Carwash.com–Professional Carwashing & Detailing–Featuring CCI–Expert Advice on How to Remove Tough Stains

October 2, 2014

Removing the toughest stains

Finding the right tools, right products, and right procedures to clean any vehicle’s interior.

By: Phillip Lawless

When starting a business, entrepreneurs frequently base their operations on solving a common challenge. To put it simply, many find a universal problem and match it with a common-sense pitch to develop a successful business. That is why detailing start-up operations are common around the world. In some countries, there are two or three vehicles at every house on every street, and drivers are constantly using — and sometimes abusing — their vehicles seven days a week.

This situation is especially applicable when it comes to vehicle interiors. On-the-go families frequently fill cars, vans and SUVs for both daily errands and road-trip vacations. Food and drinks, markers and crayons, these items frequently leave their mark on the seats, carpets and floor mats. Thus, professional detailers seeking a steady and profitable revenue stream need look no further than the stained interiors of the vehicles they service. Using specific products and tools and following defined processes, detailers can successfully remove tough interior stains while increasing sales and customer satisfaction.


Michael A. Pennington, global director of training and consumer relations with Meguiar’s Inc., recommends different cleaners for different stains. Today, every detail shop or carwash should have an all-purpose cleaner for interiors on hand. All-purpose cleaners are great for generic, non-stained surfaces as well as vinyl and leather.

To effectively fight the most common interior stains, Pennington says detailers should invest in two additional products: A protein stain remover and a tannin stain remover. Here, by adding two gallons of the product along with select sprayers and bottles — OSHA approved and labeled correctly — a car care business can offer complete and thorough stain removal.

Mark Bollman, president of Creative Colors International, said another product detailers might need would be a solution specially formulated to battle fruit drink and Kool Aid stains. Since these colorful, dyed drinks present such a challenge, these removal products help lighten the stain. When using this type of product, it is better to treat the stain within 24 to 48 hours, if possible. Any time longer than that and the stain will be set.


For detailers looking to invest in stain removal equipment, Bollman states that hot water extraction is extremely beneficial in breaking down tough interior stains. In fact, Bollman’s company prefers using this equipment instead of manmade products.

Hot water is a dependable cleaning method, and the water itself is not caustic or hazardous, according to Bollman. If water is heated to the required temperatures, in many instances this hot water can remove most tough stains. The steam helps kill bacteria and breaks down the stain that’s been absorbed into the fabric.

That said, the amount of moisture used comes into play when extractors are called on for stain removal, Pennington notes. An extractor is a great tool, but when utilized incorrectly it will leave a seat or carpet wet. Excess moisture may lead to mold growth, and service issues can arise if a customer gets in a damp car. In the worst cases, a customer will get wet from the moist interior or there will be issues with windows fogging up.

“Extractors are fantastic when used correctly,” Pennington says. “But we’d probably stick to extractors on floor mats and things … that have that backing to them where the water can’t saturate all the way down.”


There are procedures for employees or operators working to remove the toughest interior stains. Pennington provides the following steps as an example of common best practices in the industry.

Dry brush and vacuum first.

Frequently, dry brushing and vacuuming will remove 70 percent of the stains because they are generally on the surface. When an employee dry brushes while vacuuming, it fluffs the fibers and removes the majority of the dirt.

Identify the stain.

Commonly, stain removal fails because workers treat all stains the same. It is far too easy to fall into the routine of grabbing one product and following one process.

In many instances, the customer will explain what caused the tough stain. If not, an employee or service writer should ask what the stain is when he or she gets the vehicle. Employees can ask, “Hey, I noticed you referenced stains in your floor mats. Do you have an idea what the stain is?”

Determine the best treatment.

“It’s really a tannin stain versus a protein stain, and that’s what you want to identify,” Pennington states.

Tannin stains frequently can be identified by the darkness. The result of coffee or tea spills, tannin is a naturally occurring vegetable dye or color in these drinks and some foods.

Protein stains are typically dairy products, and they are caused mostly by food, organic matter or possibly milk. Typically these need to be addressed differently to solve the common resoiling issue. Finally, interior oil or grease stains are another possibility.

Based on the identification, workers can choose the appropriate product and address that stain independently. Oil and grease stains respond well to all-purpose cleaners while the tannin and protein products should be called on for the other stains.

Remember to tamp the stain.

Let’s say a car has a tannin stain or a protein stain. First an employee should lay a clean towel on the stain. Next, he or she should take a brush and actually tamp it up and down on the towel, lightly beating it almost like using a hammer, Pennington says.

The goal is to minimize spreading while pulling the stain’s cause up to the surface. Using the tamping method, workers can pull the material into the towel and prevent further spreading.

“Unfortunately, what a lot of people do is they’ll take that spray and they start brushing back and forth,” Pennington says. “All that does is spread the stain.”

Use your all-purpose cleaner on other surfaces.

Once the stain has been removed, the next step is general cleaning with the all-purpose cleaner. This product offers the best removal of regular dirt.

Adjust the pH to avoid resoiling.

The final step, according to Pennington, is coming back over the entire carpet and other interior fabrics with a neutralizer. This product is designed to set the pH back to “basically zero.” This treatment should be lightly back brushed into the surface.

This series of steps will provide not only excellent stain removal and results, it will show a dedication to customer service. “We can raise the level or raise the expectations,” Pennington continues. “Be a little more professional by understanding and asking these questions and really delivering customer service.”


According to Pennington, nothing is worse than a customer saying, “My carpets look great,” then two days later the stain is back. The customer is faced with the choice of returning to the carwash, finding the manager and telling him or her the stain has returned. This often results in an employee having to clean the interior again for free and an unhappy customer.

Yet, wicking and resoiling are unfortunately common with all three stain types: oil/grease, tannin and protein. How can a reoccurring or resoiling situation be prevented?

As mentioned previously, a big step to avoiding this resoiling is leaving the interior fibers in a pH neutral state. As people step back in the car, this treatment helps prevent the carpet from pulling dirt from shoes putting it back into the carpet, Pennington says.

Again, calling on the correct products and tools to remove the identified stains is a best practice for a reason. “As long as you grab and utilize the right chemical to address that situation and remove it appropriately, that minimizes if not eliminates the chance of reoccurring by removing the stain and breaking it down properly,” Pennington concludes.

Marketing stain removal

According to Pennington, there are marketing opportunities for detail shops that offer stain removal services. This can be a valuable profit center because almost every vehicle is going to have some type of stain that annoys its owner. Here, the service writer can pay special attention to stains and use them as an upsell opportunity.

This offering stands to increase customer satisfaction and retention as well. “There’s a huge opportunity to really make that customer happy by removing [a stain], but most importantly, permanently removing it.”

Today, calling on the right tools, right products and right procedures is extremely important. There are more solutions for carpet and cloth care that stemmed out of the home care market, and car care operations can bring this high-tech approach to automobiles.

Phillip Lawless is Editor of Professional Carwashing & Detailing magazine.