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Detailing the future


In the over 25 years I have been writing articles on auto detailing, there is always a time when the editor requests that I do a summary of the past year and a possible look into the next year. These stories are meant to help readers already in the business and those considering entering the detail business to act as a gauge to see where they have been and maybe where they and the industry are going. For those new to detailing, letting them know where the industry has been and why and where it might be going is always valuable information.

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The approach that will be taken with this evaluation of the detail industry in 2012 is to look at it from the perspective of the “Principles of Production” for an auto service industry, which are:

  • Management;
  • Personnel;
  • Equipment;
  • Facilities; and
  • Chemicals and supplies.

It seems to me that if one is serious about the business of detailing, and where it is going, one has to look at every aspect of the business and what is happening and what is changing to know what should be done in one’s business.



As in any business, management by the owner and/or his general managers is critical for success. Unfortunately in 2012, we see that good management of a detail business is still lacking. It is getting better but is still lagging behind compared to other auto service businesses. 

Owners of detail businesses are still, for the most part, technicians trying to operate a business. They have good technical skills but are lacking in business skills and most are not gaining the knowledge to be better business people. Why? They are too busy detailing vehicles.


Carwash operators and auto dealers, as well as their general managers, don’t know much about what it takes to manage a detail business, and they make the fatal mistake of assuming a good detailer can manage their detail business or department. The fallacy here is that the good detailer is a “technician” and really only wants to detail cars, not manage people. Plus, few have the skills to manage as with most technicians.

There seems to be a slow, growing awareness of this lack of management, but it still has a long way to go and it is something I see as a continuing problem into 2013.



Many mobile detailers, and some fixed-location operations, do not hire employees choosing to operate their businesses by themselves. So these comments do not apply to them other than to provide an insight into what to do if they ever decide to hire their first employee.

The issue of personnel for carwash operators or auto dealers is as critical as the management they provide for their detail operation.

The critical mistake that everyone in the detail business makes, whether absentee owners like carwash operators or auto dealers and even owner-operators, is they make the error of hiring skills rather than values and teaching ability.


Most owners use only one criterion in hiring personnel, and that is “detail experience.” The problem I have found in operating my own detail centers and setting up detail operations for carwash operators, auto detailers and investors is that an experienced detailer’s experience is only good if you “let them do what they want.” That is like letting the inmates run the asylum.

This has been a huge problem for the detail business in the past, in 2012 and will be in 2013 unless owners give detailing the respect it deserves and take more of an active role in human relations. Not just hiring a warm body.


What we need to see in the detail industry is a human relations policy that is: “Hire people with good values and teach them the skills they need.”


There have not been any new innovations in the equipment area of detailing, but rather a movement of detail business owners to improve their operations by bringing in the new innovations available in the market.

For example, most privately owned, carwash or dealer detail operations still use primitive technology, such as:

  • Portable shop vacuums;
  • 10-pound electric buffers;
  • Some have extractors and some do not; and
  • Chemicals manually handled in small plastic bottles.

Others have improved by introducing the use of central vacuums and central extractors, lighter and smaller electric tools and vapor steamers, but they continue to manually handle chemicals in small plastic bottles.


A few have moved to the more modern technology, which involves work stations that provide the detailer vacuum and extraction, air lines for tools and automatic dispensing of chemicals. These systems are expensive compared to the more primitive technology mentioned, but used properly these systems can increase production, reduce labor and reduce chemical and supply costs.

Looking back on 2012, we see the detail business owner primarily staying with the primitive technology save adding a vapor steamer and some air tools, but for the most part maintaining the status quo. Some carwash operators and some dealers who are aware of the costs and problems in their detail operations are willing to make the changes that translate into more money and savings for the business, but alas they are far and few between.


Some want to make changes, but not really understanding the detail business, they purchase the wrong technology.

For 2013 I see more of the same, but with a steady move toward obtaining more advanced technology.


Facilities are a mixed bag looking back at 2012 and toward 2013. The serious mobile detailers generally do invest in a well-equipped detail trailer or van that they can move from location to location.

For some carwash operations or auto dealers who decide to set up a detailing department in an existing location, they have to assign the detail department whatever space they have available. This is not always the best for a properly operating detail department. For too long facilities were “anywhere you could park a car that had access to water.”


Like any auto service department, layout is critical for the best traffic flow into and out of the work bays, and this is critically true for detailing.

Few freestanding detail operations are being built other than new carwash operations and new dealerships, and if they consult with the right people, they can set up a very good detail department. Unfortunately for many, they depend on the architect or the equipment supplier to give them advice about setting up detail bays.

These practices have been going on for the past 30 years and will continue as outlined into the future. There is some hope carwash operators and auto dealers will spend the time and money to provide facilities that will ensure a well operating department and not continue to treat the detail department as a “Cinderella.”


Chemicals and supplies

Interestingly, the area that has the least importance in the success of a detail business is one where the most attention is paid, both by detail business owners and suppliers to the industry.

For years, and still today, the industry has been driven by the detail chemical companies. As mentioned earlier, there really was no modern technology. A hose, bucket, vacuum and buffer and you were in the business. And, far too many detail operations use no more than this technology today. But they all have a multitude of plastic squeeze and spray bottles filled with a wide and redundant array of chemicals.


The truth be known, detailing chemicals are really a commodity. You purchase chemicals from any legitimate detail chemical company, and you will find, if you know what you are looking for, the same basic chemicals. And, if you understand some basic chemistry you will understand that every chemical company can make any other company’s product.

As far as I know, there have not been any major chemical innovations in 2012 that note a great deal of marketing hype about nano-technology and ceramic compounds. The latter is a legitimate innovation to service some of the ceramic clear coats that are being sprayed on some of the luxury vehicles today. The ceramic clear coat is much harder than normal clears so that it is less susceptible to scratching. However, they are much harder to buff out and require a special formulation.


The problem for those in the detail business is to determine which vehicles have ceramic clear coats and then to know how to use the products properly without damaging the finish.

The marketing hype about paint sealants that last for years goes on and on. It seems that every month there is another company coming out with a “miracle” sealant, but in the end most of them are all the same.

There have been some interesting introductions in 2012 that could be called chemical or maybe even supply technology. What I am speaking of is the sponge clay pad, the clay towel, the clay wipe and the clay buffing pad. All of these technologies are a variation of the body clay bar that was introduced to the industry in the 1990s from Japan.


After the clay bar came, the sponge clay pad, which has a special material bonded to a sponge pad, surfaced. It was popular for a while but, for a number of reasons, fell on disfavor with the industry and kind of died out. Recently, companies have introduced another version of the sponge clay pad with an all together different material, and it is double-sided as well. The jury is still out on these new sponge clay pads.

Then, came the clay buffing pad, which has a material similar to the original sponge clay pad, but this pad can be put on a dual action or orbital buffer and used to quickly remove contamination or paint overspray. Again, the jury is out on the clay buffing pad, but it is an innovation that many in the detail business are embracing.


The latter part of 2012 brought us the clay towel, which is a microfiber towel with a layer of a rubberized polymer material bonded to one side. The reaction to the clay towel has been as dramatic as was the reaction to the clay bar. While the jury is out on this innovation, it seems that it will have a major impact on the detail business into 2013 and beyond.

Following the clay towel has been the clay wipe, which is a thin square pad (1/8-inch thick by 6 inches) that is made of the same material one finds on the newer version of the sponge clay pad. There appears to be a great deal of activity with suppliers to the industry promoting this new wipe. Again, the jury is out on this innovation. Only 2013 will tell if it ends up a failure or a success. 


Personally, I am betting on the clay towel … that is if the price comes down. Presently the price is quite high, but suppliers claim it will last for up to 50 vehicles.

In the supply area there has not been much innovation other than what we have seen even prior to 2012, and that was the dual-sided buffing and polishing pads that attach to a rotary buffer using a special patented attachment. Even these pads have not been overwhelmingly embraced by the industry with most choosing to stay with the traditional single-sided Velcro pad.

There you have it, an evaluation of the detail industry this past year and with some estimates of what you can expect for 2013.

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