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Confessions of Car Detailers

Detailing Experts Come Clean About Keeping Your Car Like New

A few months ago, a friend sent out a Facebook message on behalf of her son, who had started an auto detailing business. He was offering a grand opening special: $99 for a full interior and exterior job. Since my car is typically littered with the detritus of raising two little girls, I gave him a try.

I thought he did a decent job — until my husband pointed out what should have been obvious: He didn't take out my daughter's booster seat, so the seat section under it (and the floor under that) didn't get clean. Despite the fact that he'd vacuumed the interior, the remnants of after-school snacks and playdates still were hanging around.

I don't think the detailer was trying to take advantage of me. He was simply inexperienced, or maybe just in a hurry. But I am certainly not alone in my displeasure. A quick Google search for local auto detailers turned up just as many complaints as accolades. After all, with more than 176,500 people in the car-wash and detailing industry, a business that racks up $8 billion annually, according to an October 2013 IBISWorld report, there have to be a few who aren't up to snuff.

Here, some industry experts reveal what you need to know before letting a detailer touch your car.

1. You don't need a detailer every time your car needs washing: You should wash your car once a week if you're driving it daily, and wax it once a month or so, according to Mike Phillips, director of training and author for car-care Web site and the author of The Complete Guide to a Show Car Shine. Your main objective: removing dirt, salt, tar and other environmental debris from your car's clear coat, which is the top layer of pigment-free paint that protects the body from rust and corrosion. That said, if you have enough time and patience — not to mention the right tools — you can do your own detailing and save a little money in the process.

You'll need a few key supplies including high-quality wash mitts, good, soft towels and non-detergent car soap. Never use dishwashing detergent because it can strip off wax. Internal cleaners should be specific to the material you're cleaning. You never want to use vinyl cleaner on leather or vice versa. And since newer cars have advanced paint systems and unique interior components, make sure whatever you're buying is formulated for your particular year, make and model of car, explains Mike Pennington, director of training at car-care products maker Meguiar's.

2. If a detailer gives you a price without seeing your car first, there's something wrong: You wouldn't pay the same price for a four-course meal as a bowl of oatmeal, and the same can be said for a detailing job. Prices vary depending on the size and make of a car and whether the exterior has any visible scratches, swirls, tree sap or tar. The condition of the interior is also key. A detailer might have a bigger job if he's working on a car driven by smokers and those who eat and drink in the vehicle. The bigger the job, the more hours a detailer will need to put into your car — unless he's cutting corners.

3. Some detailers use discount products to save money: Watch out for detailers who may use cheaper materials to cut costs. For instance, you can purchase many types of rubbing compound, which is a rough polishing material designed to eliminate tough dirt, swirls and scratches. All compounds contain abrasives in the form of mined ores or man-made materials, but particle size matters, says Phillips. That's why compound prices can range from $10-$80.

Better buffers are made of soft foam, and good detailers toss them after a series of jobs. Contrast that with wool pads that can last for decades, but may scratch a car's surface if they are not clean. Likewise, car washing soap can range from $2 per gallon to $50 for two quarts.

"The difference is detergent versus non-detergent cleaners and better soaps will contain lubricating agents to make sure the car's surface is slippery so dirt will slide over the clear coat rather than being ground in," says Phillips.

"Take a look at a Post-It Note," he explains. "That's 3 mils thick. [Editor's note: A mil is 0.001 inch.] The average clear coat is 2 mils. It's very easy to scratch the clear coat and damage your paint system, and that damage isn't going to show up for a few years."

Experts suggest asking detailers what products they are using on your car, and making sure they are customizing products based on your car's year, make and model.

4. There's no reason to steam clean or pressure wash an engine: In the '60s and '70s, car engines were predominantly metal. Today, your engine bay is also filled with plastic, computers and wires. Putting a pressure washer or even a hose on those components can cause damage that will affect how your car runs and behaves.

While it is important to wipe down engine parts, paying for a special engine cleaning may be a waste of money — and a risk to the health of your car. "You don't want to force water into the electrical clips and computer components," says Phillips.

5. It should take a minimum of two hours to clean carpeting and upholstery: Cleaning the interior of a car is usually as simple as vacuuming, washing the windows and wiping down the seats and dash with a material-specific cleaner. However, if you've got spills and ground-in dirt, your car may need a deep clean. In this case, dry steam cleaning is the best option, says Renny Doyle, a master-level detailer and owner of Attention to Detail, a training and detailing company based in Big Bear Lake, California. "You want low water saturation and a low level of chemicals," he says.

Whether your detailer uses steam cleaning or opts for the old-fashioned method of a bucket of water and cleaning materials, you'll need to make sure the interior is completely dry before you drive away, or you can end up with a mold or mildew problem, causing odor and discoloration. Explains Phillips: "You always want to use the least amount of water as possible. Make sure detailers get your car completely dry using extractors as well as fans or air movers, which should run at least an hour or two."

6. Detailers should be certified or trained and have insurance: Before choosing a detailer, ask about training. Someone who is certified by the International Detailing Association, for instance, has taken classes and gone through a series of 10 written exams. If a detailer isn't certified, he or she should have been trained to use tools and products and have the proper liability and business insurance to protect your vehicle in the event of a mistake.

7. There's a right time and place to do a detailing job: If you've ever touched a car in the middle of summer, you know that a vehicle's surface temperature can get as high as 150 or even 200 degrees. When the weather is that hot, wax can bake onto paint. Cleaners, which contain cutting agents, can actually stain paints, says Rob Harper, regional sales manager at Ziebart International Corp. Make sure that a detailer who is working on your vehicle is inside or in the shade for the best results.