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Why You Should Use Compressed Air For Auto Detailing

When assembling your toolbox of detailing tools, an air compressor may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, there are several benefits of using compressed air that can really set certain detailers apart from others and can widen the number of services you offer.

In this blog, I’ll break down a few reasons for using compressed air when detailing a client’s vehicle, and what to keep in mind.

To set yourself apart as a detailer

Detailing is obviously a pretty competitive business but also can be a great opportunity.  The car wash/detailing industry is an 11 billion dollar industry according to a recent Industry Research report. Based on my personal experience of getting my vehicle detailed, many are better than others – and much better I might add.

So how does compressed air fit into this? As an example, after recently having my truck professionally detailed, I still noticed areas on the inside that were dusty with crumbs and debris left behind. Where I live, having your car professionally detailed (inside and out) costs somewhere between $120-$300 depending on the level of service offered.

While some businesses offer cleaning, others pride themselves as certified ‘detailers’. One of the main differences is because some use techniques (like using compressed air) that really help to highlight their attention to detail.

You need compressed air to use a cleaning gun

If you aren’t familiar with a cleaning gun, they are one of the few tools that are really nice to have as a professional detailer powered by a compressor.

Without going into too much detail, these cleaning guns (like the Tornador) allow you to use steam mixed with compressed air to spot-clean certain hard-to-reach areas.

Tornador Car Cleaning Gun

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Check out this video of one being used to clean a dirty seat:

I’ve seen these used on door jams, as well as the seat runners (metal tracks), and they really do a good job of spot cleaning.

Most of these have a switch that gives you the option to blow pressurized steam or only air for drying which can really help save a lot of time scrubbing with a toothbrush and degreasing hard to reach areas.

If you’re in the market for a compressor to be used with tools like the Tornador, check out our buyers guideBest Air Compressors for Mobile Detailing for my top picks (and why).

Cleaning debris from cracks and crevices

cleaning cracks detailing

If you’re just looking to clean consoles or cupholders, a blow gun (or air gun) is just a simple tool with a trigger for blowing out high-pressure air. Pretty straightforward. These come in all shapes and sizes, but are perfect for getting into cracks and hard-to-reach areas.

You can get these with a long flex tube for tight spaces, or a wider cylindrical nozzle.

Cleaning hard-to-reach interior crevices

Cleaning hard-to-reach areas like in-between seats, cupholders, and dashboards can be difficult without using compressed air since detailing brushes or vacs may be too large. This is the most common use case I see, but some people do use them for exterior detailing.

When cleaning the inside of a dirty car door (for example), I have seen some detailers apply a cleaning agent to the door itself, followed by a detailing brush. Once the surface is wiped and dry, the compressed air is great for eliminating excess water that gets lodged between door panels and other cracks in the door.

Having dried water spots or streaks due to trapped water that ran down the door panel you don’t want, so pushing this water out can help achieve that awesome spot-free finish.

Using compressed air on a car exterior

Even after using your choice of a chamois, microfiber towel, or air dryer, certain areas of your vehicle can just be difficult to dry completely. Before waxing or using a finishing product, a few common areas where water usually collects and is hard to remove are:

  • Side mirrors – water easily gets lodged inside, and can run down.
  • Grills and bumpers with lots of cracks and crevices
  • Hood vents
  • Windshield wiper cowl covers
  • Vinyl and weatherstrip pieces

In terms of detailing, compressors can also power pneumatic polishers but require pretty large tanks to operate.

Cleaning the engine bay

cleaning engine bay

One of the best uses of compressed air is to clean a very dirty engine bay before using any kind of water or degreaser. Although there is some debate as to whether or not a hose should be used, I probably wouldn’t.

Most engines have plastic covers that can get quite dusty, so you may want to blast it with air in order to remove any loose particles like pollen, dirt, leaves, and other debris that may have accumulated. Especially around tubes and hard-to-reach areas, it can definitely help.

While you’re at it, you also may want to remove your customer’s air filter and blast it for a few seconds.

Inflating tires

Obviously having compressed air on hand is great for cleaning, but you can really take your detailing business to the next level if you offer the option to inflate tires as a part of some detailing packages.

While you can use a compressed air tank, there are a bunch of cheap handheld and portable tire inflators that are a bit safer. You definitely don’t want to risk overinflating tires with a high-powered compressor.

Cleaning microfiber pads

Using air is also a great choice for cleaning microfiber pads that get clogged with wax and other products when detailing. While you still probably want to wash them with soap and water after heavy use, compressed air is a great way to keep them relatively soft and clean while working. Just make sure you aren’t breathing in any particles (as cleaning can get dusty).

Simply power up your buffer or polisher and use a blowgun simultaneously on the pad and you’re good to go.

Powering pneumatic tools

If you are planning on using a cleaning gun like the Tornador which uses quite a bit of air, you might want to purchase a 15-30 gallon compressor unit as mentioned earlier. These larger units can get pretty expensive if you’re just starting out, but they are definitely more versatile.

There are several compressor brands and cleaning guns to choose from, but one of the best is California Air Tools.

California Air Tools 15-Gallon Air Compressor

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They are known to be super-quiet, lie flat for portability, and have great reviews on Amazon.

One last note on compressor tank sizes, CFM, and PSI

portable detailing compressors

If you are in the market for an air compressor, there are a few things to keep in mind before purchasing one. While portability is key, you need to make sure that the compressor is capable of operating the tools you may be using. As always, be sure to check the requirements of any air-powered tools you will be using before purchasing a compressor.

PSI (pounds per square inch)

PSI is just a measurement of force, with many tools you will need for detailing using between 70-100 PSI. You don’t really want to go above 90 for cleaning, so having a high PSI rating isn’t really necessary.

Many larger tanks are two-stage compressors, which just means the air gets compressed twice, resulting in max PSI levels of 175 or higher. Not really necessary for detailing tools, but good for body shop applications where sanders and other heavy tools are used.

CFM (cubic feet per minute)

Without getting too technical, making sure that your compressor has an adequate CFM rating for the tool you are powering is key. This is basically a measure of flow out of the tank, and will dictate what size tank you need. Something like a Tornador requires somewhere around 5.5 to 6.5 cubic feet per minute, as do many other similar cleaning tools.

Tank sizes

With a high CFM requirement, you also need to make sure your tank is large enough to avoid having to re-cycle all the time.

As an example, 5 CFMs will produce 31.14 gallons per minute. So with a 50-gallon tank (which is pretty big), it should be able to run nonstop for around 1.5 minutes without the tank having to refill.

Based on what I’ve seen, many people use tools like the Tornador for 10-15 seconds at the time (not a full minute) which is why they can usually get away with a 15-20 gallon tank. You may only get 10-15 continuous seconds of usage, but as long as the tank has the recommended CFM rating it should still technically operate.

I’d say somewhere between a 25-30 gallon tank would probably be ideal for most mobile detailers just in case you want to power something bigger. Several tanks are designed to lie flat and are perfect if you are tight on space in a trailer or van.

Just getting started? Consider a portable compressor

Compressors come in various sizes, but for simply blasting away the debris you may just want a pancake-style compressor like the Porter Cable unit pictured above. These are great for general use where pneumatic tools aren’t used.

Porter Cable Pancake Compressor

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Porter Cable 6 gallon pancake compressor

Most of these pancake compressors are anywhere between 6 to 10 gallons.


In conclusion, using compressed air to operate tools like air guns or cleaning guns is a great idea, but it really depends on your business and what clients are willing to pay for your services. If you serve a more affluent market, it’s almost always a necessity, since you are going to want to make sure everything is spotless.

You definitely don’t want a client to point out crumbs or debris on the interior after paying $250 just because you didn’t have the equipment. You may want to include compressed air on your pricing sheet, so the customer knows up front what services (like using cleaning guns) are included.

For the car enthusiast on the other hand, having a decent-sized compressor is a great idea, since it allows you to do so many things at home outside of washing your vehicle – from powering nail guns, to paint guns, polishers or sanders. As a reminder, just be sure to pick up a hose (and reel) to make things easy.

If you are powering other equipment for mobile detailing, a generator really is the way to go for portable power. Check out my article: What Type of Generator Do I Need for Detailing to learn more.

Have a comment or suggestion for what has worked for you or anything to add? Leave a comment below.

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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