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Is it Time to Steam Clean Your Car?

We all know the excitement and freedom that owning a car can bring to the average American. It allows one to travel between cities, commute to work, visit friends and family, and generally move the nation. When you own a car, you have a degree of freedom that even a century ago would have shocked the average citizen, even if you told it to their faces with your car behind you.Part and parcel of owning a car, however, is maintaining it. How often have we, those that love the automotive part of life, hopped in a friends car and it has garbage on the floor, the seats smell funny, or there is a big crack across the windshield? It’s one of those things that while you don’t comment on it, it still sits in your mind as “I keep my car clean, why can’t my friend?”

One of the ways that you can get rid of that funny seat smell and get the remains of garbage out of the car is via steam cleaning. And we can already hear you asking…

What Is Steam Cleaning?

clean steaming interior car seats
Photo Credit: Oh So Spotless

There are two major types of steam cleaning, interior and exterior, but they both rely on the same basic principle. Water is heated beyond the boiling point in a pressure-safe container, directed through tight piping to a nozzle, and allowed to rapidly expand as pressurized hot water vapor. There are also many different sizes of steam cleaners, from tiny upholstery cleaners that use only a cup of water, to major industrial steam cleaners that can boil tens of gallons of water per hour.

What Is It Good At Removing?

steam cleaner and coffee spill on carpet
Photo Credit: Fortador USA

Honestly, quite a lot. Here’s what we commonly see in car interiors:

  • Coffee stains
  • Spills
  • Dirt
  • Dried gunk from food items

Not to mention, the stuff off the bottom of your shoe that gets ground into the floor mats every time you drive, even gum that’s been mashed into the seats or carpet, although that takes patience and it helps to have a putty scraper on hand.

On the exterior of your car, it can loosen tough dirt, things that got stuck to your car unintentionally, even the unpleasant after-effects of a bird’s lunch. Simply steam the area to loosen the contamination, and then after a moderate cooling period of about 30 seconds, spray that area with water or wipe as you steam with a lintless microfiber cloth, and watch the stubborn dirt and bird deposits disappear.

In fact, the list of what steam cannot remove is easier to list than what it can remove, and those items are mostly extremely hazardous, moisture and heat sensitive chemicals that you would find in industrial settings only.

Steam cleaning is also excellent as it cleans away the unseens. What is meant by this is that steam cleaning, through the nature of the heat and the pressure, will kill most mites, molds, fungus, and dangerous bacterias such as staphylococcus aureus (which causes Staph infections). It also does not necessarily need to be vacuumed up afterwards, as the pressurized steam expands so quickly that it disperses just as quickly into the ambient air.

Is It Safe For The Car?

In short: yes.

In detail, as long as you don’t leave the nozzle spewing steam at interior plastics, no damage will occur to your car at all. On older, vintage vehicles, with exterior steaming you will often want to keep the nozzle moving, as the paint used before the 1990s often had a much softer paint protecting clear coat applied, which is why on a badly maintained classic, you’ll often see clear coat peeling or even complete paint fade.

Upholstery and fabric carpeting will not be damaged by steam cleaning, and are in fact the most common type of interior materials steam cleaners are used on.

Leather, alcantara, and exotic material interiors, such as those found in supercars and hypercars, however, require a bit more care. You can buy at-home steam cleaners for your car, or you can use a professional service. Steam cleaners are excellent in that they do not produce enough moisture to damage leather or suede, and are often beneficial at rehydrating dried areas of leather. Much like interior plastics, however, you often don’t want to leave the nozzle spewing steam on leather as it is, by nature of what it is, originally organic and it can burn and harden if heated too much.

Alcantara is commonly found in supercars and hypercars, and is extremely sensitive to moisture. Thankfully, most professional steam cleaning services use low-moisture steam cleaners, and there are even special at-home models you can buy that have low-moisture options outlined in their manuals.

How Much Does Steam Cleaning Cost?

Steam cleaning car interior
Photo Credit: Auto Success

For “normal” cars, steam cleaning can cost anywhere from a dollar or two at the local car wash with self-serve cleaners, all the way up to being included in an executive full clean of your car that costs several hundreds of dollars. On the average, if you get just a steam clean of your interior as a direct (and only) service for your car performed by a professional, expect to pay between $75 to $100 and for it to take about an hour.

If part of a full detailing package for an exotic, steam cleaning is often part of the package cost you pay. Some exotic-only cleaning and detailing companies can also have specific services ordered a la carte, from steam cleaning through to paint restoration. As such, these packages and costs can vary wildly, but it is often a safe bet that no matter the package or single service, you will be paying over $1,000 as these are extremely specialized professional workers that make your exotic look better than factory new.

If you’re a detail geek, check out these other articles on car maintenance and cleaning: