desired temperature. While not absolutely necessary, a pressure gauge is a positive feature.

Continuous fill vs. single boiler steamers
Either a continual fill or a single boiler steamer can meet your cleaning needs. That said, continuous fill means that there is an additional reservoir enabling you to continue working without shutting down the system. A single boiler fills directly into the boiler and when it is empty, it will have to be shut down, refilled and reheated.

If you are looking for a continuous fill unit look for one with a smaller boiler because, as mentioned earlier, it heats quickly and maintains excellent pressure especially for commercial or heavy cleaning applications.

Do not be misled by manufacturers that do not offer continuous flow units. From what I have determined, this feature is important for high volume detail operations.

Know about the hoses
Most good manufacturers design hose lengths for maximum pressure and temperature. A 7’ to 8’ hose is the normal length preferred by most manufacturers.

If you extend the length of the hose beyond what the unit is designed for, you can compromise the temperature.

Should a unit have a longer hose ask for laboratory tests proving that the temperature will not be compromised. Units with detachable hoses are far more practical for a detail operation and result in far less maintenance and repairs. Storage is easier and if something needs repair it is usually just the switch on the hose. By detaching the hose, you do not have to take the entire unit in for repair. Detachable hoses also “lock” into place relieving stress and repair. You may want to have an extra hose for emergencies like a defective switch.

Vapor steam vs. vapor steam w/extractor
Which unit you choose depends on what you want to clean. If you are cleaning only hard surfaces, the vapor steam is the best choice.

Some will say you cannot clean carpet with a vapor steam extractor system, but you can. You need to have the proper machine and process. Look for units that have the added feature of heated liquid injection with extraction. Not many machines on the market offer this excellent feature.

Plastic, stainless and painted housings
Most of the units you find on the market today have either a plastic or a stainless housing. There are very few painted models available. Keep in mind that non-stainless steel models can rust over time.

Plastic might be good for residential use, but for a detailing business you simply need to have the stainless housing. Stainless steel is more durable and will stand the test of time and heavy use. It will cost more upfront, but less in the end.


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 the executive director of the International Detailing Association and a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted at buda@detailplus.com.