I have noticed that some detailers focus on the cost of detailing chemicals. Often, the complaint surfaces when recommending a particular product, and the immediate response is, “Oh, that stuff is expensive!” In this month’s column, I’d like to dive into the topic of chemical expense, with the hope of adjusting some attitudes and perhaps correcting some common mistakes that are made in regard to chemical supply.


It is common among all consumers — not just detailers — to focus on the cost of a bottle of something, not realizing that when you do the math on the true per-use cost of a properly diluted and properly used product, it ends up being a few pennies per use. It is also important to get over the one-time expense of that initial purchase of a gallon of this or a quart of that, because if you spread that expense over the several months that it takes to go through the product, it ends up being almost negligible, compared to the total expenses needed to run a professional business.

Let’s do the math on a per-use cost of a particular chemical, say, a concentrated vinyl/plastic dressing. A gallon of a high-quality product may run as much as $100. Let’s say the manufacturer recommends diluting the concentrated dressing 3:1, which means three parts water to one part dressing concentrate. That means you end up with four gallons of useable product per one gallon of concentrate.

Right there, your chemical costs have gone way down to about $25 per gallon of useable product. Now, let’s say you use about four ounces of dressing per vehicle during a detail job. Since there are 128 ounces in a gallon, your per-ounce cost of the dressing ends up being about 20 cents. So that means, in this example, that your “cost of dressing per detail” is about 80 cents — less than a dollar! If your detail prices are appropriately set, this cost is a couple of hundreds of a percent of your revenue — almost negligible.

I could end the article right now by saying, “So stop worrying about the price tag on that gallon!” But, alas, there are so many other considerations.


Detailing is, for better or worse, a relatively simple business to get into. You don’t need too many things to start offering the service. But when you want to step up to a more professional operation, more significant investments will be necessary.

Unfortunately, some detailers hang on to the tendency to “go cheap,” especially with chemicals. Let’s examine some common errors or misconceptions.

Ready-to-Use Is Cheaper

Yes, the price tag on a gallon of ready-to-use (i.e., doesn’t need to be diluted first) glass cleaner will be much less expensive than the price tag on a gallon of concentrated glass cleaner. One of the main things that you are paying for with a ready-to-use product is the transport of water, which is quite heavy.

Instead, when you dilute a concentrated product, you are using your own water, which probably costs a fraction-of-a-cent per gallon. Even if you use distilled water for dilution, at $1.19 per gallon, your cost-per-use will end up being much less for properly diluted concentrates.

Stop looking at the price tag on the gallon or quart and start thinking about the cost per use.

Get the One That’s on Sale

If you are constantly switching product brands because one is on sale this month or that, you are likely creating chaos in your detail operation, as each chemical manufacturer will have its own suggestions for dilution ratios. Sticking with the same proven chemicals will make it easier for you and your employees to properly dilute and use the chemicals. It will also help you provide consistent results from your detail process.

Chemicals Are Chemicals — Go Cheap

Many detailers think it’s okay to purchase common cleaning products at the 99-cent store or the “big box” super-discount warehouse store, with the attitude “glass cleaner is glass cleaner” or “all-purpose cleaners are all the same.” First of all, let’s correct this misconception. Chemicals that are designed for household or general industrial use are not necessarily safe on automotive surfaces.

In contrast, the products available from recognized professional detailing chemical manufacturers are designed specifically for use on automobiles. Each product typically goes through multiple testing phases before it is even offered for sale. Then, a reputable manufacturer will also solicit feedback from actual users to improve the effectiveness and usability of the product.

The products from a detail chemical manufacturer are typically (but not always) going to be more expensive than household chemicals, simply because they are sold to a very specific market — pro detailers and do-it-yourself enthusiasts.

The important thing for us professionals to remember is that good chemicals help us do our jobs faster and better. Yes, higher-quality detailing chemicals cost more per ounce than their inferior counterparts, but the difference in cost per detail job is negligible. And that difference may be made up many times over by the increased effectiveness and efficiency that the better-performing chemicals allow.

Bottom line: when you do a better job, your customers are more impressed!

What I Use Doesn’t Matter to the Customer

This may be true for some customers, but others are paying attention. Appearances can be important. What does it say about the quality of your operation if your detail cart or mobile rig is full of off-brand 99-cent-store bottles? Imagine how the customer might feel seeing you pour car wash shampoo out of a gallon jug with a generic store-brand label. The reaction might be, “Why am I paying you when I could do that?”

Also, we are supposed to be the professionals who have researched and experimented with chemicals so that we can hand-select the best products for the vehicle. Now, when I say “researched and experimented,” some operators might think that I mean they have to buy one of every swirl removing polish available, spend hours testing each one for its effectiveness.

Actually, if you have time and the desire, there is nothing wrong with this approach. Instead, however, I suggest that you get connected with some of the major recognized educators and influencers in our industry and check out what they’re talking about in their blogs, videos, and social media threads. At least you can have a starting-off point of some specific recommendations from someone who has already taken the time to test and play with multiple products.


There are several well-recognized detail chemical manufacturers that each have a line of high-quality, well-respected chemicals. Your choice of manufacturer often comes down to convenience — whatever lines your local distributor carries.

There are advantages to sticking closely to one manufacturer: reliability, consistent availability, a coordinated system, and probably lower costs due to bulk purchases. Go with a company that has a long history in the industry, a strong following, and one that gives back to the industry through education, training, and leadership activities like heavy involvement in the International Detailing Association. Another characteristic of a good company is one that is always innovating and is responsive to end-user feedback.

Back to that “appearance” thing again — there is something to be said for a detail cart that has a set of chemical bottles with a consistent single manufacturer labelling scheme.

But at the same time, I’m not suggesting that you have to buy all of your chemicals from one manufacturer. In fact, most of us that have been around for a while have “dialed in” our collection of chemicals to a lean set of favorites, most of which are probably from a single supplier simply because that makes it easier to order and shop. But we also have a few favorites from other manufacturers.


There are several mistakes that I have observed when it comes to detailing chemical management:

Just-in-Time Purchasing

This refers to the detailer who is constantly running over to the detail supply outlet because she or he doesn’t have the money for or the understanding of proper chemical management. Some spend hours each month on travel time to pick up a single gallon of this or that, instead of stocking up a few times per year.

Panic Purchasing

This is the last-minute scramble to pick up a chemical that you just ran out of, like running into an auto parts store to grab a 16-oz leather conditioner, for which you will pay four times per ounce over what you normally pay for leather conditioner from your detail supply outlet. It is critical to manage your chemical supply to ensure you can make the most efficient purchase quantities, thus reducing (or eliminating) running out of anything.


There are actually chemicals that will sour if stored too long. I’ve witnessed some paint-related products, polishes, and sealants “go bad” if they sit in the cabinet too long — like several months or over a year — so it starts to smell bad or develop black mold inside the container. For example, I thought it would be smart to buy a gallon of my favorite paint sealant because I use it on every standard detail. But I didn’t use it fast enough and the gallon got moldy before I got halfway through it. This problem was easily solved: I now order only a couple of quarts at a time and re-order when I’m halfway through the second quart.

Over-Reliance on Boutique Brands

Boutique brands are those that have created an image of ultra-high quality with elegant packaging and marketing to appeal to the detailing customer. They are usually sold in very small bottles and are typically quite expensive. There is nothing wrong with these brands, especially if the branding becomes part of your brand and an effective marketing tool. It depends on your customer base, however, as boutique brands appeal mostly to auto enthusiasts who are already familiar with the brands.

Honestly, the vast majority of daily-driver customers don’t know squat about detailing chemicals. And if they do, they are familiar only with a couple of the well-recognized names that have been in the forefront of the home car-care segment for decades. Can you even remember the last time one of your customers asked you, “What chemicals do you use?”

Chemical Mismanagement

Now, there are legitimate chemical cost issues. These typically revolve around improper dilution or improper use of chemicals during the detail process. If you have a multiple-employee business, then it is worth spending some time to analyze how your employees dilute, dispense, and apply the chemicals used in your detail process. A common source of unneeded chemical expense is under-dilution of concentrated chemicals. This can be solved by automating the dilution and dispensing of the concentrated chemicals with a central dispensing unit that can be set up to precisely proportion water-to-chemical ratios, ensuring that every refilled quart spray bottle or bucket of car shampoo contains the proper dilution.

It is critical that the detail manager “manage” the chemicals as well. I believe that one person in the shop should be in charge of chemical storage and dilution. This will usually be the manager or owner, but, if it is delegated, be sure that the employee is completely trained on the proper dispensing of each chemical used in the shop, reinforced with written posted instructions.


The bottom-line message about detailing chemical costs is this: Stop worrying about it! If you are managing your chemicals properly, chemical cost per job should be negligible. True professional detailers don’t look at the price of the bottle of chemical, they look at how that chemical will help them save time and make more money.

Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or prentice@detailinprogress.com.