In this month’s column, I would like to cover the information needed to successfully complete the “Equipment” portion of the detailing certification exams offered by the International Detailing Association.

The IDA offers its Certified Detailer program to both members of the association as well as non-members. The program currently consists of 10 exams that assess the taker’s background knowledge of detailing. This month’s column is one in an on-again-off-again series that is designed to present a study guide for those who are interested in taking the tests. Get more information or sign up for the tests at

Automotive detailing is a lot of work. It is tedious, time-consuming, and tiring. Most reading this column probably don’t realize that all detailing processes were once performed by hand. (Yes, even buffing.) Fortunately, through the decades, detailing pioneers and innovative manufacturers have slowly added to the tools and equipment that we now perceive as standard.

The use of professional detailing equipment typically takes far less time than performing the same tasks by hand. Moreover, the results obtained when using equipment are typically superior. Professional detailing equipment increases efficiency and effectiveness.


It is possible to get a lot of dirt off a car simply by using a pressure washer. Nonetheless, there will remain some grime that really only comes off with some type of agitation from a soft-bristled brush or wash mitt. Additionally, stronger chemicals might be needed for the removal of bugs, tar, heavy surface contamination, and brake dust on the wheels.

A pressure washer is not absolutely necessary for a prep wash, but it certainly helps. A standard garden hose with a nozzle can certainly rinse off the car after appropriate chemical application and agitation. But a non-pressurized garden hose nozzle cannot match the power behind the pressurized water blasting out of the pressure washer nozzle, which will help to remove things like caked-on mud, as well as cleaning nooks and crannies that are otherwise unreachable.

However, there is such a thing as too much pressure, which can cause damage to exterior vehicle trim parts if used incorrectly. For that reason, most professionals find that a pressure range of 800 to 1,200 psi allows for safe washing of the vehicle exterior while still providing the advantages of dirt-loosening pressure.

There are many cleaning tasks about the vehicle that can be facilitated by using a pressure washer. One example is the engine bay. Caked-on oil and heavy dust accumulation can be blasted off with a pressure washer. Of course, be careful around under-hood electronics, the alternator, distributors, and spark plug ports. Other than that, it is generally safe to pressure wash the sealed under-hood components like the engine block and transmission.

The pressure washer is also great for undercarriage cleaning, heavy mud in the wheel and suspension areas, as well as (carefully) the doorjambs. However, the pressure washer should never be used for standard interior compartment detailing (other than the jambs).

Safe use of a pressure washer includes keeping the stream away from any sensitive electronic components, areas that might have loose or chipped paint, and doors or windows that have known leaks. Also, never point a pressure washer stream too close to plastic components, as it may actually put a gouge in the plastic. Finally, stay away from fuel ports that have no twist-on cap.


There is an additional equipment concern for those who wash vehicles on a mobile basis or in a wash area that flows into a non-treated storm drain. According to the Federal Clean Water Act, contaminated water may not be discharged anywhere that might cause it to eventually reach natural waterways.

This federal regulation is variably enforced by local municipalities. Nonetheless, aside from the fact that we all should be careful about what we release into the environment, more and more local authorities are requiring the control of dirty water discharge. This makes it necessary for the professional operator who is without proper drainage capability to consider water reclamation equipment.

The fixed operator may be required to ensure that wastewater drains into sewer lines where it will be treated by the municipality’s facilities before being released. The fixed operator whose facility does not have such a drain, as well as the mobile operator, will have to find some other way to collect and dispose of wastewater produced by vehicle washing.

Some operators wash vehicles in a spot where the water drains to a low point on the pavement and then collect the water from that point using a sump pump, to later be disposed of properly. However, municipalities with stricter interpretations of the Clean Water Act language will not find this situation acceptable because the chemicals used during the prep wash will still be on the ground, simply to be washed away into the environment during the next rain.

A common solution for this situation — and one that is more and more commonly required by government agencies — is the use of a wash mat. The wash mat for standard vehicle washing is typically a thick vinyl material that measures about 10 by 20 feet and has a built-in “dam” or berm around the edges to trap water. Then, a sump pump is used to move the wastewater from the lowest corner into an appropriate wastewater collection device, to be later disposed of in a manner that is in line with wastewater regulations.


Surface contamination — like “rail dust,” ferrous oxide deposits, and overspray — has, for a couple of decades now, been removed with the use of detailer’s clay. The recently-introduced “surface prep towel” is gaining popularity as a cost-effective substitute for detailer’s clay. Some professionals remove surface contamination during the prep wash while others choose to perform this activity as a separate step between the prep wash and polishing steps.

The next step in the exterior detail will either involve polishing the paint or applying protection to it, depending on the service order. The vast majority of professional detail technicians will use some type of polishing machine for this work. Very few professionals polish vehicle paint by hand because it simply takes too long and is far less effective than proper use of a polishing machine.

The choice of polisher will depend on the goal of the application. For example, if the next step is to simply apply protection — such as wax or polymer paint sealant — to the paint, the appropriate device will be a random-orbit or dual-action polisher with a foam finishing pad. These devices have polishing heads that spin or rotate but also oscillate about a center point, thus reducing the amount of heat and friction that builds up while in contact with the paint surface.

Essentially, the random-orbit or dual-action polisher imitates hand motion, but with these advantages over manual application: a lot less work, more thorough, more even, and less chemical usage. Plus, the remaining chemical residue will be far easier to remove.

A little side note: what is the difference between a “buffer” and a “polisher”? The terms “polisher” and “buffer” are interchanged often in this industry. A “polisher” is a machine that polishes. A “buffer,” according to the dictionary, is a mechanical device that buffs or polishes. So, the bottom line is that it is correct to use either name for the machine that we use to polish the exterior paint surface of a vehicle. There is no distinction.

However, there is a very important distinction between a random-orbit/dual-action polisher/buffer and a simple rotary polisher/buffer. The former, as described earlier, spins and oscillates. The latter just spins. It simply rotates. Hence the name. The simple rotary buffer is also known by many as a “high-speed polisher.” This label comes from the fact that, in years past, the simple rotary polisher was used at a relatively high rpm (revolutions per minute). As we will see later in this discussion, “high-speed” may no longer be the best moniker for this device.

The simple rotation of a high-speed polisher makes for a difference in the effect that the polisher has on the paint surface to which it is being applied. The simple spinning motion allows for the potential for a tremendous build-up of friction and heat. It is this heat and friction that makes the rotary polisher the best choice for efficient and effective perfection of the appearance of the paint.

It also makes the high-speed polisher a device that, if used incorrectly, can cause paint damage. Most of us are familiar with the two most common types of paint damage that can be caused by a simple rotary polisher — swirl marks and paint “burning.” It is important to realize, however, that this damage can only happen if the device is being used inappropriately.

Inappropriate use of a high-speed polisher can occur due to any one or more of the following variables: choice of paint correcting chemical, choice of polishing pad, speed at which the polisher is set, and polishing technique.


Well, I have successfully dived into the deep end of the equipment discussion, and it’s going to take more than one column to swim to the side of the pool. So, stayed tuned until next month, when I will continue the lengthy topic of detailing equipment.

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