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The subject of engine degreasing can create quite a stir within the detailing industry. There are numerous theories, pitfalls, precautions and warnings about how to or, for that matter, if you even should degrease an engine. But, the fact remains that if you're a detail shop these concerns are inherent to the business and you pretty much have to perform this task. This is especially true if you do any type of volume with used car lots. Tell them you won't degrease their engines and you can forget about their detail business and possibly any other business you may be performing for them. Simply put, more often than not, a complete detail includes the engine!
While there may not be a totally fail safe, guaranteed, no problem ever solution, you can put the odds in your favor by following a few guidelines.

First, let the customer know that their decision to clean the engine is a very good one and usually will not cause any problems or damage and will actually give them an engine that appears well maintained and looks great! This can also add to the value of their vehicle at sales time. Also, if they have an oil leak, once cleaned it will allow them or their mechanic to easily diagnose or locate the problem. Next explain the procedure you use and precautions you take to do a professional job. Then, again as a professional, let them also know that there is a remote possibility of damage or exposing damage that already exists due to the cleaning process. At that point, we recommend a signed disclaimer form from the customer holding you harmless. Without this disclaimer, the entire burden is on you should something happen. It is better to lose $39.95 from the sale than $600 or more on repairs that you pay for! Most often, your customer, even the dealer understands and agrees. Communicate and be honest!

Now to the cleaning procedure. The first thing to do is a visual inspection of the engine compartment for loose or bare wires, sockets or plugs not fully connected or anything that would throw up a red flag. Also, look for aftermarket products, especially remote alarms. If the siren is pointed up, it will act like a cup retaining the water are surely destroy the siren and possibly the alarm module. If any problems do exist, stop and show the customer BEFORE you begin.

Assuming the inspection checks out OK, cover any critical components such as distributor caps, computer modules, fuse boxes, etc. Do not use aluminum foil as this can conduct a short or power across components. Plastic "Saran Wrap" usually works the best.
"Soap up" the sides of the vehicle or anywhere chemical overspray may land or settle on with a good quality, high sudsing car wash. This will eliminate any cleaning agents from causing damage to painted surfaces that may drift when spraying. For the degreasing, we recommend using a "surfactant" type water-soluble cleaner rather than a solvent based product such as kerosene or mineral spirits. The surfactant "soap" solution can be less harmful to complex electrical components and is usually non-flammable as well. It will also rinse cleaner and faster. Plus, it will break down faster from a biodegradable standpoint, which helps keep the EPA and local city inspectors happy. Spray liberally over the engine and engine compartment taking special car not to spray directly into connections, electrical boxes, etc. Be sure to also spray hinges and underside of hood. Heavy grease areas may need more attention or even the use of a good quality brush.

Allow the cleaner to penetrate for several minutes then avoiding the problem areas as mentioned above, "blast" the grease and grime away. A garden hose with an adjustable nozzle works fine but the professional detail shop will normally have a pressure washer of approximately 800-900 PSI. A pressure washer with heat will dramatically increase the quality of the job. The heat range should be in the area of 180 degrees to maximize grime breakdown and efficient rinsing. Be careful to stay away from heat in the 212-degree range as this is where water boils and turns to steam. Steam will not "blast" the grease away and may be more susceptible to problems in electrical systems. It also impairs vision while cleaning. Keep away from the "fiber" style hood insulation as it will easily fall apart if saturated with water and chemicals. Be careful if you are using a pressure washer with a high psi as it can actually peel the paint away. Another way to gauge washer performance beyond the PSI specification is gallons per minute. A good pressure washer will have a rating of 3 gallons per minute or better.

You can "air dry" the vehicle by simply keeping the hood open. This works great on a sunny day. Another drying method or if the sun isn't out is to use an air hose to blow the water away. Afterwards, run the engine for several minutes with the hood open to dry out any remaining water or moisture.

Dressing procedures. Once the engine is clean and reasonably dry, it's time to finish off the process for your customer. While the cleaning removes the dirt, grime, and grease, it's the dressing that truly makes the job shine, literally!

Start with a cool engine that is not running when applying dressing. Since most dressings are solvent based, and solvents are subject to flames and combustion, a spark from an engine with the ignition on or with the vehicle running could be dangerous. Also, since you are spraying a "mist" of the dressing (solvent) into the air, it can increase the flammability. Common sense will go a long way here. While it is important for you to observe these precautions, it is very rare that something like this can happen. Our two company stores have degreased and dressed thousands of engines over the past 17 years without any such damage nor have we ever had any detailers report such an incident. But it is important to be aware of this situation and always remember safety first!

Spray dressing liberally to a fine even coat or layer across the engine and engine compartment. Be sure to spray from several angles to gain complete coverage. Take special care around vehicle oxygen sensors as these can be damages by oils and silicone sprays. Most detailers will use a silicone dressing for a true, more professional appearance rather than a "clear paint." Clear paint will give the appearance of a cosmetic make over or "glazed donut" effect while the silicone dressing will give it a much more well maintained look. It even helps to keep the belts and hoses more pliable. Now, wipe off any excess dressing that may have drifted into any other areas to complete the job.

It's always a good idea to keep a can or two of wire dry and starting fluid around. These may not always cure a problem, but they can definitely get you through a few temperamental engines.

To summarize, engine degreasing is a popular service to the public and wholesale trade. It can produce excellent profits as very little cost is involved with supplies or labor. Average cost should be $39.95 to $59.95. Don't cheat yourself by offering it free or at a low cost of $19.95. You're entitled to a profit for your services and you need to cover your exposure to the risk of damage.

When using any chemicals or compressed air and hot water, ALWAYS THINK SAFETY FIRST. Read the chemical and product labels, including MSDS sheets, for use of gloves, eye goggles, ventilation or other protective procedures.

This is an overview of our observations and experience with degreasing and detailing. It is not meant to be inclusive of all procedures and cautions, but rather a guide. Check with car manufacturers on specific vehicles that may not lend themselves to the degreasing process. We hope that it helps you in your pursuit of building a more professional and profitable detailing business. If you have any questions or would like to comment on these procedures or add a suggestion please email us at

Jeffrey Stevens is the owner and founder of Stevens Auto Glaze and Security, Inc., a two-store retail chain that details, rustproofs, and installs 12-volt products and bolt ons. He is also the owner and founder of Stevens Car Care Products, Inc. which manufactures detailing products and supplies, auto alarms, and electronic rust control systems.


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