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Steam Cleaning your Car’s Exterior: What to Know

One method to clean the exterior of your car that you probably don’t hear much about is steam cleaning.

Steam cleaning is rather controversial in the detailing community depending on who you ask, but it’s important to understand when and how to use steam if you choose this cleaning method.

In this blog post, I’ll break down why some detailers like to use steam on the exterior of a vehicle, a few precautions to understand, and how to decide if steam is right for your business.

Is steam safe for cleaning a car’s exterior?

When used on the correct temperature setting, steam is safe for cleaning a car’s exterior. For high-end industrial steamers, steam exits the wand at around 212 degrees Fahrenheit but decreases to somewhere around 160 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 inches away.

This makes it safe on vehicles when applied correctly.

Avoid areas with rubber or plastic

Steam can really only cause problems on rubber and plastic if you get really close (since they can melt a little), which is why you always want to remain a safe distance from the vehicle when you start.

Another common problem is accidental scratching if you use any kind of microfiber towel that is dry. Always make sure to lightly graze the surface of your vehicle with a towel as you move the steam wand over certain areas. The simple goal is to remove water beads.

Apply plenty of steam for lubrication

You never want to run any towel over your car unlubricated. Soap is the best lubricator for carrying dirt away, which is why you must be careful with steam. Some people even choose to use a quick detailer as they work, but it is totally up to you.

Steam is safe and practical for most dirty vehicles with a layer or two of dirt. It’s only if you are trying to remove a lot of mud that it doesn’t really make sense. Especially for wheel wells, and hard-to-reach areas where a hose and water are more practical.

Benefits of using steam to clean a car’s exterior

One of the main benefits of using steam to clean your vehicle is the fact that you do not need to apply any soap, degreasers, or other cleaning supplies.

Many detailers prefer steam because they don’t have to breathe in fumes all day, and is a good choice if you live in a market that is willing to pay for this type of service.

Environmentally friendly

Another advantage of using steam is that you use far less water to clean an entire car. Instead of using 20 to 40 gallons per wash, with steam, you should be able to use less than 10 gallons even when cleaning the interior.

For cities and states with environmental water runoff laws, this method of cleaning basically eliminates this risk.

Cleaning car trim

car trim piece

One of the best uses of steam is on the trim pieces of your car. Trim is one of the more difficult areas of your vehicle to get clean since dirt just seems to get trapped.

You can use a cloth, toothbrush, or boar’s hairbrush, but these methods simply take a lot of time and can even scratch your vehicle if not careful.

Steam is great for helping to remove dirt from trim pieces that have never been cleaned and are showing signs of being stained or really dirty.

When used properly, it is one of the better ways to clean these types of areas, but probably not practical for every detail you perform. Again, you just need to be careful when you apply heat to rubber or vinyl areas.

Adding steam as a premium service offering

Adding steam to your menu of detailing services is a great value-add to customers simply because it is really one of the more advanced cleaning methods you really don’t see offered by most detailers right now.

Even if you are just thinking about buying a steamer for interiors, it can help set your business apart from those who don’t offer steam and honestly has great marketing potential due to the fact that harsh chemicals aren’t used and most people don’t offer it right now.

All this means you can probably charge a little more than a standard wash.

Be sure to check out a post I wrote on 7 add-ons to include in your detailing services menu for more ideas that can make you more money.

Removal of hard to remove substances

steam remove car vinyl sticker

Steam is one of the more effective ways to remove stuck on wax, sealant, and even vinyl-cut stickers that have been baked on glass or paint. It’s also one of the safest ways to do this, without using harsh chemicals, razor blades, or any other products that can cause scratching.

Getting started with steam

If you are considering a steamer, keep in mind that small carpet steamers that clean car interiors are much different than ones capable of cleaning dirt off of paint.  These are much larger, fall in the industrial category (for carpets, other applications) and are much more expensive.

Where to Buy

One of the more popular streamers for exteriors you can purchase are Optima Steamers. These are rather large, but preferred by many in the industry for their build quality and reliability. These have diesel engines, and really are ideal for detailing long-term. You can find where these are sold in your area by visiting steamamericas.com.

Other popular alternatives are steamers made by Vapor Systems or Dupray, which are widely used in detailing.  The VX5000 on Amazon has pretty good reviews and is ideal for cleaning door jams and interiors.

Commercial Grade vs Consumer Grade Steamers

Most steamers you can find on Amazon are pretty multipurpose, but not quite as powerful as the more expensive Optima units that cost around $5,000 and are typically sold through dealers. However, for about 1/5 of that price you can get started with a smaller steam unit if you buy online. The reason you might want an industrial grade unit is because they are capable of applying more pressure at higher temps, which allows you to clean vehicles a little quicker.

Like anything, once you start detailing more and more vehicles, you can upgrade to a larger unit later on.

The Bottom Line

Overall steam is a good choice for detailers and hobbyists who are looking to remove dirt using a relatively new method in the detailing world. The price of these units is usually what holds many people back from using steam, but can be a great premium service for some customers.

Do you use a steamer for detailing, or are thinking about getting started? Leave a comment below if you have anything to add!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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