At CARiD, we sell a lot of tonneau covers because we're real believers in their benefits, and because we offer a broader selection than our competitors. We also use many different styles and makes of vinyl tonneau covers on our own trucks for demonstration purposes, and we've learned quite a bit about them.
There is one thing of which we are 100% certain: when it comes to making sure they last longer, keeping the vinyl cover material properly cleaned and conditioned is absolutely, positively the best way to stave off age-related wear. And we mean wear to the point where you look at the tonneau cover one day and notice just how faded, dried up and unattractive it has become when you weren't paying attention.
Specifically, we've found that no matter what brand of tonneau cover is fitted to your truck, the sooner you start protecting it with the right cleaners/protectors, the longer it will last. Unfortunately, there isn't much that can be done to reverse damage once it occurs. Vinyl tonneau covers are treated during their manufacturing process to repel water and other contaminants, but when that initial treatment wears off, the cover material is left bare to the elements.
It's important to remember that the horizontal layout of tonneau covers makes it virtually impossible for them to deflect dust, sap, bird droppings, or any other contaminants that settle on the surface. Yes, tonneau covers get dirty quickly.
Also working against them is the black color of the vinyl material, which absorbs direct sunlight instead of reflecting it. Because of this, the vinyl reaches higher temperatures - increasing the detrimental effect of any foreign contaminants that build up on the surface. And if your tonneau cover sees more shade than sun, the soft and textured nature of the vinyl material can allow mildew or mold to grow over time if it's not properly cared for.
The environment, climate, and usage a tonneau cover faces will determine how long that initial factory coating on the vinyl will last. When its strength starts to fade, rain and regular washings will begin to leave puddles or damp spots because water has penetrated the surface. When you see this, the time is now to start treating and protecting your tonneau cover.
While simple washes with a gentle shampoo once a week are recommended, protecting your tonneau cover properly involves monthly applications with a vinyl cleaner that's also designed to remove ground-in dirt, grime, and mold growth while leaving a protective coating. Many vinyl "cleaners" on the market clean without protecting, and many vinyl "protectors" can leave a coating that protects without thoroughly cleaning first.
If you're using a vinyl treatment product without the right mix of cleaners and protectants, soft tonneau cover material can lose the ability to retain tension. This means sags and permanent wrinkles can develop - creating low spots that trap water in such a way that it doesn't drain easy or naturally. We've experienced it. That's why we've selected the best products especially formulated for tonneau covers that protect and clean at the same time - making them extremely easy to use because they require only one application.
We've got Extang's Tonno Tonic, TruXedo's Pro-Tex Soft Tonneau Protectant Spray, and TonnoPro's ProClean Tonneau Cover Cleaner. Each of these will effectively remove dirt and mold while leaving a coating of special moisturizers that permeate deep down into the cover material to prevent drying and cracking.
In addition, these cleaners leave a layer that protects your cover from the harmful effects of UV rays, airborne pollutants, acid rain, bird droppings, and other contaminants. Water repellence levels will be restored to factory specifications, and your tonneau cover will stay looking shiny and feeling supple the way it did when new.
All of these cleaners/protector sprays can be used on any vinyl tonneau cover - plus they're also very effective on other automotive areas such as vinyl roof coverings, vinyl seats, dashboards, or trim. They're even great for rubber and fiberglass too.
After washing your cover with soap and water, we recommend you apply any of these protectants to a dry tonneau cover in a shaded area - not in direct sunlight. The application of several light and even coats is most effective, and you should avoid saturating the vinyl material by pouring directly from the bottle onto the cover.
On a side note, while you're right there working on your truck, another thing you can do to prevent water pooling and maximize the lifespan of your cover is to make sure all bolts, clamps, and mounting hardware are tightly anchored in place. Loose hardware can cause a cover to droop and age before its time the same way not protecting it can. If your tonneau cover slides, it should open and close smoothly. If it doesn't, add some lubricant to reduce friction levels.
Once you begin treating and protecting your pickup's vinyl tonneau cover with regularity, you'll gain the deep-seated satisfaction that comes from knowing you've improved the overall looks of your truck and increased the longevity of a tonneau cover you bought with your hard-earned money. Congratulations, because you've extended the lifespan of the tonneau cover, and improved the value of your truck!