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Steam cleaning a car interior

October 11, 2010
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Summary: This month, Professional Carwashing & Detailing® asked Brian Bishop-Parise, president of Thermax Floor Care, to answer a question submitted by an anonymous detail shop operator regarding the effectiveness of steam cleaning.

Question: How does steam cleaning work and what tips do you have for people using this equipment?

Brian Bishop-Parise: We spend the greatest portion of our time in an indoor environment.

Our indoor environments, like our homes, our work places and our cars, are dominated by carpet and upholstered fabric.

These act as effective filters or sponges, attracting and housing airborne contaminants that congregate deep within their fibers.

The dirt on dirt
Studies have shown that a square foot of plush carpet can effectively hide as much as one pound of dirt before the dirt becomes noticeably visible. This creates the tendency to ignore maintenance because of an “out of sight, out of mind” effect.

But the fact is that the fabric of carpet/upholstery is a vast breeding ground for biological contaminants that can wreak havoc on allergy and health related issues.

By employing an effective maintenance program for cleaning these filters of contaminants, one can maintain a more allergy-free and healthier indoor environment.

Steam cleaning
The terminology “steam cleaning” has long been used generically to describe the hot water extraction process of cleaning carpet and upholstery.

Lately there has been some identity confusion between hot water extraction systems and European vapor steam cleaners.

Hot water extraction systems (extractors) are typically used by professional carpet cleaners and automotive interior detail specialists.

The extractor functions by injecting a hot, chemically-induced stream of solution (not steam, but hot water) deep into the carpet or fabric fibers, breaking down and dissolving the trapped dirt and grease along with other biological and non-biological contaminants.

The extractor instantly removes contaminants from the fibers through a powerful vacuum suction. The extracted solution is then stored in a recovery tank for disposal.

Some detailers refer to portable carpet cleaning extraction systems as washing machines for carpeting and fabrics, which essentially is the clothing your house, upholstered furniture or automobile interior wears.

Some tips for using hot water extraction:

  1. Know your cleaning solution additives for the specific application at hand.
  2. Use a hot water solution of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit because hot water cleans better, faster and more hygienically.

    A system with an internal water-heating element is preferable, but always use the hottest tap water available.

  3. Have a good water pump.

    Carpet/upholstery fiber must reach a certain saturation point before it can be effectively cleaned.

    The higher the pressure and solution output through the spray nozzles (psi), the quicker the carpet/upholstery will reach the critical saturation point and the faster you can clean. This saves valuable time and energy.

    The psi output of the pump is relative to the amount of spray nozzles in the wand, the orifice size of each nozzle, and the gallons per minute (gpm) output of solution through the applicable spray nozzles.

  4. Your extraction system should have a vacuum motor (or tandem motors) designed for maximum recovery appropriate to the spray output of the pump so that the carpet/upholstery is not left wet.

    Maximum extraction from the carpet/upholstery fibers means quicker drying times and a cleaner carpet/upholstery.

Vapor steam cleaning
In the past few years, vapor steam cleaners, sometimes called dry vapor cleaners, have made their way and gained momentum into America by way of Europe where they have been available for nearly two decades. These systems are virtually standard items in households throughout Europe.

Vapor steam cleaners are not vacuums and do not employ a vacuum motor or a water pump as extractors do.

Water filled into a pressurized internal stainless steel boiler tank transforms into vaporized steam vapor (not hot water.)

When released through a triggered mechanism, the pressurized steam vapor exits the boiler through any number of cleaning tools, which then releases this vaporized steam onto the surface to be cleaned.

These systems are effective on most solid surfaces where heated steam applied will break down grime and grease and have a sanitizing effect.

The power of water
Water is nature’s elemental substance; a natural solvent that is essential for life itself. When we take a moment to think about it, we can create a seemingly endless list of things we clean with water.

The goal of steam cleaning has been to harness the power of water into a powerful, effective cleaning system.

Whether it is the automobile interior, an RV, a home, an office building or any other environment where carpet and fabric upholstery are found, it is certain dirt will exist. The steam cleaner is a tool that helps with the never-ending fight against dirt.

Brian Bishop-Parise is the president of Thermax Floor Care and has been with Thermax for 28 years. Brian can be contacted at