Mobile auto engine steam-clearing in the Portland OR area?
August 30, 2013 11:58 AM   Subscribe

We have a car that can't be started following a serious oil leak. The mechanic in the family has requested me to find someone who will steam-clean the engine on a mobile basis. I called a bunch of places, but none of them makes house calls, except for a guy who does pressure-washing, which our mechanic says won't work—the pressure will damage the electrical components of our elderly VW Vanagon. Do you know of anyone in the Portland OR area who does mobile steam-cleaning? Or another way to degrease the engine besides towing the car to the steam-cleaning place and back?
posted by ottereroticist to Travel & Transportation (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can buy a steam cleaner for $135 (or less with coupons), if you want to try it yourself.
posted by yohko at 12:36 PM on August 30, 2013

A big reason no-one does this is environmental rules and concerns. When you wash a car, all that water goes somewhere, and when you steam clean a dirty engine that now fairly dirty, oil laden water is going somewhere, usually into the nearest storm drain, and that is bad. Usually the water runoff from someone washing their car in the driveway isn't that big a deal in and of itself but when you get a whole metro area doing it even the fairly clean wash water from a typical session can become problematic.

car wash facilities and car shop wash racks all (supposed to anyway) drain to the sewer, not the storm drain, where that water can be cleaned before release to the environment (probably the Willamette river for most of Portland). So my suggestion is

1. IF you have a lawn or some gravel area with no direct connection to the storm drain, get a spray bottle of simple green (I use one of the pump up pesticide sprayers that has never had anything buy simple green in it) and thoroughly spritz the engine (works better if engine is a little warm but not at full temperature) than let it set till the engine is cool (about an hour) and spray off with the hose. You may get water in some parts that don't like it and if the car doesn't start right away afterwards let it set for a few hours and it should be fine. You want a lawn or gravel area so that now oil and solvent laden water will soak into the ground or at least get filtered out and normal soil biological processes will clean up the gunk pretty good.

2. (even better) drive to a close car wash, spritz with simple green than rinse off the engine using the wand at the DIY car wash. Same thing about the engine getting wet however and you do NOT want to spray a hot engine with cold water as you get cracked blocks, head, and exhaust manifolds that way (why i said a close car wash-a warm to the touch but not hot engine is fairly safe to spray down and the warmer grease/oil/grime will rinse off much easier and simple green is more effective if warm).
posted by bartonlong at 12:55 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just spray the parts you are working on with brake clean. There's no reason to steam clean unless you are showing the car indoors. Please put cardboard under the area to catch all the drips, and throw it away when done.

Also, yahko's steam cleaner might work for fabrics, but I don't see it doing diddly for engine grease.
posted by flimflam at 2:10 PM on August 30, 2013

The units most shops that do engine steam cleaning use put out about 5 times the steam energy of the small home unit linked by yohko above; I wouldn't expect it to be effective in cleaning an engine bay sprayed with motor oil, on a DIY basis.

The point of steam cleaning the engine is so that a mechanic will have a fairly clean engine to start with, which will greatly aid in finding and fixing additional leaks. Thus, it's important that the engine actually be clean when the process is finished. Otherwise, you've just wasted your time and money getting it "cleaner," and steam cleaning is the clear winner for getting through oil and grease, with as little damage to adjacent plastics, rubber parts and other finishes as possible. For similar reasons of effectiveness, and for the possible damage to adjacent paint areas that spraying a lot of brake cleaner around could do, I can't endorse solvent based cleaning, either.

If the vehicle can't be started and driven, your best bet for cleaning the engine bay effectively, to the point of being helpful in diagnosis of other oil and fluid leaks, is to have it towed to a shop that does professional steam engine cleaning, and, if necessary, then to the shop that will do the mechanical work. If you deliver a properly cleaned engine to them, it's on the mechanic to efficiently diagnose the problems, and return the unit to you without new oil being sprayed all over the engine bay again, in repairs.
posted by paulsc at 2:28 PM on August 30, 2013

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