Grass Valley steam-powered car detailer to appear on Leno’s car website |

Grass Valley steam-powered car detailer to appear on Leno’s car website

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

After graduating from Bear River High School two years ago, T.J. O’Brien remembers the look his friends gave him when he said wasn’t set on college.

Today, at 20 years old, he’s already getting hit up for jobs by some of those same friends as his steam-powered auto detailing business picks up speed.

On Saturday, O’Brien is expected to meet with famed host of NBC’s “Tonight Show” Jay Leno at Leno’s garage to film a segment on the famed car-enthusiast’s website, “Jay Leno’s Garage” — which contains video clips and photos of his nearly 200 automobiles, as well as video of car-related items and people.

“I’m really stoked,” O’Brien said. “This interview is going to be a slam dunk for me.”

O’Brien runs the budding TJ’s Auto Spa, a detailing business that is moving into a new location in Grass Valley in April. At the shop, O’Brien uses a green steam device to detail vehicles, inside and out.

Since he was a baby, autos have brought O’Brien joy. His parents have told him that as an infant, a car ride would ease his wails, and by 5 years old, he was building elaborate vehicular cities for his toy automobiles.

In high school, O’Brien recalls a friend had a dirty car, and he offered to clean it for $20. It wasn’t long before he was riding his bike to polish cars with a backpack full of supplies. For his senior project, O’Brien restored a 1968 Mustang funded by his detailing work, which he operated out of the trunk of that same vehicle.

After high school, O’Brien wasn’t sure what to do next — until he purchased the steamer he found on Facebook.

“Everything happened very, very fast,” O’Brien said.

With the help of The Hub Society, a Nevada County club dedicated to passing on the skills of automotive history, O’Brien opened a shop off Crown Point Circle in June. Already, he has outgrown it.

“My business is on a roll,” O’Brien laughed.

A traditional running-water car detailing operation can use more than 40 gallons per vehicle. O’Brien boasts that his devices use a mere 2 to 5 gallons, depending on the level of detail.

In an eight-hour day, O’Brien will use only 8 gallons of water and just a gallon of diesel fuel, said James Long, head of The Hub Society.

From the mobile machine runs a hose to a gas pump-looking nozzle. Out of that nozzle billows steam, similar to a pressure washer, yet it won’t chip the paint.

But it will lift dirt, kill mold and polish the wheel wells, engines and interiors.

Watching O’Brien detail a Honda CR-V in what resembles a cloud pouring from the machine’s nozzle, Long said, “It draws people in when he is outside doing it.”

It’s even great for removing bumper stickers, O’Brien noted.

“If you make a political mistake, we can help you with that, too,” Long joked.

O’Brien’s cleaning sprouted to other endeavors. With the aid of his Nikon camera, the young entrepreneur is also raking it in staging vehicles for sale.

“It’s like staging for real estate,” Long explained.

After O’Brien steams away neglect and polishes vehicles like new, inside and out, he photographs near-magazine quality images and even writes up all the automotive specific details for advertising.

TJ’s Auto Spa is relocating to Joerschke Drive, near Bitney College Prep and Smiley Guys Smokehouse, in early April.

The new spot will be a split space shared with The Hub Society and Super Steam LC, which will look for other applications for the steam technology.

“This technology is applicable in a lot of areas,” Long said. “It’s a good way to meet a lot of needs in a simple way.”`

In around six to eight months, O’Brien hopes the Leno video will be posted and his business will continue to pick up speed, he said.

TJ’s Auto Spa’s website,, is expected to be up and running this weekend. Until then, visit his Facebook page or call 530-961-6708 for information.

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email or call 530-477-4236.

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