How To: Detail Your Engine Like a Professional
One of the most overlooked aspects of car care and detailing is our engine bay. Why? Because when you polish paint, there is no fear of damaging a $283 sensor or having water go into your intake, causing potential engine failure. Take a second and think back to the first time you started researching paint correction and the proper steps necessary to ensure success. At first, the thought of touching your precious paint with a power tool made you cringe, until you learned that, like anything else, there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. Fast forward to present time and try to imagine going without your Flex XC3401 or Porter Cable 7424xp and picture all the swirls, water spots and scratches that you previously ignored until you discovered a machine polisher. Now if that doesn't make you cringe, nothing will.
Step outside for a minute, pop the hood on your engine bay and take a look at what you see. Unless you're one of the few that details their engine bay on a regular basis, what you're going to see is dirt, grease, and more dirt. At this point you're probably asking yourself; "How have I neglected to clean my engine all this time?!" And the answer is simple; you didn't know how. With this guide and a little help from one my favorite product lines - Detailer's Pro Series - you'll be on the fast track to an engine bay that's as clean as your BBS wheels that you meticulously detail after every wash. Overview
This is what your typical engine looks like on a daily driver. There is literally years upon years of built up dirt and grease. *Warning: These pictures are not for the faint of heart.*
Looks pretty nasty, right? Let's dig a little deeper and zoom in. What to be aware of
Modern engines are complicated machines that are monitored by various computers all ran through a complex electrical system. While most of these components can safely get wet, you want to err on the side of caution and cover them up when detailing an engine. Components to cover up on a modern car:
- Coil Packs
- Electronic Control Unit (ECU)
- On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) Port
- Air Intake Systems (Exposed)
- HID Ballasts (Headlights)
- Alarm Housing
- Electircal Plugs
Now if you look at the above list and go "HUH?!" Don't worry! You don't have to be an ASE certified mechanic to safely detail an engine. You can pretty much narrow that list down to three key things:
- Air Intake Systems (Exposed)
- Electrical Plugs
To make it simple, an alternator is the heart of your vehicle's electrical system. On most vehicles this is a very expensive component to replace. The alternator is generally easy to locate and regardless of the vehicle, they all look the same. *Photo courtesy of HowStuffWorks "Auto"*
The air intake, as the name implies, is how the engine breathes. Air goes through a filter and is fed into the engine. Most new vehicles have an air intake system that's not exposed. If your vehicle has an aftermarket air intake system, it will be exposed. If your air intake is exposed, simply cover it up with a grocery bag. You do not want water going into your air intake when you detail your engine.
And the last thing to look out for are electrical plugs. A modern engine is filled with dozens of electrical plugs that run various sensors. Below are two very dirty examples of what an electrical plug looks like. Covering up the important stuff
An effective means of covering electrical plugs is with saran wrap and masking tape
where needed. This will ensure no unwanted components will get wet when you detail an engine.
It's better to spend a couple extra minutes doing it the right way. It doesn't have to look pretty for photographic reasons.
To cover major electrical components when detailing an engine, aluminum foil works best. Aluminum foil is easy to work with and although it doesn't create a watertight seal, it still protects components from getting wet. When you're cleaning an engine, you'll be using a gentle stream of water, not a full blast. The components aren't getting dunked in pool so they don't have to have a watertight seal.
Alternator covered with aluminum foil. Remember, when detailing an engine, you don't want the alternator to get wet.
To play it safe, you should also wrap the dipstick with masking tape or saran wrap when detailing an engine. Getting started
First and foremost: Never detail a hot engine.
Once the necessary components are covered up, it's time to get started! Start by spraying a low-pressure stream of water all over the engine. You do not want to spray a high-pressure stream of water when detailing an engine.
The goal with the initial rinse is to remove loose dirt and grease. The Good Stuff - Doing it right the first time
If you've read any of my previous how-to articles, then you already know I'm an advocate of working smart
, and not hard. When it comes time to cleaning anything with dirt, grease or grime, I like to use a product that's strong enough to clean effectively, but I also don't want to use a product that has a harsh chemical smell. The obvious cleaner of choice for this how-to article was Detailer's Engine Degreaser
Detailer's Engine Degreaser doesn't overwhelm your senses with a harsh chemical smell, but at the same time it has the power to cut through grease and grime without a struggle. Its formula is VOC compliant and biodegradable. What sets Detailer's Engine Degreaser apart from other degreasers is the fact that its formula doesn't contain any butyl ethers or acidic detergents, which means its safe on rubber, plastic, clear coated and painted surfaces.
Simply spray Detailer's Engine Degreaser on every dirty surface in the engine bay, let it dwell for a couple minutes, and then start cleaning!
The brush of choice for the majority of the cleaning was the Mothers Wheel Brush
. Don't let the name of this brush fool you because it can clean anything. It features bristles that are tightly packed together and a soft, ergonomic rubber handle. For around $7, you simply can't beat it.
To clean the nooks and crannies, I once again relied on Mothers. The Mothers Detail Brush
features feathered nylon bristles attached to a soft, ergonomic rubber handle. As an added bonus, the brush features a rubber tip which works great for removing dried on wax out of seams. This brush is a must-have for engine detailing.