When the snow melts here in Ohio it can only mean two things: there are more potholes in the roads, and it’s time for me to start detailing cars again! Let me tell you, one of my favorite things to do is get a winter’s worth of salt off a car. Since my hose is still frozen under a few inches of snow, let’s start by looking at cleaning the inside of the car, specifically, the carpet.
The interior carpet and floor mats are an important part of your vehicle. Anyone who has ever felt how hot the floor of a Jeep Wrangler gets without carpet or had water splash on their shoes through a rusted hole in the floor boards of an MG knows what I’m talking about. If you don’t take care of the carpet in your vehicle, this can happen to your floorboards.
Every time you get in your car after walking through a parking lot sprinkled with salt, that salt and dirt has no where to go once it finds its way into your car. Over time that dirt will keep getting ground into the carpet if you don’t get it off. That can lead to the dirt and salt eating away at the carpet and eventually the floorboards. Worn out looking carpet also makes your vehicle appear older than it may be.
Cleaning your car’s carpet is more than just grabbing a battery powered Dirt Devil though. First, let’s start with what you will need.
Since these are tips for the average auto enthusiast, I will only mention products that you can (and should) own.
Shop vac – There are many great shop vacs on the market. Here is what I recommend. At least 4 hp. It should be wet/dry. The size does not matter though. I recommend Ridgid products. Lightweight, strong, on wheels and does the job better than others I have owned.
Car accessory kit – although not necessary, a kit like this will make the job much easier. The time you save will more than pay for the product.
Small brush – This is the number one product that you need to clean your carpet. Make sure it’s thin and the bristles are fairly stiff.
Large brush – This is second in importance only to the small brush. Make sure the bristles are not too stiff.
Shampoo – Again, many options available. Be careful with what you use to make sure it does not damage or discolor your carpet. I use a concentrate from Meguiars. I recommend using a concentrate like this one for a couple reasons. You can decide how strong you’d like each bottle to be (sometimes I use different strengths of the same product). It’s way cheaper than purchasing the individual bottles with attached brushes. Of course, the bottle of concentrate will last you 120 years if you only use it on your own car.
Old towels – The more the merrier. I have found old Champ Car t-shirts work great.
Remove all mats. Take them away from the car and slam them on the ground. Then slam them again. Especially the front two mats. Then slam them like Ric Flair hitting Macho Man Randy Savage over the head with a folding chair. It’s amazing how much crap you can get out of your floor mats just by whacking the heck out of them on the ground. Don’t forget to open the trunk and pull everything out of it as well.
For a real deep cleaning removing the seats is also an option. I usually only do this in mini vans where they are easy to remove and reinstall though. For most sedans it’s easy enough to reach all areas of the carpet even without removing them as long as you are willing to contort your body like you’re playing Twister. Plus, if the seat you are thinking about removing has a side airbag, is heated or has weight sensors, leave it the heck alone.
Grab your paint brush and go to town. The point of this is to stir up dirt and dust from other parts of the car so you can vacuum it up. Run it over each air vent, dash, stereo, window sill etc…
Vacuum. You will need your small brush for this. If you have a car accessory pack for you shop vac, use the attachment with the stiffest bristles for this portion. Basically, they help get extra dirt stirred up from the carpet. Lead your vacuuming with the small brush. Use it to pull as much dirt from tights areas as you can. Scrub around the door jam, under the seats, in between seats and center console while pulling any dirt into the main area where you can suck it up. When you are done in the car, be sure to vacuum the floor mats as well. This is vacuum #1 of 2.
Shampoo. I have used extractors in the past and for the most part I am not a fan. The small hand held ones that the average car enthusiast would be interested in has never impressed me. Except for the very pricey ($700+) I feel like I can get more dirt out of a carpet with my own elbow grease than expecting a machine to do it for me. Any good wet/dry vac can do the same or more than most extractors. Grab your large brush and some old towels. There are a couple options when cleaning carpet floor mats:
A. Do one section or floor mat at a time (you don’t want the shampoo to dry on the carpet as it can fade the color). Lightly spray shampoo over the area. Use the large brush and scrub the section. Follow that up by rubbing the carpet area with an old towel. You’ll notice the dirt from the carpet is now on the towel. I will usually spray down each carpet area twice. Now check over the carpet and look for specific stains that could use special attention. Spray those areas with an additional shot. When scrubbing with the large brush, be sure to continually switch which direction you are rubbing to hit the carpet fibers from all directions. Keep wiping up dirt with a towel and you’ll be surprised how much dirt and stains will come out.
B. If the floor mats are extremely soiled you can skip the last step if you have a water hose and shop vac. In that case, spray down the mat with shampoo and then use the hardest setting on your hose and spray the mat. With the mat soaking and soapy, use your large brush to scrub the carpet. Again spray off the mat with the water hose until you see all the soap and dirt removed. With the carpet still soaking wet use your wet/dry shop vac to suck all the moisture out. Be sure there is nothing else in the basin before you suck up water or it’s nasty gross to clean out. Also, don’t make the mistake I did the first time and leave your air filter in the shop vac. That’ll earn you a quick trip to the hardware store to buy a new filter.
Always remove the filter before using the wet function of a shop vac. Then, just for the heck of it look inside your shop vac to see all the black gross water you have collected. Think to yourself, all that dirt was on my shoes. Lay the mats out to dry. Dry out the shop vac and reinstall air filter. After you have cleaned the rest of the vehicle go back the mats and re-spray them with a little shampoo. Scrub them one last time. If you don’t do this one additional time once they have dried, the carpet fibers will be very stiff to the touch.
Re-vac. I always vacuum twice. Always. With all the scrubbing and dusting you have been doing, you should have stirred up a lot more dirt. Start by using the soft bristles attachment for your hose and run that all over the dash and electrics. If you do not have a hose attachment specifically made for this, don’t do it! Stiff bristles (or even the plastic end of a normal hose) can easily damage some electronics, particularly navigation screens, so be very careful.
I use the wide plastic attachment now to go over everything. Lastly I use the thin attachment to get between all the little nooks and crannies.
You have now officially cleaned the carpet of your vehicle and potentially added years to its life (or at least it doesn’t smell like that old Jeff Gordon air freshener hanging from the mirror).
Cleaning the floor of your vehicle can also be a safety precaution. It is not uncommon for me to find things stuck up under the brake or gas pedals. In the pictures below, the Mercedes had the floor mat, numerous dry cleaning bags and candy stuck behind the accelerator. This was literally causing the accelerator to not respond correctly (which is a shame on a car this nice). I felt so good on the inside after cleaning it out.
It’s so fun to do this because you never know what you’ll find: French fries (the 5 second rule applies since it actually hasn’t touched the ground they are fair game), pens, video games, CDs, money, or even raw chicken (don’t worry I charged that customer extra for that one). Be warned, after doing this level of cleaning you will become obsessed with wiping your feet before getting in your car, will yell at the first person to get mud on the carpet and will be tempted to try to drive without your feet touching the ground. That’s how I deliver cars back to the owners, trust me it’s not safe.
How often I do it:
My car – Every 2 months
My wife’s car – Every 4 months