Sweating the Details: 6 steps to deep-clean your car’s carpet
Welcome to Sweating the Details, a limited series in which Hagerty educates you on how to clean and maintain the visual appeal and proper condition of your ride. Matt Fink is a part-time auto-detailer in Columbus, Ohio, as well as Hagerty Media’s branded content writer. The first installment focused on nine steps to streak-free windows; you can read it here.
As the snow is melting here in the Midwest, it’s almost time for Fool’s Spring, which comes just before Second Winter but after Spring of Deception, and that means some of you are getting ready to clean your cars. One of my favorite things to do is get a winter’s worth of road salt off a car.
With temperatures still below-freezing at night, let’s start by looking at cleaning the inside of the car, specifically, the carpet.
While the exterior of your vehicle bears the brunt of winter’s wrath, the cabin also takes a beating. You’ll notice the most wear and tear on the floor, where mats absorb salt and carpets soak in whatever slush melts off your shoes. While interior surfaces don’t rust like the exterior ones, salt can still be damaging to sensitive fabrics and to leather. Salt has a way of digging deep into carpet fibers, staining and stiffening them. It also often comes mixed with other chemicals used to treat roads during the winter—compounds you don’t want in your interior.
Clean carpet can make your whole vehicle feel fresher, making the time you spend driving more enjoyable. You should only have to deep clean a car’s interior a couple times a year, so when you do, get in there and do it right.
As with all installments of Sweating the Details, the advice only includes products the average person would keep in their garage.
I’ll demonstrate on my ’07 Acura TL Type-S.
What to have on hand
If you can make time for a deep clean and have some elbow grease to spare, here are the tools you need to get your carpets ready after a winter beating.
Any old paint brush will do, as long as it doesn’t have paint on it.
There are many great shop vacuums (aka “shop vacs”) on the market. I recommend one with at least four horsepower. Capacity doesn’t matter, but it should be a “wet/dry” model.
I personally use Ridgid products. I have a four-gallon, 6-hp wet/dry shop vac with a blower that’s lightweight, strong, and on wheels. It cost about $100 and does the job better than much pricier vacuums.
Car accessory kit
Although not necessary, I strongly recommend a vacuum-attachment kit like this. It will make the job of cleaning your car’s interior much easier. The time you save will more than pay for the $25 or so you’ll spend on Amazon.
This is the number-one product that will take your car-interior cleaning to the next level. Make sure it’s thin and that its bristles are fairly stiff.
For carpet cleaning, a brush needs to have fairly stiff bristles, but you’ll want one with soft bristles as well for leather and plastics.
There are many options available. You should always keep a quality interior-cleaner handy for stains or just general cleaning. I most often use an all-purpose concentrate from Meguiar’s. Concentrates are great because you can decide how strong you’d like each bottle to be. I always keep a couple bottles already mixed to different strengths. Plus, concentrates cheaper than individual bottles, though a gallon of the stronger stuff may last you 100 years.
A couple of other interior cleaners I like are the Meguiar’s Citrus Power Cleaning Plus, which is a great all-around cleaner that adds a very faint citrus smell, and the Stoner Power Clean. The second is just for plastics but is great because it adds UV protection and a satin finish.
The more the merrier. Unlike most detailing advice you will hear, for once these DO NOT need to be microfiber. I like old t-shirts or bath towels.
Step 1: Remove everything from the car
The first thing I always do is go through with a couple plastic bags, one for trash and one for keeps, and get everything out of the car. It makes the cleaning process much easier if you aren’t always moving stuff around; plus, I’m sure you’re carrying around some things you don’t really need. Don’t forget to open the trunk and pull everything out of it.
(Let’s hope I won’t regret putting away that ice scraper!)
Next, get the all floor mats out of the car. No need to vacuum these yet, as a lot of the dirt can just be smacked out of them.
Carry the mats away from the car and slam them on the ground. Then slam them again. Especially the front two. Then slam them like Ric Flair hitting “Macho Man” Randy Savage over the head with a folding chair. It’s amazing how much junk you can get out of your mats just by whacking the heck out of them.
For a real deep-clean, removing your car’s seats is also an option. I usually only do this in minivans where the chairs are easy to remove and to reinstall, though. For most sedans, it’s easy enough to reach all areas of the carpet even without removing them as long as you are willing to contort your body like you’re playing Twister.
If the seat you are thinking about removing has a side airbag, is heated, or has weight sensors, all the more reason to leave it be.
Step 2: Stir up more dirt and dust
Put the vacuum down—it’s still not time yet.
Use your paint brush to clean up the dash, vents, and door panels. Alternatively, you can use compressed air. Just like when you wash a car’s exterior, you want to start at the top and work your way down. The point here is to stir up dirt and dust from other parts of the car so you can vacuum it up.
Step 3: Vacuum #1
By vacuuming before you shampoo, you avoid pushing dirt deeper into the carpet fibers. You will also need your small brush for this step.
If you have a car-accessory pack for your shop vac, use the attachment with the stiffest bristles to get dirt stirred up from the carpet. Then switch to the smallest attachment for tight spots.
Lead your vacuum with the small, stiff-bristled brush. Use it to pull as much dirt from tight areas as you can. Scrub around the door jamb, under the seats, in between the seats, and around the base of the center console, while pulling any dirt into the main area where you can suck it up.
When you are done inside the car, be sure to vacuum the floor mats as well. (This is vacuum step 1 of 2.)
Make sure to pay extra attention to crevices, such as those around the seatbelt anchor points, where dust and crumbs love to hide!
Step 4: Shampoo
You don’t need a big machine to shampoo your carpet. A good cleaner, brush, and towels can do wonders. There are some $100-ish, small carpet cleaner/extractors available. I use the Hoover Spotless Portable Carpet Cleaner & Upholstery Spot Cleaner. I have tried multiple Bissell products that worked well but had short lifespans.
These small handheld cleaners are decent, but don’t expect them to do all the work. (Seeing the recovery tank fill with gross black stuff is super rewarding, though!) Most the time I still end up needing to use some effort and towels.
I also use my wet-dry vac here as an option, though be aware of the setup and cleanup time needed for the vacuum. Don’t make the mistake I did the first time and leave your air filter in the shop vac. That’ll earn you a quick trip to the hardware store.
Do one section or floor mat at a time: You don’t want the shampoo to dry on the carpet. Spray shampoo or your all-purpose cleaner over the area. Use the large brush and scrub the section. I have never found the brushes that come on the foam sprayers to be strong enough, but they are better than nothing.
Follow that up by rubbing the carpet area with an old towel. You’ll notice the dirt from the carpet is now on the towel. (I will usually spray down each carpet area twice.)
Now, check over the carpet and look for any remaining stains. Spray those areas with an additional shot. When scrubbing with the large brush, be sure to continually switch which direction you are rubbing to hit the carpet fibers from all directions. Keep wiping up dirt with a towel: You’ll be surprised how much will come out.
If you don’t have a carpet-cleaner spray or all-purpose interior cleaner, you can always use a mixture of white vinegar and warm water.
If the floor mats are extremely soiled, you may need more intense measures. In that case, spray down the mat with shampoo and then use the hardest setting on your hose and soak the mat with water. With the mat soaking and soapy, use your large brush to scrub the carpet.
Again, spray off the mat with the water hose until you see all the soap and dirt removed. With the carpet still soaking wet, use your wet/dry shop vac to suck all the moisture out. Be sure there is nothing else in the basin before you suck up water; it’s nasty-gross to clean out.
Lay the mats out to dry.
After you have cleaned the rest of the vehicle, go back over the mats and re-spray them with a little shampoo and scrub them one last time. If you don’t do this one additional time once they have dried, the carpet fibers will be very stiff to the touch.
You’ll also want to spray cleaner on the door sills and scrub those.
Step 5: Vacuum #2
I always vacuum twice. Always.
With all the scrubbing and dusting you have been doing, you should have stirred up a lot more dirt. Start by using the soft-bristle attachment and run that over the dash and electrics.
If you do not have a hose attachment specifically made for this, don’t do it! Stiff bristles, or even the plastic end of a normal hose, can easily damage some electronics, particularly infotainment screens, so be very careful.
(There may or may not be a Cadillac CTV with a scratched infotainment screen as evidence of my learning this the hard way.)
We are focusing on cleaning the floors this time, but it’s always good to vacuum the rest of the car while you are at it.
Step 6: Clean and treat rubber floor mats
If you have all-weather rubber mats, which I strongly recommend for winter driving, then you will need to clean those as well. It’s easiest if you have water available to rinse them off with. When it is especially cold out, I have resorted to rinsing rubber mats in the bathtub. (Don’t tell my wife, please!)
Once you’ve rinsed all the loose dirt away, I like to use a degreaser or an all-purpose cleaner. There are also specially made rubber-mat cleaners.
Apply the cleanser to the entire surface area and, for the best results, scrub your mats with a medium-bristle brush. Rinse with water and allow them to dry.
Once your all-weather mats are clean and dry, you can condition them to keep them looking brand-new. No one likes a rubber mat that has faded to gray, making the interior look aged.
This next part can be tricky: There are a lot of products that can make the floor mats look better, but almost all of them leave a slippery surface, which is a big no-no when it comes to anything your feet or hands need to touch while driving. WeatherTech and Chemical Guys have products that condition without being slippery. Another one I have found that works is Stoner’s Trim Shine. As long as you rub it in thoroughly after you spray it, there is no slipperiness.
Cleaning the floor of your vehicle can also be a safety precaution. In my detailing career, it is not uncommon for me to find things stuck under the brake or gas pedal of a customer’s car. In the pictures below, the Mercedes had the floor mat, numerous dry-cleaning bags, and candy stuck behind the accelerator pedal, which was literally causing it to not respond correctly.
You never know what you’ll find: French fries (the five-second rule applies, since the food actually hasn’t touched the ground), pens, video games, CDs, money, or even raw chicken. Don’t worry, I charged that customer extra for that one.
Be warned, after doing this level of cleaning you will become obsessed with wiping your feet before getting in your car. You will yell at the first person to get mud on the carpet and be tempted to try to drive without your feet touching the ground. That’s how I deliver cars back to their owners; trust me, it is not safe.
In all seriousness, creating a routine of cleaning your car, especially prior to and after a seasonal change, will help maintain your vehicle in the long run.
Other hot tips
- Make sure the car’s interior is not wet when you finish and close up the doors. Moisture invites mildew. If you really had to soak things, you can always do the old trick of sprinkling baking soda on the area, then vacuuming it up after 30 minutes. The sodium bicarbonate absorbs both moisture and odors.
- Don’t forget how much of your car’s interior moves, slides, or folds. Always fold seats in every direction when vacuuming.
- There are also drill attachments for shop vacs that, when paired with a good cleaning spray, can help clean carpet.
- If you are dealing with crusty salt stains, try using a handheld steamer to help separate the salt from the fibers. Combine that with a stiff brush and a towel and you’ll be able to restore your mats to their pre-winter condition.
- You can finish with a fabric protector to add a strong, durable coating to help prevent future stains.
- Everyone should have a go-to all-purpose cleaner on hand. Something with a mild formula that is safe on all plastic, vinyl, fabric, and carpet. It will help remove stains, sticky reside, eliminate odors, and remove dirt from plastics.
- Check out the last installment of Sweating the Details to learn how to get streak-free windows.
- If you are looking to remove smells, here’s how.
Do you have any tips for spring cleaning your car? Let us know in the comments below.
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2 Tips: If you have access to a power washer, nothing else cleans floor mats as well. Cloth or rubber mats both . Vacuum first, then wash with soap and water and a semi-stiff bristle brush. Then back and forth with the power washer until the suds washing away aren’t brown. I use a 300 psi washer. It works well and has never damaged a mat over the last 25 years. Then hold the mat up against a wall and run the heel of the hand downward to squeeze any remaining wet and dirty water out and air dry them, preferably in the sun.
2: Pet hair is hard to remove from upholstery and carpets. Best bet. Buy a Pumie brand stone at the home improvement store, usually in cleaning supplies and great for stained toilets and sinks. Rub gently- no water- and it picks up hair like a magnet.
I’ve also found that simply wetting my finger tips with water and then running them across the carpet, scooping them toward one spot into a ball that’s easily picked up, is quick and really effective.
I’ve seen no mention of “Spot Shot” carpet cleaner in the article or the comments. Works great.
Great feedback. We will have an article about pet hair soon!
I flip many cars and have a target $$$ vehicle which is usually acquired for $500 – 2000. These are private owner cars that need repairs, either mechanical or medium body work. Most of the time – I make 2-3K in 1 weeks time. I personally pull the seats and carpet out and use my pressure washer – everytime comes out like new. Takes me about 1 hr to pull apart. Potential buyers love how clean and fresh. I have tried for hours using little upholstery machine – at the end of day this method faster better. I even pressure wash the seats with air bags and sensors- never had an issue – let them dry out in the hot AZ sun and all is good.
agree remove mats I spray them with carpet cleaner and power wash. when installing mats buy some cheep towels and put them under the mat to cover any exposed carpet area around the mat ,, keeps the carpeting from getting dirty .. install weather tech mats and you won’t have to clean them any more
This was better that the window washing tips.
Basically said to clean windows twice……..thanks
It was wash once, wipe twice. Geesh, get it straight man! Haha.
Compressed air is the best for cleaning out under the seats. Fast. Thorough. Easy on the back.
For those who live in places that use salt on the roads, the carpets get a salt-caked mark on them that can be hard to remove. I’ve had success using a mixture of water and vinegar 50/50. After a vacuum, spray on the vinegar mix, allow it to soak for a few minutes, lightly scrub with a brush, and vacuum with the wet vac. Then proceed with the shampoo process noted above. It should look almost new.
Thanks for the tip!
Do you have a trick for returning my ‘gray’ fabric floor mats back to black?
Short of replacing with new there’s a fabric paint that would extend the life of your mats. Once they are cleaned and dry they can be rolled up to expose the lower surface then paint. But the worn heel spots are there for ever and it’s a lot of work maybe easiest to replace.
I would never use anything more than a lens wipe on a touch screen. Any chemical spray is likely to cause clouding or degradation on the touch screen.
To remove stubborn pet hair use the Terri cloth towel very wet& rub briskly in multiple directions and use the shop back to suck up the hair. I have a fawn colored bulldog and her hair contrasts nicely to my black interior Tahoe. The water vinegar. Mix is useful; it is acetic acid & dissolves the salt well. Be sure to dilute it enough ,at least 50-50.
When cleaning the interior and especially the trunk, you should examine all the flexible gaskets, usually a rubber compound. If they are grimy, particularly where they meet metal or plastic parts, they deserve to be cleaned. Use a moderately stiff brush and a cleaning solution to remove the dirt. Then treat the rubber with a suitable preservative.
Hey Matt. Love these articles. I just read the glass article as well on which I have a question if I may. Sorry for being in the wrong article with this question. For very old automotive glass. Is there a way to get rid of Acid Rain. Thanks so much.
It depends how etched the water spots are into the glass. I would start by clay barring the glass, make sure you have lots of lubricant on the glass for the clay. If that doesn’t get it I would next try a mixture of half water half distilled white vinegar. Spray it all over the glass and let it sit a couple minutes for the acid to work. Then wipe off. You can also use lemon juice if literally a lemon cut in half. If that doesn’t work then there are lots of products made specifically to remove water spots, Meguiar’s, Stoner, Chemical Guys, Torque all sell a spray to remove them. Let us know if that works!
I really struggled getting my Weathertech mats clean. Then I tried their own cleaner and never looked back. It cleans well, cleans quickly, and leaves behind nothing slippery or greasy. Great product.
Thanks for the feedback!
My suggestion after clearing out all loose items is to use a battery leaf blower. I have the small m18 Milwaukee for example. Most dust & dirt exits car & trunk. Then, soft brush on vac hose gets the rest. Great for drying floor mats too!
Honestly, I had never thought of that. Cool idea, thanks.
I have used all of these with limited success. I worked with a guy who used to be a professional detailer. He always cleaned the floor mats by slapping out, and vacuuming, but then used a compressed air gun to shoot out the sand and dirt (We live in CT where there is a lot of grungy sand on everything in the winter months.) You of course must to wear eye protection when doing this. You would be amazed at how much more dirt comes out with the air gun after you have done your very best to clean the mats. I have also tried this with the carpets inside the vehicle with a vacuum to suck up the loosened dirt. This is a little difficult and could be hazardous.
Awesome, love that idea.
I use duct tape or packing tape to get the fine little things out of the carpet after a good vacuum.
Just press it down pull up and you’ll get all kind of stuff.
Use the compressed air gently, I’ve seen headliners that have been “dusted”.
Speaking of headliners the material you see is glued onto an acoustic board on late model vehicles. Unless you are sure the vacuum won’t separate the two, DON”T do this. I’ve seen that done and a headliner can be very difficult to get out, like removing the windscreen. Attaching that material back on the liner might be possible but I’ve never had any luck. Remove all the residue on the liner and paint it. Old used car lot trick.
Headliners are a whole other ballgame for sure. Will need to do an article on that maybe. Good tips, keep anything aggressive away from headliners.
Matt, I love detailing my cars. The best thing I ever purchased for the interior carpet is a professional exterior that heats the water. It’s Fabulous.
Which one do you prefer?