Ultimate Guide to Car Carpet Cleaning

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Video Car carpet cleaning

Of all the surfaces of your car, the carpet experiences the most abuse and subsequently is the most difficult to clean.

Unless you have the right tools and utilize the right methods you will struggle with getting your carpets clean. Unfortunately, the right tools are expensive and without them your results will likely be poor. The right tools, in this circumstance, refers to a hot water extractor or steam cleaner and potentially an orbital buffer with a scrubbing attachment.

Provided your carpet is well maintained and treated for stain resistance you may be able to get by with hand cleaning. I will warn you, though, hand cleaning carpet is a long and labor intensive affair.

Either way, let’s start by talking about the general steps for carpet cleaning.

Beginning Steps for Carpet Cleaning

  1. Remove everything from the floor of your vehicle. This includes floor mats and personal affects.
  2. Vacuum the carpet, making sure to move the seats back and forth to get underneath. Be careful of the wires under the seats, especially any yellow ones as these are usually air bag related components. A tool like the Metro Vac N’ Blo comes in handy here as you can blow the dirt out of places that are hard to reach and then vacuum them up.
  3. Brush the carpet. You can use either a hand brush or the brush attachment on your vacuum. All you’re trying to do is lift the fibers of the carpet to loosen any dirt that is trapped beneath.
  4. Vacuum the carpet again to remove the freed dirt.
  5. Pre-treat any noticeable stains. Products such as 303 Spot Cleaner are great for this in most cases and work really well. You’ll need to follow the instructions on the can. Typically you spray the stain and leave the cleaner to dwell for 5 or so minutes and then scrub with a stiff brush.

A Note on Pre-treatment for Automotive Carpet Stains

Not all stains are created equal. Some will require more specialized chemicals.

pre treating car carpet stain

For removing food and lipstick dyes something like Pro’s Choice Red 1 Synthetic Stain Remover may be required.

For organic, protein based stains like vomit, blood, and urine you may have to resort to a an enzymatic cleaner like Sunny & Honey Stain & Odor Miracle. I know it’s advertised for pets but the reality is we are all animals and our waste isn’t any different from your pet’s when it comes to cleaning.

For oil-based spots like oil, grease, tar, inks, etc… a product like CarpetGeneral POG Remover may prove useful.

Don’t use an APC for cleaning stains from carpet. I see this mentioned a lot on forums and other blogs. The problem with APCs is they aren’t usually pH balanced for carpet and can damage fibers or cause discoloration. Always stick to carpet and upholstery specific cleaners.

If you’re a professional detailer you really should buy a spotting kit like the Renown Carpet Spotting Kit. These have all the chemicals you’ll need with varying degrees of acidity and alkalinity to remove most stains you’ll come across in an automotive interior.

Related: Top 9 Best Carpet Shampoos for Car Detailing

Deep Carpet Cleaning Methods

There are three primary cleaning methods for deep cleaning of carpet past the vacuuming stage. You can either scrub by hand (difficult with lackluster results but cheap), by machine (easier, good results, costly), or by hot water extractor (easiest, professional results, expensive). Heck, in some circumstances you may need to use a combination of methods to achieve proper results.

Hand Scrubbing

  1. Fill a spray bottle with a mixture of hot water and a quality carpet cleaner such as Meguiar’s Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner.
  2. Spray a section of the carpet with the solution and let it sit for 5 or so minutes.
  3. Scrub the carpet with a stiff bristled brush. The motion doesn’t matter as much here as does the effort you put in and that you don’t miss a spot.
  4. Use a wet/dry vac to remove as much of the moisture from the carpet as possible. If you do not have a wet/dry vac you can either take a trip to your local car wash and use theirs for a buck or two or you can use some towels to pull as much moisture out of the carpet as possible.
  5. Repeat above steps for the rest of the carpet and any carpeted floor mats.
  6. Leave the carpet to dry. I recommend leaving your windows rolled down a little and parking in the sun to speed things up. If you can, open the doors and set a fan outside them blowing in to keep air moving across the carpet.

Machine Scrubbing

  1. Fill a spray bottle with a mixture of hot water and a quality carpet cleaner such as 303 Fabric/Vinyl Cleaner.
  2. Spray a section of the carpet liberally with the solution and let it sit for 5 or so minutes.
  3. Use an orbital buffer or drill with a brush attachment to brush the carpet at medium speed. I like to work in a cross hatch pattern first scrubbing vertically and then horizontally to make sure I get full, even coverage.
  4. Repeat until you’ve scrubbed all of the carpeting in your vehicle.
  5. Use a wet/dry vac to remove as much moisture as possible from the carpet (or use the alternatives discussed in the hand cleaning section above).
  6. Follow these steps for any carpeted floor mats you may have to do as well.
  7. Let the carpet air dry. Roll your windows down a little to allow moisture to evaporate. If you can, open the doors and set a fan outside them blowing in to keep air moving across the carpet.

Hot Water Extractor

If you’re a professional detailer you owe it to your business and your customers to get a hot water extractor. They simply clean better and faster.

I don’t know the hourly cost of operating your business and I can still assure you that this tool will pay for itself in short order. A good carpet extractor to start with is the Mytee Lite III. It’s a serviceable machine with replaceable motors, pumps, etc… to ensure you get your ROI.

In any case, once you’ve spot treated the carpet as explained above:

  1. Use a brush to agitate any really bad stain spots that you spot treated to break up the stain.
  2. Follow your specific hot water extractor’s instructions to prepare the machine including adding any necessary anti-foaming chemicals.
  3. Begin by spraying the carpet hot water extractor’s wand lightly. You do not want to soak the carpet.
  4. Agitate the carpet with a brush or brush attachment.
  5. Extract the water with the wand by moving the wand slowly over the carpet in straight lines. Do this at least twice to make sure as much moisture is removed as possible.
  6. Follow these steps for any carpeted floor mats you may have to do as well.
  7. Let the carpet air dry. Roll your windows down a little to allow moisture to evaporate. If you can, open the doors and set a fan outside them blowing in to keep air moving across the carpet.

Hot water extractors can be used on upholstery as well, with one caution. Use as little water as possible. Do not soak seats. The material that makes up some seats is soy based and will break down and bleed through the fabric if too much hot water is used. You can use something like a blow dryer to speed up the drying process for seats if you got them too wet.

If you can’t swing a straight up hot water extractor but don’t want to work solely by hand you can pick up a portable upholstery cleaner like the Bissell Little Green ProHeat. It doesn’t really heat water as much as it does just keep the hot water you put in it hot longer. However, it does work ok. It’s just not nearly as efficient or strong as a true hot water extractor.

Steam Cleaning Carpets

Another options for machine cleaning of carpets is steam cleaning with a steam cleaner like the Vapamore Primo. I wasn’t going to mention it because it’s not my preferred method for carpet but I decided it does have its place.

Steam cleaners work with only (very) hot water. This is good for people who are sensitive to chemicals or just don’t want to use chemicals. The hot steam also sanitizes which means it’ll kill the bacteria and other living organisms in your carpet.

Steam cleaners are also very useful multi-use tools. They work great on other interior surfaces such as plastic, vinyl, and rubber.

When it comes to steam cleaning carpet I’ve never been impressed with the results compared to scrubbing and water extraction for the price. If you’re a professional you should probably have both a hot water extractor for carpets and upholstery and a steam cleaner for everything else. If you’re just an enthusiast or car owner then a steam cleaner may be better since you can use it on all sorts of automotive surfaces and around the house.

In any case, steam cleaning carpet is pretty simple. You:

  1. Load up the steam machine with water according to the manufacturers specifications
  2. Place a towel over the steam tip
  3. Turn on the heat
  4. Begin scrubbing the carpet slowly back and forth which transfers the soil from the carpet to the cloth.
  5. Repeat with a clean cloth when one gets dirty.

Related: Best Steam Cleaners for Auto Detailing

Stain Resistance Treating of Carpet

After you’ve cleaned your carpet or, ideally, before it ever gets dirty, it’s important that you treat the carpet for liquid repellency and stain resistance. There are many products on the market that claim to be good at this but there only a few I really like.

The best one that comes to mind is 303 Fabric Guard. It works great and is cheap enough that you can really wet down the carpet to get full coverage without worrying about wasting the product. What good is a fancier, more expensive product if it costs so much it makes you stingy with it and you end up missing spots?

Another great part about 303 Fabric Guard is you can use it on a pethora of stuff such as you seats, convertible top, car cover, awnings, patio furniture, boat upholstery, etc… I love products with multiple uses.

To apply a water and stain repellent:

  1. Make sure the carpet is clean and dry. This includes clean of soaps and shampoos as well. Any residue left from you shampooing the carpets will inhibit the stain repellent and can actually attract dirt and cause stains faster.
  2. Spray the carpet down in a cross hatching pattern starting first with horizontal rows and then vertical to ensure complete coverage. It’s not necessary to soak the carpet.
  3. Park the car out in the sun with the windows down to dry.

Some notes about fabric repellents:

  • They can be flammable until they are finished drying.
  • They produce fumes so it’s important to work in an area with good ventilation.
  • They work better if applied on warm days.

Wrapping Up

Cleaning carpet properly is a multi-pronged approach, and sometimes a costly one. Fortunately, you can save yourself time and money if you treat your carpets before they get dirty. Using fitted floor mats, such as the factory all-weather mats, will go a long way to saving you money on expensive cleaning tools or from throwing away hours of your weekend.

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