Deep Clean Carpet & Upholstery

April 1, 2009 | By Fred Venturini

Regular Vacuuming Is Helpful, But It Won’t Get Deep-Down Dirt. Here’s How to Have a Truly Clean Auto Interior.

AUTOMOTIVE Carpet AND upholstery bear some striking similarities to vehicle paint—they may look clean, but the true soil and contaminants may be hidden from the naked eye. But many casual detailers and owners simply give more attention and effort to their vehicle’s paint, while the carpet and upholstery get less attention in the form of an occasional vacuuming.

Many variables exist for the cleaning of carpet and upholstery. For the sake of this article, we will focus on regular automotive carpet and upholstery made out of nylon, because that’s the most common fabric. We will also forgo the advanced cleaning methods that require expensive steam cleaning machines, carpet removal or other advanced, expensive procedures. We will focus on tips and methods to get your automotive carpet and upholstery clean and odor-free with a minimum of tools and chemicals. We also will evaluate the best ways to attack spills and spots in focused fashion, and how to maintain the cleanliness you will achieve.

Products & Equipment You’ll Need

In general, most carpet and upholstery will have dirt and debris on the surface and down into the shag. Vacuuming will usually remove the surface to medium depth debris, but the deepest parts of the dirt and grime lurk deep down, and require deeper cleaning to remove. This deep-down dirt and grime is worth removing because your carpet will be easier to maintain, and your interior air quality will be better without a place for germs and bacteria to lurk.

Instead of professional steaming or advanced methods, we will shampoo the interior carpet and upholstery. The first step to a thorough carpet cleaning is seat removal. This is by far the best and most simple way to access and work over the complete carpet. Seats are not only the largest obstacle, but often hide the dirtiest areas of the carpet that otherwise cannot be accessed for cleaning. In many cases, removing a few bolts will easily get your seats out. In addition, the seats can then be completely accessed for cleaning while outside the vehicle. This step is optional, but again, the advantages make it worthwhile to take them out before cleaning.

Next, you will need a strong, focused cleaner such as a bottle of 303 Fabric Cleaner ( This product is astounding for its flexibilityand effectiveness. It can be directly sprayed on spots and stains, or diluted for hand-shampooing, according to label directions. Another excellent, multi-purpose product is PS12 Total Auto Wash. In addition to its other uses, this product can be directly sprayed or diluted for shampooing, and has a nice, orange scent.

Other equipment to have on hand: an interior scrub brush (preferably one that has both hard and soft bristles for different levels of aggressiveness) a bucket full of clean water, a mixing spray bottle, plenty of terrycloth towels for blotting, and a strong wet/dry vacuum.

Planning Your Approach

Now, with the seats out, you can evaluate your carpet’s condition. Vacuum thoroughly, using a brush or your hand to agitate the carpet as you go, loosening soil and debris. Once vacuumed, you’re ready to shampoo. Stained areas can use some full-concentration cleaner sprayed on them directly, and hard-bristle agitation. In any case, heavy, specific stained areas should be treated as spots before the shampooing process begins. I’ll discuss spot removal a little later in the article, so start there if spots and stains are a problem. For the non-stained areas, the diluted shampoo discussed above is best applied with a spray bottle. Remember, when it comes to carpet and upholstery, the more “dry” your methodology is, the better. Moisture is an enemy and we want to use the least amount of moisture necessary to get the material clean. Simply mist the shampoo onto a medium sized area, then use the softer bristles of your brush to work in the shampoo. Blot the area dry with dry towels. As long as dirt and soil is transferring to the towels, keep going until it comes away clean.

Here is a tip that will save some elbow grease if you have a rotary buffer or dual action polisher—and plenty of bonnets on hand. You can use the bonnets with the misted shampoo to perform the cleaning. If soil appears on the bonnet, you know it’s working. This is a pretty efficient way to shampoo a whole interior without getting sore. Simply go over the area with a few bonnets, then finish up with terry cloth towels and additional clean bonnets.

If you have spare microfiber towels for the blotting, all the better—the terry towels will usually leave behind white lint. But since you will finish with a vacuuming with the wet/dry vac to suck up any remaining moisture, you will also vacuum out the lint left behind as well, so it’s your choice depending on what’s available in your shop.

The scrubbing, shampooing, and blotting should take a few hours for a moderately dirty carpet. Remember to give the area a final vacuum with a wet/dry vac, and let the carpet air out until completely dry.

Guard Your Fabric

At this point, the carpet should be clean and dry and almost ready for the seats to go back in. Most seats, of course, are made of cloth upholstery, and can be cleaned using the above methodology. If you have leather, there are many excellent, leather specific kits out there, such as Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Cleaner and Conditioner. Simply follow the label directions and you should get excellent results.

Some products and tools to help you get the best results with your vehicle’s interior.
Some products and tools to help you get the best results with your vehicle’s interior.

Before you put your seats back into the vehicle, now is an excellent time for finishing and sealing your carpet to preserve your hard work. The 303 Fabric Guard is an excellent sealing product that only takes a few minutes to apply. Once cured, it creates a surface that resists stains—water beads up and most stains can be wiped away before they set.

If shampooed properly, odor shouldn’t be a problem, but the carpet and upholstery can be scented with any number of excellent, automotive-specific products. Autoglym Auto Refresh is concentrated, quick to apply, and lasts a long time. Spritz on one or two sprays every week or two to keep your interior smelling fresh. A word of warning: This product is extremely concentrated and more than a few sprays will create an overwhelming scent.

Floor Mats Need Care, Too

Evaluate your floor mats. Again, nylon floor mats can be cleaned using the above shampooing methodology, and if you need a quick fix, you can run them through the washing machine with a microfiber detergent such as Sonus Der Wunder Wasche. Vehicle-matched rubber mats have channels to trap dirt, water and other debris, and can be washed off with a hose and brush. Decide on the best method of floor mat protection and plan accordingly.

Keeping Things Clean

Now that your carpet is totally clean, we can discuss some specific tips and methods to keep it looking that way. Vacuuming is, of course, the best method. Again, agitation of the fabric while vacuuming is key to good results. Use a brush (lightly) or your hand to precede the path of the vacuum and “work up” the stuff that’s trapped in the shag of the carpet and upholstery. Vacuum thoroughly and according to the level of debris. If you don’t have much debris or if you quick detail your interior weekly, a lint roller can be used to quickly pick up small amounts of light, loose debris without having to get the vacuum out.

After a total shampoo and proper maintenance, you will have only two more obstacles to overcome as they happen—hair and spills.

Pet hair may or may not be a problem in your vehicle. If it is, instead of breaking the bank on lint rollers that may not be effective for a thick concentration of pet hair, consider investing in a product that combines brush agitation with static electricity to pick up pet hair like magic. My shop has several Meguiar’s brand brushes that work wonders on picking up pet and human hair with rubber bristles that agitate while building static.

The other problem many of us have faced at one time or another occurs when something is spilled in our vehicles. A fresh spill is best attacked immediately—the sooner the better. Remove any solids from the spill, and blot liquids away without rubbing, using a terry towel or an absorbent microfiber towel.

The spot should be worked from the outside-inward to avoid spreading it. Blot away as much as possible, and use your multi-purpose cleaner or full-strength carpet cleaner to spray and dissolve the rest of the spill. Most sugar-based spills (the most common ones, such as soda) should come up quite easily using the above-mentioned products. Grease, oil, tar and gum require specific solvents to get them out. Trying the PS12 Total Auto Wash yields good results on most fresh spills, even grease and oil. Try some if you have a bottle on hand. If not, you will definitely need to acquire solvents made for your type of spill. Use the specific solvent according to label directions.

When the spill is removed, rinse the area with a heavy mist of water. Blot again, and finish with a wet-dry vac. This process is, of course, much quicker and easier if your carpet has been sealed with a protectant.

Spills are going to strike and your carpet is perpetually the most beat-up part of your interior. Care and cleaning is essential. Using quality products, some ingenuity, and some elbow grease, you can achieve a level of cleanliness in your carpet and upholstery not seen since the vehicle left the dealer’s lot.

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