Part of the allure of buying a new car is to enjoy that new car smell. And, while the scent varies from new car to new car — and even person to person — the euphoria of purchasing a new car and the off gases of new vinyl, plastics and leather all typically combine and equal a positive olfactory experience for most buyers. The power of the new car smell is so important that some automobile manufacturers even have staff members who focus on it to ensure that distinct fragrance lingers long enough for their customers to enjoy it. It’s so unique and coveted that auto air freshener companies have even tried to duplicate it.

Limitations of air fresheners

However, with age and use, that new car scent slowly dissipates. And, drivers interested in creating an aromatic ride must turn to the auto air freshener products we have all come to know and love. North America’s love affair with auto air fresheners is so widespread that, according to Grand View Research, the North American air freshener market is estimated to be worth $994.4 million by 2022. This market includes vent-clip, gels and cans, sprays and aerosols, and traditional cardboard or paper-infused hanging-style air fresheners.

However, these air fresheners are only intended to create a desired interior atmosphere based on the customer’s preferences. In fact, there is a scent and a visual air freshener product for just about everyone and just about every desired experience. Increased demand is also occurring, according to market reports, because people are interested in newer organic and natural car air fresheners as well as attractive packaging, design and distribution of air fresheners in general.

While some of these products may contain odor-neutralizing agents, their main purpose is to incorporate a strong scent into the automobile, which is why they only last for a relatively short period of time. These products, in most cases, are not meant to be a long-term solution to persistent auto malodor. And, if your customers are using these products as a definitive solution to ongoing malodor, there may be an opportunity for your carwash to help.

“When utilized to address odors, whether in a car or a home, air fresheners are little more than a quick cover up,” asserts Mike Watt, director of corporate accounts at Avmor. “However, as soon as the air freshener dissipates, the odor will return. In order to thoroughly remove odors, again, whether in an automobile or house, there are far more useful choices that professional carwash operators should consider.”

Types of auto malodors

One of the key factors in removing malodor, regardless of the environment, is first identifying the source. While common air freshener products are good at covering up and masking troublesome car odor, in order to effectively remove putrid malodor, you must remove its source.

A well-vented automobile can be impacted by several sources of malodor. Automobiles rely on liquids, such as gasoline, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, brake fluid, etc. A leak or a spill of any of these vital fluids in the hood, delivery systems, trunk or interior of a car can cause consistent malodor, which is exacerbated when entering the venting system of the car.

However, it is more common for the sources of persistent malodor to be, naturally, where the customer uses the car the most — the interior. The most common sources of auto malodor are food and beverage spills, significant dirt/debris, pets, smoke from tobacco products, mildew from moisture, mold from a malfunctioning or old air conditioning system or trash inside the car.

Some of these malodor issues are a quick fix; others will require some time, attention and a keen use of your workers’ senses to resolve the issue. While visible spills or food can be easily removed, issues are elevated when these items soak into fabrics and beneath the surface, which is especially tricky to identify when working with dark carpeting and auto upholstery.

In addition to using their senses of smell and sight to identify the malodor’s source, workers should also touch areas of concern. Hard, stiff or missing fabrics might lead to discovering an underlying issue that is creating auto malodor.

“Many times, the source is self-evident if there has been a spillage in the automobile. But many times, the source of the odor is not that easy to detect,” says Watt. “Very often, odors in automobiles are coming from the carpeting, matting, dashboard or upholstery.”

In addition to identifying the source of the odor, workers should also consider the type of fabric or leather they are working with and make sure they have the products needed to treat these surfaces.

While finding out the source of your customer’s malodor issues can take some time and require attention to detail, not treating the issue correctly can lead to more problems, lost business and even reduced revenues if your workers create a bigger issue. If a liquid cleaner is used, for instance, workers must make sure that all chemicals are flushed out and dried from the area completely. Not doing so can result in unsightly stains, mold/mildew issues or more malodor or air quality issues, which can potentially be harmful to the health of your customer.

Odor, meet your match

Once your workers have identified the source and surface they are working with, understanding the available solutions is next. One option for minor to moderate auto malodors is to utilize what are called “dustless powders,” educates Watt.

“Apply the powder to the carpet and upholstery, allow it to dwell for a few minutes and then vacuum thoroughly,” he adds. “The powder will help deodorize the carpet and upholstery, which is then vacuumed up along with any of the loosened soils and contaminants. However, this too is a temporary measure, as it typically does not remove the source of the malodor.”

According to Watt, many persistent interior automobile odors are caused by soils and bacteria in carpet, mats and upholstery. In such situations, he continues, carwash professionals will need to look into another option, and that is to select a cleaning solution that essentially digests the soils and bacteria, destroying the odor in the process.

“What we are referring to are bio-enzymatic cleaners, or what are also called ‘microbial-based’ cleaning formulations,” he explains. “These solutions attack urine, bodily fluids, vomit and other organic stains that may find their way into a car’s carpet or upholstery via our shoes and clothing or other means. Even if the area has been cleaned up, the odor-causing soils and bacteria may adhere to carpet and upholstery fibers. A microbial-based cleaner can help remove them. As an added benefit, they may also help remove any stains the bacteria or organic soils may have created in the fibers.”

If dustless powders or bio-enzymatic cleaners do not resolve an odor issue, you should consider the use of ozone generators to eradicate the odors. However, according to Watt, there are things you should know about using these systems.

“Foremost,” he warns, “the scent’s origin must be first eradicated. If it is not removed, the generator may quell the smell for a spell, but it will probably come back. This implies it may still be advantageous to use the microbial-based cleaner first. Second, these machines must be used very carefully per manufacturer’s instructions. No living things can be in the automobile while the ozone generator is running.”

There is a science to cleaning, regardless of the application or environment. There are countless combinations of stains, spills and surfaces even found in automobiles. Each cleaning job is unique, and therefore, there are no universal solutions. By no means does this article serve as a be-all-end-all for removing malodors, but it should serve as a guide to identifying and treating the odor problems commonly found in your customers’ cars.

Professional cleaning and carwash chemical distributors and manufacturers can also be important resources to utilize for identifying and treating persistent, unpleasant auto malodors.