Using Steam to Clean Automobiles

Using Steam to Clean Automobiles

By Diane M.  Calabrese / Published May 2023

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Rabizo

Less is more in the realm of steam. So, let’s begin with basics: Steam can do more with less.

     “Using steam for car cleaning gives a lot of benefits,” says Lev Tretyakov, founder of Fortador LLC in Hialeah, FL. “Less water and chemical usage, deeper cleaning results, and time savings on cleaning.”

     Getting more done with less also adds up to less waste. “Using steam for clean cars makes compliance with regulations effortless, thanks to no water waste,” says Tretyakov. 

     Steam is also a versatile cleaning agent. “You can clean both the interior and exterior of the car with powerful vapor—dry steam—equipment,” explains Tretyakov. 

     If the vehicle is extremely dirty, such as an off-road truck, a two-step approach may be needed. “You will need to rinse dirt off with a power washer and finalize cleaning with steam,” says Tretyakov.

     Dry steam has a liquid component of zero. There is no water in suspension, the steam quality is 100 percent, and the steam is designated as dry. (In contrast, wet steam is unsaturated. It retains a liquid component—in the form of droplets or mist—at its given temperature and pressure.)

     It’s not just the capacity steam has to clean a vehicle that draws notice. “Steam is a good sanitizer and degreaser without the blasting pressure of water,” explains Michael Hinderliter, president of Steamaway Inc. in Fort Worth, TX. 

     Hinderliter also cites the assistance that using steam provides with cleanup and compliance. The potency of the vapor means there is very little wastewater.

     Being able to clean the interior and exterior of a car with the same method—steam—adds up to savings in equipment as well as in water. In many parts of the country, charges for water usage include water consumed and water discharged to the sewer.

     Often, the discharge to sewer is made the equivalent of the water intake. (Yes, in many regions there’s a sewer although the water has been used to water a garden.)

     Some communities do an even more refined accounting of sewer use. In California, there are communities (e.g., Pleasanton) that charge for sewer usage according to the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended solids (TSS) expected with the type of use. 

     For instance, the unit charge is about three times higher for a bakery than it is for an auto steam cleaner. Steam in that setting helps immediately on the monetary side of the business and in terms of staying compliant.

     “Steam cleaning does use substantially less water than other cleaning options,” says Mitch Mestel, product owner, marketing and e-commerce, with Dupray, which is headquartered in Montreal, QC, Canada. “It is an extremely ecological solution for automobile cleaning whether on a large or small scale.”

     Mestel emphasizes the immediacy of cost savings. “Car cleaners can save a lot on water by choosing to clean with a steam cleaner.”

     At the same time, explains Mestel, there’s a gentle dimension to steam. “Steam is safe for use on delicate surfaces and fabrics, so there is no concern of damaging the interior of the vehicle when detailing with a steam cleaner.”

     [Note: Detailing, or precision cleaning for all facets of a car’s exterior/interior, is the subject of a companion article in this issue.]

     “The biggest benefit of using a steam cleaner when cleaning automobiles is the interior detailing,” says Mestel. “Steam cleaners are not like pressure washers that use lots of water to quickly clean large surfaces of the exteriors of vehicles. When it comes to interior car detailing, however, steam cleaners are extremely efficient tools.”

     What makes the steam cleaners so? “The precision of the steam pressure and the versatility of the cleaning attachments allow for a deep clean in all the small nooks and crannies inside the vehicle that may otherwise be difficult to reach and clean properly,” says Mestel.

     In the context of exactness, Mestel describes a tool specifically geared to professional detailers. “Our Hill Injection™ steam cleaner is widely used by professional car detailers who rely on professional equipment to get the job done.”

     The machine Mestel cites has a feature that adds speed as well. “The continuous steam technology and dual-tank system allow for refills during operation, which effectively eliminates downtime,” he explains. 

     It’s not only dry steam that plays a role in cleaning autos. Wet steam can be the correct match in some cases.

     “Low-moisture steam has only five percent water content, so it is safe for use on even the most delicate surfaces and fabrics,” explains Mestel. “Steam cleaning is an excellent solution for cleaning high-end automobile interiors.” 

     The protection to fabric integrity is welcome everywhere. Pressure can tear many textiles, or at least damage enough of the thread or weave to get a tear started.

About The Steam

     There’s much to be positive about with the reach and good outcomes steam has for cleaning autos. But there are a few cautions that should be kept in mind when weighing options.

     A delicate coating or painted surface in a car might be damaged by the heat of steam. It’s a matter of knowing the substrate and testing and/or reading the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning special surfaces before getting started.

     Where water runoff needs to be minimized as much as possible, however, steam has the advantage. The interior of a car is such a space. 

     As for the lexicon of steam—dry and wet—just get it started. Day-to-day, especially in the kitchen, we think of steam as water in gaseous form. We know steam, possibly emerging from a tea pot or a boiling pan of water, when we see it.

     Dry (dry saturated) steam is water vapor that has no liquid component present. The quality, or nature, of steam is determined by the interplay of temperature and pressure. For instance, there is superheated steam and there is supercritical water.

     Each type of steam has a different energy content. The measure of energy content per unit mass of a substance is called “enthalpy” in physics. When manufacturers design steam-producing units for any use (from moving turbines to cleaning), the term enthalpy becomes part of the lexicon. In lay terms, wet steam has less usable heat energy than dry steam. 

     Regulating entities approve of steam because of what it accomplishes without the aid of chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends steam (in lieu of chemical fogging) to eliminate bed bugs (very tough to eradicate from a dwelling once established). 

     Steam penetrates. It penetrates so well that it can lift out dirt. It can also get into places where troublesome insects like bed bugs take shelter (e.g., baseboards, bed frames, and other furniture).

     Fleas are a bit tougher. And in 2023, most contractors who offer steam cleaning for car interiors have encountered infestations. (Perhaps the very problem motivated the owner to request a cleaning.) For getting rid of fleas, steam cleaning must be coupled with a chemical (soap) treatment. 

     Although steam gets a great deal done all on its own, dirty vehicles may need a pre-rinse or even a bit of chemical in the rinse to get things going. As for the role of steam in killing pathogens, that’s complicated.

     No car owner should expect his or her vehicle to emerge from steam cleaning pathogen free. The steam sterilization processes (in medical settings) that kill bacteria, for example, operate at 285°F.

     Results with steam cleaning autos also depend upon the operator of the equipment. Operators must use appropriate attachments to apply and distribute steam. For instance, a fan-shaped attachment is used to move over seats. On the exterior, an operator may need to proceed to mop up segments (panels) with a sponge or mitt between applications of steam.

     As with any cleaning job, the tools themselves must be kept clean. Whether attachments for steam cleaners or microfiber cloths, dirty will not do. 

     Obviously, steam cannot accomplish everything. It’s not just a dirty exterior that might require a pre-rinse. If the interior carpets and seats are littered with debris, vacuuming comes first.

     On the flip side, some of the most stubborn soils on windows can be lifted up with steam or at least softened to an extent that it takes much less effort to remove them with a cloth. 

     The “less is more” truism is a bit worn, but that’s a good thing. It heralds the progress made on all fronts to reduce the use of chemicals and water.

     Every car interior and exterior successfully cleaned with steam alone provides another setting in which employees (and others) are not exposed to solvents or VOC [volatile organic compounds]. And the environment is spared an additional bit of contamination. 

     Doing more with less (of everything) is a promise fulfilled by steam cleaning automobiles.

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