laundry detergent spill in car
March 11, 2023 4:01 PM   Subscribe

My partner has been having a long and bad day that culminated in a half gallon of laundry detergent spilling in the back seat floor well of their new car. Is this a project we can solve with a wet vac and some time or should we go to a professional?

There still is a fair amount of detergent in the foot well and it has flowed down from just in front of the driver's side back seat to below the driver's seat. It's enough that almost all of that area will slightly foam if you push down on it. The scent isn't too bad but I'm a bit worried about it gumming up or corroding something.

Also how urgent is the clean up process? Given what else has happened today I really want to just deal with this tomorrow or next week. Is that advisable?

My first instinct is to go to a car wash that has a shop vac attachment thingy and then try to dilute/suction up the remaining detergent. Is there a better way? Who would clean this up professionally?
posted by crossswords to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The urgency is less about "it's detergent" and more about "it's very wet." Can you park it somewhere where it's safe to leave all the windows open? When you drive it, will you be able to run the heat full blast and keep all the windows open? The #1 thing you want to do is get it dry, ASAP.

My car was flooded in January -- though more seriously than what you're describing -- and I've been caught in an insurance nightmare so it hasn't been fixed yet. I've mitigated *most* of the interior trauma by vacuuming it out myself at a car self-wash place + having it detailed (at a regular car wash) + parking it with windows open almost always + driving with the windows down almost always. I also put air freshener packets all over the place. I *think* there isn't mold or mildew under the rug...but also I'm not gonna know for sure until my insurance gets it ripped out.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:20 PM on March 11, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think it's an emergency. Many years ago I interned at a commercial semi-truck company and worked in the interior coatings lab. We threw much worse at anything we would qualify for the interiors (vomit, industrial chemicals, etc.). Although I'm sure the consumer-automotive guys have a different list, laundry detergent is fairly benign. They would be negligent engineers if they didn't plan for liquid sloshing around the bottom of the car, and liquids like soda pouring down from the drivers seat.

I would try to clean it up eventually, it will attract gunk and moisture that over the long term (years) could accelerate corrosion but you can deal with it next weekend.
posted by Narrow Harbor at 4:29 PM on March 11, 2023 [5 favorites]

Half a gallon? Tomorrow I'd take it to car detailer to be professionally cleaned.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 4:30 PM on March 11, 2023 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't consider this a "today or tomorrow" emergency but I would take it to a detailer within a week.

I suggest the professionals because laundry detergent is SO concentrated. I've spilled it on a tile floor and it was a nightmare to clean because it just. kept. sudsing. I would hope a detailer has stronger vacuums and better techniques for rinsing it out than DIYing it.
posted by misskaz at 4:30 PM on March 11, 2023 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Not an emergency. When clean up time comes I'd rent a rug doctor with their upholstery wand. Their two tank system would probably work better than a shop vac as it is designed for soapy water.
posted by Mitheral at 4:34 PM on March 11, 2023 [7 favorites]

You won't be able to dilute it enough to make it all go away: laundry soap is designed to make a whole laundry tub sudsy.

Also, soap itself is clean, but it attracts dirt. (That's why it cleans things. Dirt is more attracted to soap than to the clothes.) So if it's in a place that can be stepped on, that place will get dirty. (A bit of soap was spilled by, er, someone, on the carpeted stairs of our building. That spot got extremely dirty over the months.)
posted by zompist at 4:41 PM on March 11, 2023 [6 favorites]

I would call the consumer help line for the manufacturer of the detergent (Proctor and Gamble?) and also for the car manufacturer. They may or should have a recommendation for how to clean this up. As an answer above, I had a business school friend who worked for a large consumer products company who used to tell me stories about all the testing they did on how their products affected various things around the house such as wall to wall carpeting with a pad under, as well as how remove their products.

I do not think time is critical if you define time as less than a week.

If it were me, I would take the following steps:

1. Have a glass of my favorite adult beverage (beer).
2. Have another glass.
3. Tomorrow I would try calling the manufacturers. (Might have to wait until Monday).
4. Using paper towels or regular towels that can be discarded (such as terry cloth shop towels) I would try to absorb as much as possible.
5. Get a rug doctor (first choice) and try to such up as much as possible. (Shop vac, 2nd choice.)
6. Get some DampRid (or similar product) that absorbs moisture. Place that in the car.
7. Execute the suggestions of the manufacturers.

I would also call my insurance company (both car and home owners) and see if they will cover remediation. For example, would they pay for the car dealer to remove and re-install new carpeting? While labor and time intensive, it is not that hard to do. (Ask me why I know this and I will tell you about having 3 kids in 30 months who at the age of say 3, 4, and 5 spilled all sorts of things onto a minivan carpet/floor)

Relax, this too shall pass.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:22 PM on March 11, 2023 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You could take it to a detailer, but you can also use the wetdry vac for a lot. First get an extractor-style carpet tool and go over it well. Then spray with water until wet and vacuum again. Repeat until no suds. Three are also $100 mini-extractors by Bissell that a lot of detailers start out with and work very well. You don't mention the car, but in increasing order of difficulty you can remove the driver's seat, or remove all of them and take the carpet up entirely and clean that part of the car down to the metal.
posted by rhizome at 5:22 PM on March 11, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Layer of paper towels now, and later use a liquid de-foamer (Core, Diversey, etc.) for carpet cleaning; technique demonstrated here: "cleaned up a gallon of spilled laundry detergent in customer's car."
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2023 [15 favorites]

Years ago I used a shop vac and TONS of water to clean a small detergent spill out of a carpet. I was never able to get it all up and the spot remained a sticky attractor-of-dirt for the rest of its days. I would 100% take it to a professional.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:51 PM on March 11, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: After you clean it up, don't put the rags in the washing machine. Especially do not put the rags in the washing machine if it is not HE detergent and your washing machine requires HE detergent. Sorry if that seems obvious, but it was not obvious to me, until the scene straight out of a 1980s comedy, at which point it was instantly very very room-fillingly obvious.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:01 PM on March 11, 2023 [25 favorites]

Best answer: So, the liquid detergent is in the passenger seat foot well behind the drivers' seat, and has spread to under the drivers' seat. You will want to take ten minutes to stop it from migrating further toward the drivers' footwell. You do not want this to spread further.

Here is the ten minutes work: go get some clean hand towels, bath towels, or other absorbent clean laundry. (You could use dirty laundry, but I would tend towards using clean laundry.) Put these items on the floor the car wherever the liquid detergent has spilled. For the under the seat part, stuff the towels in there so they are pressed down on the wet. Place a clean towel at the edges of the spill so it absorbs and the soap doesn't go further toward where the drivers' feet go. It would help absorption if you place something heavy on the passenger foot well towels. Don't use something you care about because it might get soapy. Leave this towel absorption system in place until tomorrow.

Tomorrow, bring a large plastic garbage bag out to the car. Pull the soapy towels up and put them in the bag. (You can later throw these towel into loads of laundry one at a time, sans additional soap, to use up/get rid of the soap. Some, you might have to wash alone two or three times to get the soap out. Still easier to do that than doing it to your car's carpet.) If the carpet is still soaked with soap, you will need some more dry towels. Repeat the process until the carpet is as dry of liquid detergent as possible.

The key here is not to add any water, or other liquid, to the spilled detergent until you have soaked up as much as possible. When your carpet seems just gummy, not wet with detergent, then you can consider the detailer/carpet cleaner dilemma. Whoever is going to do the final cleaning will need to add huge amounts of rinse water and suck it up to get the soap out. It may indeed be cheaper to have the carpet removed, the floor rinsed and dried, and the carpet replaced.

During this process it is best if you can leave some windows down a bit, if you can park inside. There is some possibility that the amount of moisture from the detergent will cause mold all over the inside of your car if you leave it too long. Source: just had a car totaled by the insurance company because someone tried to pry open the moon roof, got it open a quarter inch, it rained, water leaked in, the sun came out, mold grew, the insurance company paid me for the car rather than spend $15,000 plus to replace the entire interior and ac system. Also, source: used to sell P & G soap and detergent for a living, had to deal with sample spills in my company car.

Just try to get up as much of the wet as you can, then in a couple of days reevaluate what needs to be done.
posted by KayQuestions at 7:20 PM on March 11, 2023 [9 favorites]

I would use a squeegee and a dustpan to scoop up as much as possible without adding any water. Then I would blot with paper towels/paper shop towels, something to throw away, not wash. Then I would take it to the cleaner.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:52 PM on March 11, 2023 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all for the advice, carpet is currently being blotted with towels. We will be using a friend's shop vac tomorrow to try and rinse the residual out with copious, copious amounts of water.
posted by crossswords at 11:24 PM on March 11, 2023

That rinse will take many fewer repeats if you pay at least as much attention to getting as much dampness out the carpet as possible after each pass as you did before you even started rinsing.

Successive dilution to one part per million takes six rinses if each rinse dilutes to one part in ten, but only three if each rinse dilutes to one part in a hundred. And the difference in residual volume between a tenth and a hundredth of the volume of any practical amount of rinse water is really not very big, so quite small amounts of attention paid to vacuuming and blotting between rinses save surprising amounts of time.

Also, you want lots of movement during each rinse: you don't achieve a successive dilution effect if you're just making the tide lap gently at the shores of Stain Island each time. Tsunamis or gtfo.

On the upside, detergent will fight less hard than any other stain against incorporating itself into your rinse water.
posted by flabdablet at 5:56 AM on March 12, 2023 [2 favorites]

I don't think you'll be able to get all of this out without pulling up the carpet and underlay. I doubt just blotting it from the top will be able to remove the liquid all the way through the layers. Most cars require the front seats to be removed for this - usually not particularly difficult, but access can be awkward and there may be multiple electrical plugs under the seat that need to be removed.

There are two reasons it's important to get the detergent completely out of the carpet and underlayers - there are likely electrical components and/or connections under there that will corrode over time in the presence of any moisture and some detergents are corrosive themselves, so may attack electrical connections faster and may also attack other components of the car.

You don't need to pay a professional unless you're not comfortable removing the seats. Everything else is easy and you can probably find a how-to for your car on YouTube.
posted by dg at 5:47 PM on March 12, 2023

Response by poster: For future readers, it turned out to be much easier than I expected. We sopped up as much as we could in towels (which were hand washed in a sink afterwards). The remainder was diluted by pouring about a pint of water over a spot at a time and sucking it up with the rug doctor (turns out friend has rug doctor and not shop vac). After 10-15 gallons and ~2 hours the floor was no longer sudsy or slimy. Then we used about a family of five's worth of beach towels to get rid of residual dampness. It's rainy here but the car will get a nice long drive with the heater running tomorrow and Tuesday to let the floor dry.

Thanks all for the answers, my partner and I are both immensely relieved.
posted by crossswords at 7:06 PM on March 12, 2023 [8 favorites]

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