What Dealers Need To Know About Detailing

August 2006, Auto Dealer Today - WebXclusive

by Bud Abraham - Also by this author

Call it detailing, reconditioning or car cleanup. It still means one thing to the dealer – profit.
For most used car dealers, auto detailing is a necessary part of the business. But, for many, it is also a problem. A necessary evil, an expense, something that you would not like to deal with, but yet something that is like a shadow; it never goes away.

Being presumptuous, I will assume the following about your used car business: You either have your own detailing operation, or you outsource the work to outside detail shops.

In-House Operation

Depending on the volume of work, you need a proper facility in which to do the work. This means at least one or two bays where you can wash cars and steam clean engines. This also means you have to have the proper affluent discharge system where, the oil is separated from the water and the water then discharged into the sanitary sewer. If the oil/water mix is left on the ground or drained into the storm drain, it is illegal. This makes you subject to fines and clean up charges.

Depending on the volume of work, you need a proper facility in which to do the work. This means at least one or two bays where you can wash cars and steam clean engines. This also means you have to have the proper affluent discharge system where, the oil is separated from the water and the water then discharged into the sanitary sewer. If the oil/water mix is left on the ground or drained into the storm drain, it is illegal. This makes you subject to fines and clean up charges.

If you have not overcome these obstacles, you will need the proper equipment. Not just a shop vacuum, electric buffer, a few dirty pads, brushes, buckets and spray bottles.

You need the proper chemicals and detailing operating supplies, you need qualified personnel to perform the work and finally, you need someone to manage what is being done.

Brokering The Detail Service

If you outsource the work, you need to question some different, but important issues:

1. Is the detail operation reliable?
2. Do they have insurance?
3. Are they qualified to do the work?
4. Do they have the capacity to give you fast turn-around?
5. Price.

You may find that what you thought you knew and what you really know are miles apart, by reading on.

Know the Rules Before You Detail

In reality, the space you allocate to detailing should be based on the volume of cars you need to detail per day.

If you have only one detail bay, in addition to a wash area, and assuming that every car will be a complete detail, then one man should get a minimum of two cars done per day (possibly three if they are really good and motivated). With two bays and two people, you can plan for four to six cars per day.

If you need to process more than three or four cars per day and have only one bay, you have a problem unless your detailers work long hours or take shortcuts to get the work done. This means, if you can’t see the dirt, don’t clean it, or if you can cover it up with dressing, is okay.

The available space, at least one or two bays, must be such that the workers can move around the vehicle quickly and effectively to get the work completed. You need to have good lighting to ensure they can see paint finish problems, corrections inside the vehicle to clean properly.

If you plan to wash cars and clean engines, as previously mentioned, you need to be aware of Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements for the discharge of wash and engine cleaning water.

One thing is for sure, you cannot discharge the water from car washing or engine cleaning into the storm drain or on the ground. This is in violation of the Federal Clean Water Act.

This type of water must either be collected and then transported to a proper disposal place, or you must have a grease trap that separates oil and water with a connection to the sanitary sewer. If you do not have this system, you are in violation of the law.

One new car dealer was cited for discharging chemicals, oil and grease on the ground and was forced into bankruptcy because fines and cleanup costs were over $300,000.

The problem is the EPA requires states to enforce the Clean Water Act. The States pass authority to local authorities, who are not consistent with enforcement, giving false signals as to what the law is, giving those in the detail business, or dealers like you who do detailing, the impression that it is okay. But make no mistake, washing cars and cleaning engines generates hazardous wastes, and these must be disposed of properly.

If you do not have a grease trap and oil-water separator and do not want to pay the cost to install one, there is an inexpensive alternative: The Mat.

The mat is a reinforced vinyl mat that is about 10 feet wide by 20’ long with a burm around the entire Mat to hold in water. You just drive the vehicle onto the Mat, wash the car and clean the engine. Then, either pump out the water or vacuum it up with a wet-dry vacuum. The Mat cost is about $1,200.

You can store the water in a holding tank or 55-gallon barrel. For disposal, you can hope it will evaporate, or you can have the same companies that pump septic tanks come to pump out your holding tank or barrels.

Detailing Equipment

The equipment used in most detailing operations, whether your own or in an outside detail operation, is primitive at best. That is why dealers are usually so dissatisfied with the quality of the work done on their vehicles.

Today’s vehicles require more than a shop vacuum, a 10-pound electric buffer, a few plastic bottles; and a hose and bucket.

If you want to improve the quality of the detail work, increase productivity and reduce labor. Then you will need to utilize more advanced technology that is available to the detail industry.

For example, you must have a pressure washer with minimum pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch to speed up the cleaning of engines and wheels and improve quality.

A carpet and upholstery steam cleaner (or soil extractor) is absolutely necessary to clean carpets and fabric upholstery and to eliminate the wet and smelly carpet or upholstery you always complain about.

For example, a typical detail will shampoo carpets in this way:

Fill a five-gallon bucket with water and pour in a lot of chemical. Then, slosh the mixture all over the carpets, and start scrubbing.

When done, grab a shop vacuum and vacuum up the moisture.

The problem with this method is the detailer has put far too much shampoo on the carpets, getting them too wet, and the shop vacuum will not vacuum up all of the moisture.

This method also leaves a lot of residual dirt and shampoo in the carpets. This explains why carpets get again within a few days.

You should have an air compressor to more quickly and efficiently clean interiors by blowing out dust and dirt from impossible-to-reach cracks and crevices like under and between seats.

Also, the air compressor allows the detailer to use lightweight air buffers - small air powered rotary shampooers - and air mini-orbital waxers that allow the detailer to wax a car in five minutes instead of 30-45 minutes, by hand.

Something as simple as a portable work cart to house your chemicals and supplies is necessary for organization and efficiency.

A good vacuum is also a necessity. While a shop vacuum is okay, they usually fail after a few months of hard use. Why not invest in a higher-quality vacuum for about $200 to $300? They will last longer and do a better job.

If you have the space and budget, you should consider a Central Vacuum System like car washes use. They are mounted in an equipment room or outside, and only the hoses are in the work area. These vacuums, depending on horsepower, can handle up to eight hoses at one time.

Interior drying units will help eliminate moisture, wetness and smell. These units will generate airflow to dry an interior in less than an hour.

To eliminate odors of any type from interiors or trunks, you will need an ozone generator. This unique system is placed inside the car or trunk and turned on and left from 30 minutes to several hours, depending on the strength of the odor. It generates ozone, which turns the bacteria that cause odor into harmless gases. A good unit can be purchased for about $600.

There is even more equipment technology available to detail cars fast and efficiently, but this will give you an idea that there is more out there to help in detailing and reconditioning vehicles today.

Detailing Chemicals & Supplies

Chemicals and supplies are areas where many dealers pay far too much money without realizing what they are spending. Why?

They depend totally on the detailer to make the purchases, and in many cases, this is like giving a compulsive shopper a blank check. The detailer is likely to buy anything and everything that every detail supplier has to offer. They want to be the “big” man and show how much authority they have with the company.

On top of that, most dealers don’t know what has been purchased or used. So, this is an excellent opportunity for the detailers to stock their own weekend detail businesses with your chemicals and supplies. And they do!!

What you must know is what chemicals are required, what is purchased and what is in inventory at all times. I have had dealers tell me that we have been able to reduce their chemical and supply costs by $700 to $800 a month with our inventory control system.

To give you an idea of what chemicals you need to detail or recondition any vehicle, I suggest the following:

Cleaning Chemicals

Carwash Shampoo
Water-based Engine Degreaser
Wheel Cleaner (do not use hydrofluoric acid wheel cleaners)
Tar & Grease Remover
Carpet & Upholstery Shampoo
All-Purpose Cleaner
Extractor Shampoo
Glass Cleaner
Dressing for engines, interiors and tires (one type, not three)

Paint Finishing Chemicals

Heavy Compound (1 quart)
Medium Compound (1 quart)
Light Compound (1 gallon)
Micro-Fine Compound (especially designed for clear coat paints – 1 gallon)
Swirl Remover/Polish (1 gallon)
Paint Sealant/Wax (1 gallon)
One-Step Product (corrects, polishes and waxes in one step) (1 gallon)

These chemicals will handle any and all detailing requirements you will have. Beware! The chemical supplier will try to sell you far more chemicals than these because that is their business. For example, their favorite trick is to sell you one dressing for engines, one for interiors and one for tires. You can use one water-based dressing for all three.

Another favorite trick of chemical suppliers is to sell you a 55-gallon drum of water-based engine degreaser and tell you it can be used for everything engine cleaning, wheels, carpet shampoo, leather/vinyl cleaner and even glass cleaner.

Would you wash your hair with dishwashing detergent or take a bath in laundry detergent? No! Why not? They are all soaps! Well, that is the same as using an engine degreaser to clean carpets. Use chemical products for what they are formulated to do.

You may want to consider keeping specialty chemicals like black paint, adhesive remover and various spot/stain removers, in stock.

Finally, I recommend a fragrance or biological odor eliminator, especially if you do not have an ozone generator for odor elimination.

A final word on chemicals deals with storage and handling. Not only from an organizational and cost point of view, but from a safety standpoint. You may have heard of OSHA, an organization that was created because the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed to ensure safety in the workplace.

For example, if you have an in-house detail operation, all your employees must be knowledgeable about every chemical using and what to do if they are sprayed with the chemical. This is what OSHA calls a “Hazardous Communications Program.” You must have one or risk being fined.

With OSHA in mind, take a look at your in-house detailing department, if you have one, or look at the shop where you do business. All those bottles, buckets and drums of chemicals here and there in the shop with no ID labels are a major OSHA violations and something you would be severely fined for allowing. Yet, unlabeled chemicals are commonplace in almost all detail operations.

In closing, let me say another word about detailing supplies. An important thing for you to know is buffing pad technology. Why? This is the major reason why so many vehicles have swirls in them.

A swirled paint finish happens because the detailer used a combination of the wrong chemicals and the wrong pads. Many are still using the old, white, 100 percent wool buffing pad (a pad designed for old lacquer paint finishes that sprayed dull and had to be buffed with heavy compound and wool pads).

With today’s clear coat paint finishes, you do not want something as aggressive as a wool pad because this creates more damage than correction.

Therefore, you must be certain the detailers are using poly wool-cutting pads or foam cutting and foam polishing pads, exclusively if you want to eliminate paint damage and swirls.

There are many other brushes and supplies that can be used to reduce time and increase quality that many experienced detailers aren’t even aware of, and if they were, they wouldn’t use them anyway.

Detail Personnel

In my 20-plus years in the detailing business as an operator and a manufacturer who has set up detail shops all over the world, the one unequivocal thing I have found is don’t hire experienced detailers!!

Why? Their experience is only good if you let them do what they want, which means that they are in control of your detailing operation; not you.

Further, typical detailers are the unemployable, which is why they work in detail shops, discount gas stations and as dishwashers. These jobs don’t usually check references and tend to pay very low wages.

They are floaters who often drift between jobs, are undependable, have bad driving records and/or no drivers licenses, are uninsurable and, many times, suffer from alcohol or drug problems.

As harsh as this may sound, I can only relate to you my personal experience as an operator and the experience I have had with customers who have hired experienced detailers.

For the most part, many of the problems you have or would have in an in-house detail operation are caused by hiring the wrong people. Even with the best resources at your fingertips, if you hire experienced detailers, you will most likely have problems.

Don’t take my word for it. Talk to other dealers, new or used, about the people in their detail departments. Most will relate the same problems I have described.

You are probably saying, “If I don’t hire someone with experience, what do I do? I certainly can’t train people with no experience.”

That is a legitimate concern. What you need to do is find a quality person you can depend on and then contact a chemical supplier or a consultant to the detail industry and ask for training assistance.

Personally, I have trained absolute novices to be excellent detailers within four days. Many were in overseas locations where the workers did not speak English, yet with an interpreter and show-and-tell methods, we provided the necessary training. This reflects that detailing is not hard to learn if you have a quality person with brains and a good trainer.

Let’s talk about management. If your operation is small, you will not need a detail manager, but you will need to have someone in your dealership to oversee the detail shop, not a babysitter, but someone who will set standards for the shop and ensure they are met.

If you do not do this, the detailers will be in charge, and if they are the type of people I described, you will really have problems in all areas.

If you have a larger detail operation, maybe even selling detailing to other dealers or to the public, then you will need to have a very competent shop manager. Note, I said manager, not detailers.

This person might detail, but first and foremost, he or she must be a manager. They must know how to motivate people and understand profit and loss, production, labor versus work hours and other topics. Without this type of person, your detail shop will be like a military platoon without a sergeant.

If you have the right detail shop manager, you also will need to have someone manage the manager, set standards and review the shop’s performance to the standards. Give incentives for exceeding the standards and sanctions if they are not met.

The issue of management is at the base of what I call the pyramid of production. It is at the base because it is the most important.


  1. 1. doug cunningham [ February 19, 2011 @ 10:09PM ]

    Mr A.

    I am completely disgusted with what I just read. I always heard the guys talking about you like you were one of the industry greats. Your advice to dealers to "not hire an experienced detailer" was a kick in the backside. So you can hire some illegal alien and turn him into a great detailer in four hours? You are out of your mind. Are you serious? I have spent thousands of dollars getting the best training I could find, that of Attention to Details Renny Doyle. I have purchased and maintained some of the best equipment available, at great hardship to my family,I might add. Only to read that you, a supposed industry leader, are advising dealerships to avoid the pro. Yes, Mr Abrahms, I am one professional detailer you absolutely should avoid.

  2. 2. Anthony Bianco [ July 28, 2011 @ 10:20AM ]

    I also prefer to hire inexperienced auto detail technicians for the reason that we don't want to have someone with experience coming into our business with their own ideas of how to do things. We prefer to train individuals to learn our processes. This way we deliver the same quality work and our employees are trained to use the same techniques and provide the same great results with each detail.

    To the previous comment:
    Renny Doyle is a great contributor to our field of automotive detailing, however his guidance, classes and overall experience isn't worth the cost that you obviously forked out. With hard work, patience and dedication; anyone willing to learn the trade can do so on their own and put forth as much effort into being the best as anyone else.
    Thousands of dollars for training? You unfortunately were taken for a ride. I have owned my own detailing businesses since I was 15 years of age. Store front space to mobile detailing. Word of mouth has built our business and dealership work has been a staple for the times of year when this line of work slows down.
    Whoever said anything about hiring an illegal to do the dealership work? You mentioned this above. You are so very ill informed and obviously still reeling from the money you wasted for someone else to "teach" you something where quality detail technicians share a passion for. You have no passion for this line of work ............ hence you paid for it.
    I don't believe you should refer to yourself as a "professional" ......... my 28+ years of experience as a detail technician and detailing business owner entitles me to the label. Then again, you had to be trained. Have a passion for something rather than having someone train you to have it.

    The above article is well written, informing and follows the same guidelines we have had in place over the past several years with our own business.
    Thank you, Mr. Abrahms

  3. 3. Jamie [ May 24, 2012 @ 02:14PM ]

    The reason Bud would prefer to hire inexperienced is so they can get away with paying them 10/hr, less payout, more profit.

  4. 4. Troy [ December 23, 2013 @ 08:17PM ]

    I've been detailing for 8 years now. (I know not as long as most here) but still. To say detailer a are all druggies, alcoholics, criminals and so on is a bunch of bull. Have had problems BEFORE I started detailing. I've been clean for 10 years from any drugs. I drink maybe 2 times a year. I have no criminal record at all, and 0 points on my license. I detail bc that's what I know, and enjoy doing. I originally started detailing to get a foot in a dealership. I've also worked parts, and sales. To make assumptions that absurd and degrading bc of bad experiences you have had previously is down right ignorant and disrespectful.

  5. 5. Larry [ December 27, 2013 @ 09:28PM ]

    I agree with Jamie, Doug and Troy. Put an inexperienced detailer on a black car and cut him loose, then you can hire an experienced detailer to fix it..

  6. 6. Alex k. [ March 13, 2014 @ 03:11PM ]

    Mr. Bud is it? Well, I think you have a massive communication issue with your own Fu***** brain. I've been reconditioning vehicles for about 5 years now. Had PROPER training from numbers of certified chemical distribrutors and REAL industry greats, and just a bit of advice you can't just hire some, how do you say "drifter" to clean YOUR vehicles. He's probably back there right now scrubbing your daily driver down with a dirty ass brush leaving your CLEAN cars spider webbed to shit. And of course can't forget to wipe the whole car down with tire shine to make it look freshly polished :) How about getting off your fat lazy ass n walk out of your cozy office and go have a little sense of communication with your... Wash bitch, I can say accurately. Tell him what you expect. What is a must and what is a waste of time. You sir are just as much of a con and hack as your improperly trained drifter you have in your wash bay.. good luck to your auto business sir. Detailers world wide will see this post and realize how much of a Jew cocksucker you really are.

  7. 7. Mike [ April 14, 2014 @ 11:00AM ]

    This is a little offensive. I actually held a successful culinary career before starting detailing. I enjoyed cars and keeping them looking new so this is all apparently a biased opinion and not legitimate fact. Renny Doyle is a cool dude and has never spoke of inexperienced or experienced detailers as druggies or anything negative. I didnt realize you were perfect or in any position to say what kind of people do what on their own time by what career they hold.You're a flipper with no respect for the people you hire or the detailing industry at all. Sounds like you found a way for cash and didn't feel the need to approach it like a true person in love with detailing. Wonder if your shops you opened realize what you think about them? You're necessities and order of production is spot on though. Just sounds like you don't think much of detailers maybe it's not what you meant for the whole detail community but it came off that way.

  8. 8. Alexander Sevren [ June 16, 2014 @ 10:01PM ]

    I would like to address the ozone machine recommendation. I have been doing detailed odor elimination work using Green molecular chemical systems with my dealership clients for 19 years - many who used Ozone with poor results and before we started servicing their inventories were unaware that NO ozone machine is approved by the EPA for interior use of any kind - regardless of how they are utilized with malodors. Ozone machines are not approved by the EPA for a simple reason, it is an poison and the gas has been proven to attack any polymers such as natural rubber, nitrile rubber, styrene –butadiene rubber and can VOID MANUFACTURES’ WARRANTIES! Also and most important using them can leave your business vulnerable to non-disclosure health lawsuits! They rarely work the first time and leave trace noxious odors behind. Ozone does nothing to treat the entire A/ C system. Many of my current dealerships have tossed them due to the above reasons. This may seem like self-serving response as our business Odor Masters USA has never had to go back and retreat a vehicle or worry about voiding warranties or the uncertainty of a buyer becoming ill and suing if they get sick, even if the ozone was not the cause - there are attorneys everywhere that would take that case. I agree with many of the comments above, professions do professional work.

  9. 9. Jack [ October 17, 2014 @ 11:07AM ]

    I am looking for company to contract out PDI, detailing etc for a fleet of 10k cars - Does anyone have some recommendations ? Thanks

  10. 10. Mark [ March 06, 2015 @ 07:26PM ]

    Are you serious? I have never been into drugs and I have worked for the same dealer for 15 years. I do it because I like making beat up cars come to life. Maybe since I don't fit your mold as a 'detailer you could hire me to manage all of your minimum wage illegals. Your obviously a jackass!

  11. 11. Chris julien [ December 16, 2015 @ 01:00PM ]

    like to detail cars

  12. 12. Chris julien [ December 16, 2015 @ 01:00PM ]

    detail cause is what I like to do for a living

  13. 13. David [ August 22, 2016 @ 08:02AM ]

    can anyone tell me what dealers pay for detail departments?


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