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FAQ: Interior Care
- I can't get the pet hair off my upholstery when vacuuming. What's the cure?
Pet hair can be a real nuisance, even to the pros. The best technique is to mist water over the fabric you are cleaning and then try vacuuming. The water helps loosen the hair. Sometimes rubbing it with a rubber-gloved hand will help loosen it. If you have a VW, Audi or certain other import, you'll have even more trouble due to the weave of the fabric. A rubber squeegee might also pull some of the hair off-just don't use the same one that you use on the car body! Also, a shop vac is a good investment. Mine was $100 from Sears, and it does a much better job than any home vacuum could ever do.
- I have gum/candy/etc. on my carpeting. What can you do?
The same applies to this as for other carpet problems. Gum can often be removed, as can candy & hardened spills-but don't hold your breath! I'll see what I can do. Sometimes a steamer will work, or tar remover. Tar remover does have a residual odor, though, so a deep shampooing is in order to remove the smell.
- What's the best way to clean seat belts?
I can only recommend mild cleaners for this-no solvent-based cleaners. The solvent-based cleaners can break down the nylon webbing and weaken the seat belt material, which is a safety issue. If your seat belts are very dirty, try lots of soapy water and a scrub brush, followed by a good rinse with water and then vacuuming to remove excess water. If that doesn't work, try using a steam cleaner. Keep in mind some stains will be impossible to remove from seat belts due to the limited number of chemicals you can use to clean them. For proper drying, leave the belts un-retracted-use a clothespin to hold the belt out at full length. If allowed to retract while still wet, the seat belt may mildew, which is the last part of your car you want to smell bad-since it is in constant contact with you and your clothing.
- After cleaning my seats/getting my seats wet, there are white marks and powder on the fabric. What is that from?
Over-saturation of the seats from cleaning or spills may leach out the flame-retardant chemicals used in automotive fabric. This flame-retardant is called Boron, or zinc borate. It will look like salt stains on fabric when dry after being wet. This occurrance is rare, but still be cautious. To remove the residue, try lightly extracting the fabric again and allow it to dry. This problem will be most noticeable on black or dark fabric.
- What can you do about bleach marks on upholstery?
Bleach marks, or marks made by any number of chemicals, will often appear as white spots on fabric & carpeting. Often this spot will also fall apart, leaving a bare spot on your floor or seat. Bleached spots must be neutralized with special chemicals to prevent further degradation, and if the carpet is still intact, it can be dyed back to the original color.
- What about carpet dyes?
If you have really bad stains, or white marks from bleach or other chemicals, carpet dye may be the solution. Dyes come in either spray cans or bottles that are mixed with water. In my experience, spray can dyes often leave a crusty, rough surface on the fabric or carpet, but newer products might be better. The dyes that are mixed with water are a bit softer, mainly because after they are sprayed on with the spray bottle, a scrub brush is used to blend & distribute the color, which helps prevent caking & crusting. Only experience will provide results good enough to completely hide a stain, but even if it only makes it less noticeable, it might be better than the glaring, ugly stain.
- Do you remove seats for shampooing?
I avoid it. By that, I mean the type of seats that are bolted to the floor. For removable seats, like in minivans and SUVs, I almost always remove them if I can't clean underneath well enough without. But for bolted-in seats, I try to avoid removal unless the car has a super-huge mess underneath. The problems with removal are plenty-it's labor intensive, for one thing. And more importantly, if any of the seat bolts break on removal (typically from rust and age) you're pretty much screwed. This is why I like to avoid removing them, since I don't want to be liable for someone driving around in a seat that's no longer properly bolted to the floor. But, if you would like to remove them yourself prior to detailing, feel free. It does make the cleaning a bit easier.
- My buddy puked in the back seat. Will you clean it?
Why, yes, of course! But for a price. Spilled food, blood, barf, other bodily fluids, chemicals, odors, etc. can be cleaned. Let me know what your car's problem is and I'll let you know what I can do about it, and for how much. I'll even take pity on you if you prefer. Pity is free.
- My car got wet/had a spill/etc and now has an odor I can't get rid of. What can I do?
Odors can be tough, especially if they don't come out with a shampooing. Most odors can be traced to fabric or the A/C ductwork. Spills (such as milk or whatever your kids were drinking) are a common cause of odors in fabric so quick cleanup and drying is key. If a large amount of liquid was spilled, it may have soaked under the carpeting and into the "jute" (the padding underneath) or deep inside the seat padding. If this happens and odor occurs, you're in for a struggle. The carpeting can be removed and cleaned on the backside, but it's not always a cure, and it's labor-intensive. You might have to replace the carpeting. But don't worry-as long as you get spills cleaned up quickly, they won't have much of a chance to soak in under the carpet, because most automotive carpeting has waterproof rubber backing to avoid this problem (this is true of floor carpeting, not the seat fabric.) If you have lots of water or liquid in the vehicle, vacuum it out and get air moving in the car with fans. Leave the doors or windows open and let it dry. Even if you think it's totally dry, let it dry some more, because mold & mildew love slightly damp fabric even more than wet fabric. You might also have to pull out the seats and some of the plastic panels, like the door thresholds, to help get air moving underneath the carpeting. Make sure the carpeting and fabric is bone dry before calling it quits, or you may regret it later.
For odors in the A/C ductwork, the culprit is water that condenses on the A/C condenser. This is why you may see a puddle of water under your car on a hot humid day with the A/C running. If the water drain is clogged, the water will have nowhere to go and mold & mildew result. Sometimes it can be fixed by spraying odor spray in the cowling while the A/C is running. (The cowling is the part under the windshield where the air is pulled in.) The fan pulls the spray into the ductwork and hopefully to the cause of the odor. If this doesn't cure the smell, some disassembly may be necessary, and you don't want that. It's a lot of labor.
- What can you tell me about that lifetime fabric protector someone tried to sell me?
Seriously, is there really is a product out there that can protect your upholstery from the onslaught of a food-throwing baby, a drunken puke-spewing best friend, or a rainstorm coming in through an open sunroof? Sure, it's called plastic, and it's on your grandmother's couch. And most people don't want that in their car. There is no product made that will guarantee against stains and protect your fabrics from everything, so don't bother buying whatever someone is hawking. If you have a spill, all you can expect from a good quality fabric protector is a reasonable degree of liquid repellency. A pool of vomit is not going to magically levitate over carpeting that has some sort of wonderful, guaranteed fabric protector on it. The best you can expect is a little bit of repellency, like when you spill some soda or coffee in the car and you want it to bead up for a minute without soaking in so you can grab the napkins out of the glove box. Any product guaranteeing more than that is hokey.
Try 3M Scotchgard-anything made by 3M is a pretty good product. To do it right, though, you'll go through a pile of those Scotchgard aerosol cans to do an entire vehicle interior, so consider getting a jug of fabric protector that can be put in a spray bottle. This can be sprayed on in a heavier layer, and might be a bit more economical. When spraying, don't be afraid to wet the fabric. Use a rubber-gloved hand to rub in & spread the spray, especially on the shag of the carpeting. Then allow it to dry. Better yet, have Water Spot take care of it for you!
- What is ozone odor treatment?
Another method of odor control is use of an ozone machine. Ozone kills the cause of the certain odors-bacteria and other oxygen-breathing molds & mildews. Killing the bacteria stops the odors from continuing. Depending on the cause of the odor, ozone can be a wonderful thing, but don't expect ozone to remove the odor of certain things like gasoline, chemicals, or other smells not created by bacteria. Ask two detailers if it works on smoke odors and you'll get two different answers. Depending on whom you ask or what it's being used for, ozone can be great or completely useless. Some people don't believe in it because it's based on one-part chemistry, one-part magic. If you're at the end of your rope with an odor, ozone is definitely worth a shot. These machines are expensive so don't expect to buy one for personal use. Call a detailer or cleaning service.
- What about cigarette smoke odors?
Depending on whom you ask, ozone treatment might not really do much for smoke, since it is not caused by bacteria or mold. However, smoke odors can be removed depending on the severity. Typically, most of the odor will be in the car's fabrics-mainly the headliner. Since smoke rises, it will mostly end up on the headliner, but in bad "smokers", as they are called, all of the fabric can stink. If a car is really bad, the windows and plastic panels will also be coated with smoky crud. To cure this problem, every surface inside the vehicle must be cleaned, often with a steam cleaner. Odor spray and ozone can be thrown in for good measure. Since smoke odor is tough to remove, cars with this problem are worth less on the market-another reason to quit smoking!
- How are headliners cleaned?
Very carefully. Most headliners are made of fabric glued over foam, cardboard or plastic. Too much scrubbing or too much cleaning liquid can ruin the glue and cause the fabric to droop. The same goes for certain fabrics glued onto door panels. The best way to clean a headliner is with a steam cleaner and gentle rubbing. If a headliner is in questionable shape, you may want to avoid cleaning it to prevent the fabric from peeling and drooping. If you are lucky enough to have a plastic or vinyl headliner (found in cheaper cars, some imports, and older cars) they are easier to clean and are more durable. Droopy fabric headliners are hard to fix-you need a can of spray glue and lots of patience to fix them.
- What's the best way to clean the windows?
It sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Get out the Windex & paper towels and go at it, right? Sure, if you're cleaning windows in the house. But automotive glass has a few more things to watch out for.
The biggest thing to be aware of is aftermarket window tint. Don't worry about this if your car has factory-tinted windows, because the tint is actually inside the glass itself. Aftermarket tint is the stuff you see on the cars with the huge chrome wheels and blasting stereos, and it can be delicate stuff. Aftermarket tint is a thin layer of tinted plastic or acrylic applied to the inside of the windows, and it requires different cleaning chemicals. Unless the tint installer tells you differently, these windows must be cleaned with ammonia-free window cleaner (since you're actually cleaning the tint itself, and not the glass-at least on the inside of the car, anyway.) Standard glass cleaner uses ammonia (for it's cleaning ability) which is not compatible with window tint. So if you use Windex or any other glass cleaner, be sure it is ammonia-free.
The alternative to ammonia-based cleaners is alcohol-based cleaners. To be on the safe side, just use alcohol-based glass cleaner for all glass. This type is becoming more common nowadays in stores, so it isn't too hard to find. But if you needed to make your own, it could be done with a mixture of water and isopropyl alcohol-pretty much like the washer fluid for your windshield, minus the blue dye.
So now you have the correct cleaner. What do you use as a towel? Paper towels are okay, but they tend to leave lint. Some people use newspaper, which I never understood, since just READING the newspaper gets ink on your fingers. Why get it all over your hands and the car interior by using it for windows? Newspaper is for reading and for puppies-not car windows. There are so many better alternatives. The best towels to use for windows are microfiber, diaper cloth, or surgical towels. In my opinion, the diaper towels available at Wal-Mart are the best-they are super-soft and absorbent. Microfiber is good too, but I seem to have better luck with the diaper cloth. Surgical towels work well too, because in their original application they must be lint-free, which is great for windows, but I find they aren't as absorbent or as soft as the diaper cloth unless they are old and worn.
Now how about a technique for wiping the window? Believe it or not, there is one. It's called the Box, Flip, and Fill, which I learned (and stole from) Delta Sonic. First, spray the window. Then wipe the window edges (boxing), being sure to get into the corners. Then flip the towel, and fill in the rest of the window. It works pretty well; I'll give Delta Sonic credit for that. For cars with lots of cigarette smoke residue, you might have to clean glass two or three times, with a clean towel each time. The final touch is to put the window down an inch or two and clean the top edge. The top edge is always a really dirty spot, so be sure to clean it.
For cars with heated windshields, be very careful when cleaning! Be especially careful when scraping these windows on the inside with a razor (to remove stickers, etc.) Certain cars, like older Cadillacs and Lincolns, have a heated layer on the inside glass surface to melt snow & ice on the outside. A razor can easily damage this layer. For the most part, I think car manufacturers have finally removed their heads from their butts on this one and put that heated layer inside the laminations of the windshield, rather than layered on top of the interior surface of the glass, to prevent damage. If in doubt, read your owner's manual.
- I broke off the defroster tab/rear view mirror while cleaning the glass. What do I do?
Be careful around the defroster tabs on the back window-they can snap off quite easily, and no, you can't fix them with super glue. It must be fixed with special glue that conducts electricity, and you don't have that in the junk drawer-trust me, I looked. Check with an auto parts store or glass shop.
If you happen to whack the rear view mirror with your hand and pop it off of the glass, make sure you use rear-view mirror adhesive to fix it. No, you can't use super glue here, either, for two reasons. One, super glue is too strong, and if the mirror breaks off again, it might take the inside layer of the windshield glass with it. Then you'd be looking at replacing the windshield. Two, rear view mirrors are supposed to break off relatively easily in case of an accident-if it's glued on with super glue, it will hurt twice as hard when your forehead bounces off of it in an accident. Rear view mirror adhesive has just the right amount of strength for the application, so use it. You can get it at Wal-Mart or auto parts stores.
- I used a razor on my windows and now there are scratches in the glass. How the heck did I do that? How do I remove scratches in glass?
Glass is tough, but not diamond-hard. A dull or damaged razor can scratch glass easily. Also, when using a razor on glass, go in one direction only-do not hack back and forth-scrape, then lift, then scrape again. To be on the safe side, never use a razor on glass unless you are taking the paper sleeve off the razor right before use (to ensure it is brand new and sharp.) You'd be surprised how a seemingly good, sharp razor can damage glass. Better yet, use a plastic razor blade-they actually work quite well. Glass can be buffed with the usual pads & compounds, but there are no guarantees. Also see window cleaning for a word of caution on heated windshields.
- What is your opinion on Rain-X and similar products?
I like Rain-X and include it on my detail jobs unless requested otherwise. Not only does it make the vehicle look good when wet with rain (beautifully beaded water on the windows-oh my! a detailer's dream) but more importantly, it keeps the windows clearer. Some people hate the way the water beads up and rolls off the windows while driving, though. To each his own, I suppose.
The other product that comes to mind for water repellency is Aquapel by PPG. This was originally made for use on aircraft windows and is supposed to last up to six months, whereas Rain-X lasts about a month or so. I have tried Aquapel and it does not last nearly as long as the marketing people claim. I did not see much difference in the durability of Aquapel vs. Rain-X, but there is a big difference in price-Aquapel is expensive. Just use Rain-X instead.
- What can you tell me about steam cleaning?
Steam cleaners have many uses in detailing. It's a chemical-free way to clean most any surface, as long as that surface can withstand the high-temperature of the steam. The best application of a steamer is for cleaning headliners, as mentioned previously, and dingy leather seats and seat belts. The steamer can also be a lifesaver in removing solidified crud (hard candy, dried soda, coffee, etc.) from carpets, interior panels, cupholders, and the like. It can help remove stains on carpets & fabric. It's also great for cars that are just plain nasty-such as a car that has layered dirt on the door handles, steering wheel, and anywhere else the passengers put their grubby paws. A steam cleaner also can be used to remove the gummy residue left behind after removing window tint. If there is stubborn dirt on your car, you can almost always give the steamer a shot.
Some plastics may lighten in color or turn hazy after steaming and some fabrics are not strong enough to withstand the heat, so use caution. Using a steamer on automotive leather is okay when done carefully and in moderation-just follow the same rules as listed below in leather cleaning. The steamer is an invaluable tool, but beware-whatever you are cleaning, if it's in poor shape, be careful using the steamer on it.
Inexpensive steamers can found at Wal-Mart, Sears, and auto parts stores. If you do a lot of steaming, you might want to get a higher quality unit, but be aware the prices jump dramatically as you move up.
- Do you use Armor All? What do you use for dressings?
I sometimes use Armor All. I would say that Armor All is good for spraying in cleaned plastic wheel wells to make them black again, and that's about it. Armor All is the industry leader, but for all the wrong reasons. The biggest issue I have is that after repeated use, your interior plastic, rubber, and vinyl takes on a hard, glassy appearance. Some detailers say it's detrimental to your plastics. I wouldn't go that far-you don't become the industry leader by destroying car interiors. But in general, I don't care for the ultra-glossy look of Armor-All. I prefer Vinylex, which is similar to Armor All but not as glossy and doesn't harden up on your plastics. It also gives your car a new-car smell. But Armor All does have its uses, which is why you may see a bottle of it kicking around my detail trailer.
To apply an interior dressing professionally, you really need to have compressed air, a couple soft & stiff paintbrushes, sponges, and towels. This allows you to blow out the cracks & crevices to remove dust, food crumbs, and the like. This is the difference between a driveway job and a professional job. The compressed air also helps blow out dirt, dust, and french fries that can't be reached with the vacuum cleaner under the seats & such. Be sure to wear safety glasses while doing this! Losing an eye to a speeding french fry has no glory whatsoever.
If you have vinyl seats, you can still put protectant on them, but be advised that they will be slippery and greasy afterwards. What I like to do after the application of Vinylex to seats is to either buff the seats with a soft cloth until totally dry, or wipe the seats down with a slightly damp towel to remove the "slickness".
And one more thing about protectants: Stay away from silicone based products! Silicone protectants are popular because they last longer than water-based products like Vinylex, but silicone tends to break down plastic, rubber and vinyl, which is the opposite of what you want. Silicone protectants look good and are durable, but deadly to plastics & rubber.
- I have shoe scuff marks on my door panels. How do I get them off?
I have a few products and tricks for this. If it doesn't come off with the typical cleaners, try using the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. This is one of those products where I think there is actually some magic involved. Not only does it work for household stuff, but for the car too. Mr. Clean isn't the only one who makes it, either. Just look for any of those scuff remover pads that are designed to disintegrate & disappear as they are used. If that doesn't work, you can try the steam cleaner, tar remover, and a soft, plastic-bristled scrub brush.
- My leather seats need TLC. What can you do for leather?
I love it when people tell me they have leather seats, because it's not totally true. Leather seats are mostly vinyl and have leather only on the seating surface. That's why window stickers and car commercials say "Leather Appointed Seats" or "Leather Trimmed Seats" or, simply, "Leather." Typically, the sides and back of so-called leather seats are vinyl, and the part that touches your butt and back is leather. The only exception to the "leather trim" rule is on high-end luxury cars-very high-end luxury cars.
Automotive leather (except for suede) is colored and clearcoated. Obviously, animal skins that are made into leather come only in one color (brown) so if you want red/gray/blue/black/etc leather seats, they must be colored. And to keep that color on the leather and not on your clothes, it is clearcoated, similar to the clearcoat paint on your fenders. Compare this to your favorite leather jacket or a riding saddle-they are two entirely different leather products. All that being said, cleaning and care is the same for all leathers except suede and natural (non-clearcoated) leather seats. I use Lexol cleaner and conditioner, which is the same stuff horse-lovers use for their leather tack. On clearcoated leather seats, the conditioner has limited use because most of it does not get to the actual leather itself, but it does provide that great leather smell and a satin gloss.
Use a super-soft horsehair brush to scrub the Lexol cleaner into the leather. Get the brush into the seat seams, too. You might also want to try using compressed air to (carefully) blow out the crumbs and grit in the seams of the seats. This grit tends to wear away the leather and can cause the seams to tear. Then use a towel to dry the seat. (The compressed air also helps dry the seat.) Apply the Lexol conditioner with a sponge or clean wax pad, allow it to sit and soak a bit, then wipe with a clean towel.
If you have stubborn dirt on your leather, you can try a steamer, just don't overdo it. If the dirt doesn't come off with a couple passes, you're pretty much stuck with it. And for leather seats with wear-lines, cracks, and wrinkles-the dirt is especially hard to remove from those cracks & wrinkles, so don't hold your breath waiting for it to come out. This is why frequent cleaning and conditioning is necessary to prevent drying, cracking, and ground-in dirt. No amount of cleaning will prevent wear lines in leather, though-it's the same as our skin-as we age, we wrinkle. All you can do is slow down the process.
If you have pen ink, newspaper ink, or blue jean stains on your leather seats, you're pretty much stuck. Sometimes if the ink is fresh, it can be cleaned off, but typically, ink soaks into the leather and becomes permanent. The only option is to have the leather re-colored.
Do you have suede leather seats, or an older European car with non-clearcoated leather, or Castano leather seats in a King Ranch Ford Pickup/Expedition? I pity you. You can't clean swede leather, other than brushing it or using the cleaning kit that comes with the car. As for the Castano leather in the King Ranch Fords and non-clearcoated leather seats in the older European cars, it may look beautiful, but they can absolutely not be cleaned-even water may leave a stain. Don't even think of using a steamer here. These seats are more similar to the leather used for clothing and equestrian purposes-thus the reason behind putting it in a pickup truck aimed at horse farmers. If in doubt, put a drop of water on your leather seat in an inconspicuous area-if it soaks in, it's non-clearcoated and therefore should not be cleaned unless otherwise stated in the owner's manual. If the water beads up, it's safe to clean it. Another way to check is to rub some mild cleaner on the leather with a towel in an inconspicuous area-if some of the color comes off, it's non-clearcoated. Leave it alone and check your owner's manual.
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