Steam Clean

by James Berenback and Matthew duMoulin

A protected boat is a happy boat, especially if it’s also a green, eco-friendly craft. In the past decade, “going green” has grown increasingly popular. Most everyone would like to do their part to help sustain our natural resources, especially if doing so is not a burden. Now, it’s possible to clean your boat and do it in a more environmentally sound manner.

Until recently, the simplest, most effective way to scrub your marine investment was to have a cleaning service power wash the boat. Alternatively, boat owners could purchase the proper equipment and apply a hose and elbow grease. However, with the introduction of steam cleaning, the marine industry has a new, ‘greener’ way to keep watercraft looking sharp, while also helping to keep the environment clean.

Power washing uses water under pressure. Steam cleaning uses heated water under pressure. And there the similarities between the two methods end. Power washing has long been a tried and true treatment. The idea is that the pressure of the water, combined with marine-safe boat soap, delivers maximum cleaning power with minimal effort.

Less Power, More Surfaces

But hatch covers, dock and anchor lines, vinyl seating, and delicate surfaces near a craft’s console and interior can’t always withstand power washing’s 1000-plus pound per square inch (PSI) pressure or the massive quantity of water required. Power washing is a great tool for the hull and cockpits of open-console motorboats, and may be easy on your back, but it often falls short when it comes to the finer details.

As a result, and as the attention of marinas, boatyards and boat owners has slowly shifted to safe and green practices, steam has become an increasingly popular way to clean and sanitize a broad variety of marine surfaces. Steam uses less water and does away altogether with soaps and detergents. The difference makes steam safer for gel coatings, fiberglass, metal, plastic, rubber, vinyl, nylon, leather and vinyl among a vast range of surface materials.

Many steam cleaners output a cone of steam at 116 PSI, far less than the 1000+ PSI power washers use, and at temperatures between 120 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, steam’s moisture content is adjustable, usually from about 5 to 50 percent. This allows steam to more effectively clean not only boats’ exteriors but their interior surfaces as well by customizing the moisture to the level best for each surface.

Breaking the Mold

In fact, interiors are where steam really shines as steam can safely and effectively clean AND disinfect interiors, removing even mold and mildew, using low levels of moisture. One steam cleaning company, SJE Corp., even claims to have used its treatment to reduce the bacteria count on a car’s dashboard by more than 99 percent.

Some cleaners, like Team Steam, my own firm, combine effective steam cleaning methods with eco-friendly, made-in-the-USA products, and additional services to generate a consistent, safe, affordable clean. From the moment we examine a boat to determine an estimate, we design a custom package to address the boat’s needs and our customer’s budget.

If it’s the beginning of the season, a quality steam cleaning will serve as the first step in polishing the exterior gel coat if a polishing is needed. Next, a good cleaner will likely recommend two coats of high-quality carnauba wax or a synthetic sealant to the hull. This gives the gel coat almost a season’s worth of protection. After this initial protection, maintenance on the exterior is fairly simple. As long as the gel coat stay’s protected, all that’s needed is a good water hosing to get off all the salt and halt corrosion. This is recommended weekly, either by a cleaning service or the owner, to ensure there’s no opportunity for corrosive salt, acidic bird poop, or other substances to build up and have time to erode the protection.

For exterior cleanings, a steamer is typically set to its highest moisture setting. This ensures more water comes in contact with the gel coat to remove the salt. If your boat is out of the water or on a two-sided dock, the more professional cleaning services like to apply a spray wax to enhance the hull’s existing protection as well as its gloss. This leaves the hull continuously protected and looking it’s best.

Above the Rub Rail

Maintenance becomes a bit more intensive above the rub rail. Since boats are constantly exposed to the elements, they not only need to stay clean but protected, preferably by marine-specific protectants especially against ultraviolet (UV) light radiation (the same range that causes skin cancers) and oxidation. These are the two main contributors to surface fading. To protect against them and ensure a boat stays in top condition, every surface possible should ideally be treated once every three to four weeks.

Marine protectants contain special synthetic polymer blends that form extremely thin protective layers over each treated surface to block UV damage and corrosion. Our own vinyl protectant, for example, has an SPF rating of 65, far higher than most of the skin sunscreens used each summer.

Because the marine environment is a wet environment, it’s a natural haven for mold and mildew. Keeping a boat clean and protected minimizes its susceptibility to both these nuisances. A good cleaning service will take the utmost care to make sure its products resist the growth of mold and mildew while also protecting against UV radiation and oxidation.

If your boat has mold or mildew, look for a cleaning service that can remediate the problem and guard against its return, preferably with EPA-approved mold and mildew products, and a disinfecting application of steam. Steam cleaning helps remove mold and mildew, and disinfect tight spaces and porous materials, while the steam pressure clears out pores and disinfects surfaces.

Priced to Clean

Pricing, as should be apparent, varies tremendously, depending both used on the services a quality steam cleaner offers and the steamer it uses. Their services start with and depend on an examination of the boat, itself, taking into account its condition and mold or mildew infestation, if any. For routine weekly or bi-weekly cleanings, an owner can expect to pay, depending on a boat’s condition, from $10 to $35 per lineal foot for washing, waxing and polishing services.

Moving inside, interior steam cleanings on a fairly clean boat with no mold or mildew typically hover around $55 per man-hour. Boats with some mold and mildew will range from $65 to $100, while craft infested in mold and mildew prow to stern will be near the $100 to $120/man-hour range, as effective remediation for such levels is a much more labor-intensive process.

Small, do-it-yourself, electric-powered steamers start at a few hundred dollars. Commercial steamers can cost up to and over $8,000. The costlier ones are usually made of stainless steel, including the boilers, feature superior pressure and temperature controls, and come with a variety of accessories. Most, like those from Dupray Industries and Dailmer, also run on electricity. However, the Optima DMF and some other top steamers, run on diesel.

So, power washer and/or steamer? Power washing is most effective on the exterior of a boat, but offers few advantages elsewhere. Steam is a more useful tool as it allows you to clean with less water and product, clean a huge variety of surfaces, and disinfect and deodorize while doing so. In fact, this detail-oriented cleaning methodology is picking up steam


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