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How To Clean & Detail Your Car At Home

Cleaning a steering wheel

After a long winter, chances are your car looks a little worse for the wear. Even if you wash it regularly, months of salt, dirt, and grime can still accumulate in places that aren’t touched by a drive-through car wash. And the interior likely has its share of dirt, crumbs, and coffee stains, too.

Having the right auto insurance is one way to protect your ride, but taking the time to do a thorough cleaning is another. (Read more about what road salt does to your car.)

To get your car looking as good as new, you need more than just a car wash. You need a full detailing job.

What’s auto detailing? It’s essentially a very thorough cleaning of your car — inside and out — that restores it to near showroom condition.

If you hire a professional, a full interior and exterior detail can cost hundreds of dollars. But if you have a few hours to spare, you can detail your own vehicle from the comfort of your driveway.

What do I need to detail my car?

To wash and detail your own vehicle, you’ll need some basic supplies. You may already have most of what you need at home. But everything else can be purchased online or at your local auto parts store. And keep in mind that when purchasing supplies, you’ll have plenty left over for more detailing jobs in the future.

Before you get started, here’s a list of what you’ll need.

  • Buckets: To wash your car, you’ll need a bucket to hold the soapy water. Experts recommend using two buckets — one for clean water, and one to rinse your dirty tools.
  • Soap: Not all soap is created equal. Be sure to purchase car wash soap, which is specifically designed to protect your vehicle’s paint. Household soaps, like dish soaps, are much harsher and may strip away any wax from your vehicle.
  • Wash mitt: Sponges can trap dirt and contaminants, scratching your paint. Instead, purchase a soft wash mitt made of microfiber material.
  • Wheel cleaner: Unlike car wash soap, this cleaner uses harsher chemicals to remove stubborn brake dust and road grime.
  • Glass cleaner: While there are specialty auto glass cleaners, what you use on your windows at home will work just fine.
  • Clay bar: If you’re new to detailing, this may be one tool you’re unfamiliar with. An automotive clay bar is a type of synthetic putty that will help remove contaminants from the paint surface so they’re not sealed in during the waxing process.
  • Car wax: Any automotive wax will work to help protect your paint and keep it shining like new.
  • Foam pad applicator: This sponge-like pad will be used to apply wax to your vehicle.
  • Microfiber towels: Buy a pack of at least three towels. They’ll help you dry and clean a range of surfaces without scratching or damaging your car.
  • Leather cleaner: This product removes dirt and conditions the leather to avoid cracking and fading.
  • Fabric or carpet cleaner: These foaming cleaners can help remove stubborn stains from your car’s carpets and cloth upholstery.
  • Vacuum: Your household vacuum or shop vac will work, as long as it has a flexible hose extension.
  • Brushes: Gather a variety of tools to get dirt and dust out of hard-to-reach places. A toothbrush, a small paint or makeup brush, toothpicks, and even Q-tips® all work well.

How do I detail the outside of my car?

Now that you’ve assembled your tools, it’s time to get started with your exterior detailing. Before you start, make sure your car is cool to the touch and isn’t parked in direct sunlight. Excess heat will dry out many of the detailing products, leading to less-than-optimal results. Here are the steps you need to take:

  1. Pre-rinse the car. Before you get started washing away all the dirt, give your car a thorough rinse. This will remove loose dirt on the surface and prevent you from scratching your paint.
  2. Wash the wheels. Next, wash your car’s wheels one at a time. Many wheel cleaners can just be sprayed on and rinsed off. But if your wheels are coated with brake dust, you may need to scrub them using a wheel brush. Try to avoid using the same wash mitt you use for your paint, if possible. Then, rinse them off.
  3. Wash the car. Now, use the two-bucket method to wash the rest of your car. Fill one bucket with water and the other with car wash soap and water. Start from the top of your car and work your way down, washing one section at a time. Soak your wash mitt in the soap bucket, wash a section of the car, then rinse out the mitt in your bucket of water.
  4. Rinse the car. After washing each section, rinse off all the remaining soap with water. Don’t wait until you wash the entire car to rinse off the soap. This will allow the soap solution to dry on the vehicle.
  5. Dry the car. After rinsing off the car, dry it completely with a microfiber towel. Skipping this step will result in water spots on your vehicle.
  6. Use your clay bar. Once your car is nice and clean, it’s time to use the clay bar to remove any contaminants that are embedded in the paint. Spray a lubricant, like an exterior detailing solution, on the car, then gently rub the clay bar over the surface. Work in one small section at a time and use a microfiber towel to dry it. You’ll know when you’re finished because the paint will feel as smooth as glass.
  7. Wax the car. Now, it’s time to apply wax. Again, work in one small section at a time. Apply wax to your foam applicator pad. Then, buff the wax into the pain using small, circular motions. When you’re finished, use a microfiber towel to remove the excess wax.

How do I detail the inside of my car?

The exterior of your car looks as good as new. Now, it’s time to tackle the interior. Here are the steps you need to bring back that new car smell:

  1. Clean interior parts. Start by cleaning all the interior parts and panels of your vehicle. For this job, use a microfiber towel and a spray cleaning solution. You can purchase an interior detailer spray, but an ammonia-free glass cleaner works well, too. Pay extra attention to high-touch areas like door handles, armrests and the steering wheel. Use your brushes to get dirt and dust out of small spaces like air vents.
  2. Clean the seats. Next, get to work on your car seats. If your seats are leather, spray them with leather cleaner and wipe them down. If you have cloth seats, use an automotive upholstery cleaner.
  3. Vacuum the carpet. Remove your floor mats and vacuum all the dirt out of your carpets.
  4. Wash your floor mats. If you have rubber all-weather floor mats, remove them from the vehicle and wash them down with soap and water. Carpet floor mats should be vacuumed and scrubbed with carpet cleaner.
  5. Scrub your carpet. Use carpet cleaner to remove dirt and stains from your car’s carpets. For this job, you can use a foaming spray cleaner or a steam carpet scrubber. Don’t forget to let the carpet dry before reinstalling your floor mats.
  6. Clean the glass. Finally, use your glass cleaner to wash the inside of all your car’s windows. Be sure to get the windshield and rear glass, too.
  7. Apply a deodorizer. To get that new-car smell, spray an automotive deodorizer as a finishing touch.

Enjoy your freshly detailed ride

After putting in a few hours of hard work, now it’s time to step back and appreciate the results. Your car looks as good as new, and you can take satisfaction in knowing that you did it all yourself. At Erie Insurance, we understand the pride you take in your car. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to help you protect it. To learn more about auto insurance from ERIE, contact your local agent today.

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