Steam and “waterless” washing. Can it work and will you be forced to use this alternative?


I am sure everyone knows about all the “waterless” washing products that are on the market and you probably have given one or two of them a try. Also, you have probably used or own a steam machine. While these are not new topics unto themselves, the combination of the 2 may soon be the new trend in washing cars.  Until recently steam has really only been used to clean interiors of the vehicle. However new technology in steam machines has made them more powerful with the ability to clean the exterior as well as the interior of a car. Steamers, if combined with the new polymer type wash products, will soon be the new wave of car washing.  In more areas of the country there are water restrictions or strict water runoff laws. The “old school” way of washing will soon need to change. Let’s look at both the conventional way of washing and a newer way and compare the 2 systems.

Conventional Washing

We all are familiar with the conventional method of washing a car. Water is used to pre-wet the vehicle, followed by the application of soap, then agitating and lifting the dirt from the surface, followed by a thorough rinsing with water, either with high pressure or via a garden hose. This method has always worked and detailers and homeowners alike have washed cars this way for about 100 years. But the times they are a changing!

Conventional washing uses a large amount of water to clean a car. A garden hose, even with a nozzle, will allow about 5-6 gallons of water a minute to be released. A pressure washer will still deliver about 4-5 gallons of water per minute depending on pressure and nozzle size. This is still a large volume of water. In drought areas, detailers are not being allowed to use this much water. And, in areas such as California where the run off laws are extremely strict, detailers in some areas need to demonstrate ways to effectively wash a car with a miniscule amount of water. If they do not show a “water-smart” method of washing, they will not be able to obtain a permit or license to work in those areas. Therefore an alternative method of car washing is needed. This leads back to the newer, polymer based products that are now on the market that are advertised as “waterless” or “water-smart” products. I am sure many of you have seen or used these products, but its begs the questions…Are these products just as effective? Will they scratch the paint surface? What if the car is extremely filthy? How much time will this method take?

Chemistry To The Rescue

Waterless or polymer based systems do not require pre-wetting the surfaces. Polymers used in these no rinse washes have the capability to bond to dirt particles and act as a barrier between the dirt particles and the paint. The grime and dirt is then trapped in the polymer, protecting the paint finish with no need to use a large amount of water to flush the dirt off the vehicle.

Most of these polymer products are very safe for the vehicle and the environment, as well as being a very effective cleaner. Most have been proven to clean as well as soap, not scratch, and actually leave the vehicle with a better gloss and some protection since the polymers bond to the paint surface as well.

Additionally, there is no issue with polymers drying out on the car surfaces since they can be easily wiped off or re-dissolved with additional polymer solution. You can wash in this fashion in sections since the only steps involved are to wash and dry.

There are a couple of methods to washing the car with these products. Some products are ready to use in a spray bottle and you simply spray it on, wipe the panel with a clean micro fiber towel and dry. You will need to be sure to frequently change sections of the towel to a fresh and clean section since there will be a lot of dirt and grime accumulating on the towel. With this method you may use a few towels per vehicle.

The other method is to take a concentrated product and mix it in a small bucket of water, usually a few capfuls of product to a gallon of water. Use the micro fiber towel or micro fiber wash mitt and dip it into the mixed solution. Wring the towel to release any excess back into the bucket. Then, simply use the wet towel to wipe down the vehicle panel by panel while periodically dipping the towel back into the bucket of solution. This will keep the towel free of built up dirt while still using a miniscule amount of water.

What If The Car Is REALLY Dirty?

If the car is really dirty, people always ask if these methods will still work. The truth is they will, but it will take longer and you will use far more towels. Additionally, areas of the vehicle such as wheel wells, door jambs, trunk sills, wheels, seams, etc. will be far more challenging to clean. In situations like these there is nothing like high pressure and plenty of water, but you have to realize that this method of washing is soon becoming a thing of the past.

In reality, there are many vehicles, especially after a rough winter, that need heavy duty cleaning. Sometimes a spray on, wipe off method just wont get it done as fast as you would like. Also, there are other factors to consider. What’s the weather like in your area? Are you in a cold climate? Are you mobile?

Let’s look at the problems that large amounts of water can cause on a very cold day. Water, if you can even get it to flow, will sometimes freeze instantly on the vehicle surface. Even if the air temperature is above 32 degrees, the cars’ surfaces may be much colder and cause icing as water hits those surfaces. Or, the water flowing off the car and onto pavement will freeze and the surrounding area will be like a skating rink. If people were to walk by or approach you to inquire about services, there could be a major accident. This is a huge liability as well as a general nuisance because you just can’t work on a freezing cold day.

It’s important to realize that water runoff and water restrictions are an issue. That, along with the possibility of water freezing on cold days, as well as a car that can be filthy, make it necessary to think about “waterless” options. The addition of steam washing can be combined with the polymer wash products and do a great job in a relatively short amount of time.

Steam Machines. What They Can & Cannot Do

Steam in detailing has been a new trend for interior cleaning in the last few years. Many detailers are familiar with using a steam machine to clean the interior of the vehicle and the benefits are many. We have pioneered and been a huge proponent of steam on the inside of the vehicle for many years and have recognized the many advantages that steam has over conventional interior cleaning.

But now steam has to be examined in its ability to clean the exterior of the vehicle. If steam can be an aid in exterior cleaning, the detailer will be environmentally friendly and compliant in those areas where water simply cannot be used to clean a car.

Steam can be a big help in blowing much of the standing dirt and dust off a vehicle. Steam alone will not completely clean a car no matter how powerful the machine is. Dirt and other contaminants bond to a vehicle in a way that simply steaming alone will not fully work. You will need the aid of a polymer cleaner, along with possibly more traditional cleaners such as a wheel cleaner or all purpose cleaner to chemically assist in the wash process. The benefit that steam will provide for the entire process is to clean the harder to reach areas such as seams, around headlights and tail lights, around moldings and trim, door jambs, wheels and wheels wells.

On a really filthy vehicle, the aid of hot, high pressure steam can be a huge help in getting the vehicle as clean as possible in as little time as possible. If a vehicle is caked with mud or full of road salt, then the job becomes much more difficult. However, if water is not an option, the chances of getting a car like this clean with only a waterless wash product and a towel would be nearly impossible and the time spent cleaning it would be astronomical. However, the steam machines that are currently available for cleaning interiors of vehicles will not be able to effectively clean the exterior of a vehicle for a few reasons:


Many of the smaller steamers have small boilers. The capacities are small and they will run out of steam if you are using the steam for an extended period of time. Also most steamers do not have sufficient pressure capability. At around 60-65 PSI, these pressures are generally OK for the interior but not nearly enough for the exterior. The engineering of the boiler and the components of the machine itself will not be able to produce the extreme pressure needed to help clean the exterior of the vehicle. They also cannot hold pressure for an extended period of time. Also most steamers have very short hoses which are problematic for moving around the exterior of the vehicle while you are cleaning it.

So while the thought of steam makes sense on assisting in cleaning the exterior of the vehicle, there are very few machines that are capable of actually doing a good job in a reasonable amount of time. The few machines that have been developed for the exterior of the vehicle are very large and very expensive. However, they may be worth the investment if you are to be working in parking lots of large corporate buildings. On most corporate properties the management will not allow any kind of water runoff and they demand that a detailer be as environmentally friendly as possible. Having an exterior steam machine will allow you to work in that environment or possibly to stay in business if you are exclusively mobile.

What An Exterior Steam Machine Can Do

There are only a few of these exterior steam machines currently available. While most of them are imported machines from either Korea or Italy, there is a new machine made in the USA that we helped develop for the mobile car wash and detailer. What we found in researching the exterior steam machines was that they had pressure of about 110-115 PSI which is good to help clean the exterior. Even more pressure would be helpful but these existing steamers still produce more pressure than the smaller steamers that only produce about 60-65 PSI. These exterior steamers also had longer hoses of about 25 feet to help get around the vehicle more easily. They had higher capacity boilers so that they would not run out of steam too quickly. With higher capacity and higher pressures, these machines can be used effectively to help clean the outside of a vehicle provided that you are also using a new polymer type cleaner along with the steamer.

There were drawbacks to these imported machines as well, from what I found. These machines are very large and very heavy. They are really not portable even though they have wheels. The average weight of these machines is between 250-300 pounds which means getting them on and off your vehicle would be very difficult and you would need to have your vehicle which houses the machine extremely close to the car you are working on. They also do not have brush attachments to be able to help clean the interior, which basically limits the machine to outside use only. You need the agitation of various brushes to effectively clean different interior surfaces. You cannot just spray steam on an interior panel and get it clean. If the machines are 12 volt operated, it can be looked at as a plus if you have no access to electricity, but as a minus if you do not have a spare battery in case the battery goes dead. Assuming a detailer will have a generator to operate his other electrical equipment such as a vacuum or buffer, an electrically operated steamer is a plus in my opinion.

I looked at all of these steam machines and had the opportunity to develop a much smaller unit at far higher pressure (up to 200 PSI) and adapted the machine with the correct interior brush attachments so it can be used as both an outside AND inside machine and the price is LESS than any other exterior machine currently available.

But in the end, steam is steam, no matter what brand you buy or how much you spend. Once you have a machine that has the right pressure and features for you, this type of steamer will allow you to clean the exterior of vehicles with virtually zero water runoff, keep you in business and open up more opportunities. But let’s look at time and total costs of operating both high pressure water systems and high pressure steam systems to clean vehicles.



If you still have a pressure washer on your truck you may not want to get rid of it and invest in the new steam method just yet. But to continue to use high pressure and a high volume of water, you will need a water containment system. There are various water containment systems available to trap water runoff before it enters sewers or drains. There are mats to catch water runoff. Another containment device is a burm to surround your working area and catch the waste water while a high powered vacuum will suck the water up and hold it in a tank for disposal. There are platforms that the vehicle is driven on with drains and a reclaim tank built in. These containment systems can run into the thousands of dollars and some may take time to set up and time to reclaim the water. While these set ups will allow you to contain runoff with a current high pressure, high volume system, you have to be working in a non drought area where there are no water restrictions to make this work. In reality, a combined cost of a commercial power-washer and water containment system may equal the cost of a high pressure steamer.

Let’s also look at the size and type of vehicle that you will need to hold both systems. You will need a generator no matter which system you use, so cost and space will be equal. If you choose to go with high pressure high water, you will need a commercial pressure washer which is somewhat large and heavy especially if its gas powered. You will also need a large water tank of at least 100 gallons. I see some mobile detailers carry a 200 gallon water tank on their trucks or vans. This typical set up adds much space and weight. This is why many mobile detailers use a trailer set up or have large vans to carry all this equipment. The cost of a trailer is very expensive to begin with and the cost of a large van or pick up truck is also expensive.

If you chose to use a high pressure steamer, you can do away with the water containment systems as there will be virtually zero water runoff with steam and the polymer cleaners. Any contamination from the vehicle can be caught with either a small mat or towels placed under wheels to catch brake dust for instance. If you are careful you can eliminate ANY contamination from even hitting the ground. You will use a much smaller water tank as you will be using much less water. A 25-30 gallon tank should suffice to periodically fill the steamer and have water for other uses. This will save a huge amount of space, weight and money. The steamer will not take up too much space or weight on your vehicle unless you buy one of the imported units which are much larger and heavier. You should not need a trailer which will save money and allow you to easily maneuver your vehicle once you get to the location. You will also improve gas mileage with the weight savings, further saving you money. But what I really like is that you can run a much smaller vehicle. This will impress your customers that you truly are environmentally friendly. Instead of a pick up truck and trailer, you can use a small pick up truck. You can go from a large van such as an Econline which is popular with mobile detailers, to a Honda Element type of van or even a Chevrolet HHR. The smaller vehicle will save you money on the vehicle itself and improve your gas mileage with the weight savings from the lighter vehicle and equipment.


Cost vs. time

Costs will basically be even if you incorporate all the factors. You can run a steam set up just as cost effectively as a conventional set up. The key is time spent on this new and unfamiliar way of washing cars. Steam washing will take a bit longer on a dirty car than the conventional method. This is what mobile detailers complain about. However, the “old school” methods may be a thing of the past very soon, and if you are caught employing the “old school” methods you can face hefty fines. So once a mobile detailer realizes that the old washing methods cannot be used, they can focus on what the best “new school” methods are, and they can better judge what equipment and products to buy to make it work. This can be an opportunity if it’s looked at with an open mind. The methods will be different and not as familiar or as quick as what you may be used to. However, being able to advertise that you are washing cars with steamand polymer wash products and that you are a “green” detailer will surely impress people and open up more business. It also could be the thing that keeps you in business in this ever changing environment.