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Removing Seats for Heavy Interior Detailing
by Prentice St. Clair

In a previous article (American Clean Car, October, 1999), I shared some tips, tricks, and ideas that I have picked up over the years, mostly during informal chats with other detailers during workshops or annual conventions of the trade associations catering to our industry. In this follow-up article, I would like to discuss elaborate on one of those tips. We have all come across the customer who approaches us, exclaiming, "Oh, my car is simply a mess!" Upon examination, we find a relatively new vehicle in which several children have been allowed to eat, drink, spill, and litter, not to mention other smellier accidents. Another example is the situation in which a driver or passenger has spilled a beverage (e.g., a sugary soda or pulp-laden juice) between the front seats. Yet another example is the older vehicle who's owner is not necessarily sloppy, but is ready to spiff-up the vehicle, perhaps in preparation to sell or trade-in, after years of neglect. These are all examples of what I call "heavy interior detailing--" situations that turn a simple interior detail into a major project.

One of the ways to increase the effectiveness of heavy interior detailing is to remove the seats. For example, in a sedan, this may mean pulling out the two front seats and the rear seat bottom. In a mini-van this may mean pulling out the rear passenger seats, which in many cases are designed to be removable by the consumer anyway.

Removing the seats has many benefits. Especially in heavily soiled vehicles or in the case of spills between and under the seats, this is the most efficient way to clean the inside of the car. And in the case of an odor causing spill that has traveled under the seats, seat removal is imperative to remove all the odor causing contaminants. It may seam like removing the seats will take more time. In actuality, without the seats, the rest of the interior cleaning process is much easier due to better access to the soiled area and more room to work in the vehicle. Plus the seats are now outside the vehicle, making it easier to completely clean the sides, runners, and back of the seat. And in the case of upholstered seating, there is no worry about extractor solution over spray during cleaning. Finally, you now have full access to the center console that travels along the transmission hump.

If there have been spills into the center console, it is possible in many vehicles to remove the cover of the center console to gain better access to those spills. With a little investigation , you will find that many consoles are held in place by a few Phillips head screws and can be easily dismantled, using careful work. Place any screws or small parts into a re-closable plastic bag for safekeeping. Be aware that if the console has any kind of control switches, such as window controls, there will be wiring harnesses attached to the console--don't pull too hard as you remove the console. Many times you can gain enough access by simply lifting the console up or to the side while wiping the area or extracting the underlying carpeting. 

You may also encounter a spill that has "gummed up" the electronic controls in the center console so that they are stuck in one position or just work sluggishly. This is usually as a result of a sugary beverage, like cola. Upon drying, the sugar becomes a sticky mild adhesive that not only hinders the operation of the switch but also contaminates the electrical contacts. It is possible fix this problem by first spraying a mild solution of all purpose cleaner directly into the switch. Make sure the ignition is off when you do this to avoid electrical shorts. Allow the solution to dwell for a moment, then toggle the switch back and forth (or on-and-off, as the case may be), which works the solution into the switch. Now, using a crevice tool from your extractor or wet-dry shop vacuum, suck out the solution from all edges of the switch. Keep the suction going for a few moments to ensure that most of the moisture is pulled out. Now try the switch--if it works freely, turn on the car and check to see that the switch performs the proper function. If the switch is still sluggish or non-operational, repeat the procedure. If the switch still does not work, check the fuse box and replace any blown fuses (Note: Do you have a full set of replacement fuses available for customers that might need them?). If the switch still does not work, the problem is probably being cause by something other than the spill. However, this switch-cleaning technique has always worked for me, and think how much money you can save a customer who originally thought that a replacement switch would have to be purchased! Remember: if you fix the switch, charge extra for this extra service!

Removing the seats is relatively easy if you take your time and be careful. Front bucket seats are typically held down by four bolts on the ends of the runners at the base of the seat, two in the front and two in the back. These are removed using a socket wrench. Recognizing that these bolts were installed using pneumatic drivers, they may be rather tight, but with a long enough socket wrench and some oomph, it is almost always possible to loosen the bolts. Sometimes the bolts are covered by a decorative plastic molding, which is held in place by a screw or just pops off using a prying action with a slotted screwdriver. First, slide the seat to its rear-most position, exposing the front bolts. Remove these. Then, slide the seat to its forward-most position, exposing the rear bolts. Remove these. As you remove bolts and small parts, place them in a reclosable plastic bag for safekeeping. 

When all four bolts have been removed, gently tilt the seat either forward or back to reveal any wires that are connected to the underside of the seat (for seat position controls, heaters, seat belt sensors, etc.). Carefully unplug these wires, then remove the seat from the vehicle, taking care not to scratch door jambs or other surfaces as you lift out the seat. Cover the remaining wire harness with a plastic bag cinched with a rubber band. This will prevent water and cleaning solution from getting into the wiring harness.

Before replacing the seats, make sure to clean the seat runners as these are often overloaded with dust-collecting grease. But don't clean all the grease off because some is needed for the seat to operate correctly. Now, carefully lift the seat back into the vehicle, again making sure not to mar the door jambs or interior panels. On manually adjusted seats, sometimes during the cleaning process, the seat runners slide into different positions and upon replacing the seat you will notice that the runners do not line up over the bolt holes. Simply release the seat positioning bar (as if you were going to move the seat forward or back) and move the runner into the correct position.

Next, tilt the seat forward or back and re-attach all wiring harnesses. Let the seat back down and replace and hand tighten the bolts one at a time. You may have to jiggle the seat a bit so that the bolt fits into the hole. Once all four bolts have been replaced and fully hand-tightened, firmly tighten each bolt with the socket wrench. Move the seat forward or back as necessary to give yourself room. Remembering how tight they were upon removal, be sure to tighten them back down as far as possible. (It is 
critical that these bolts are secure, as they hold the seat to the car in an accident.) Replace any decorative plastic covers.

Back seat bottoms vary from vehicle to vehicle as far as how they pull out. For example, some have small release levers under the front of the seat. Some simply pull out by wedging your hand behind the seat bottom and yanking it out. Others have a pull handle in the middle where the seat belt receivers come out. And yet others are held in place by screws at the bottom edge near the foot wells.

Regardless of how they come out, in a heavy detail situation, you will no doubt find lots of goodies and dried-up spills under the rear seat bottom. Vacuum out the loose stuff. Then spray all purpose cleaner on any dried spills, and after allowing it to dwell for a few moments, wipe the area with a utility towel. If the spills are heavy, you may want to re-clean the area to make sure that all the foreign material is gone, otherwise re-moistening old spills with cleaning solution can re-activate old odors. Also check and clean if necessary the edges of the seat bottom that are not normally visible when the seat is in place.

Sport utility vehicles and station wagons almost always have rear seats that fold forward. The area behind these seats is often a collection place for food and other debris, as well as spills. So make sure to check and clean this area just as you would after removing a stationary rear seat.

Optional BOX: After completing a heavy interior detail job, many customers, embarrassed by the uncleanness of their vehicle, will make some apologetic comment such as, "sorry about all the old French fries and other food." To lighten things up a bit, I respond, "Oh, no problem. We just put it all in boiling water and made soup for lunch!"

For those of you thinking, "well, that seems to be an awful lot of work for what I get for an interior detail," remember that we are talking about heavy interior detailing requiring extra labor hours--and you should charge a premium for this service. I have often raised an eyebrow when I mention what I typically charge for a heavy interior detail that includes seat removal.

Copyright 1999, Prentice St. Clair.

First Published in the January, 2000 issue of American Clean Car 
(Volume 29, Number 1)


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