By Douglas Smith

Summary: Professionals in the water reclamation and recycling industry have a tremendous opportunity to offer products to the burgeoning market of car wash businesses. And demand will only grow as time passes and more car wash operators are compelled by their consciences––or local governmental officials––to address the need to reclaim and recycle car wash wastewater.

A recent notification from the International Carwash Association (ICA) stated that the organization will be spending about half a million dollars to address growing environmental problems facing the car wash industry. These include severe drought and increased water regulation.

Whether or not to install water reclamation and recycling equipment may no longer be the question for owners of car wash operations nationwide. The question to pose now may be, “When must I install a system?”

Why recycle?
The challenges inherent in the decision to move toward reclaiming and recycling car wash water have been coming to light in the past few years as more car wash owners find they must comply with new local regulations.

Reasons for these include local geography/geology, groundwater quality, water resources, drought patterns, water treatment by local authorities, types and availability of water sewage systems, water and sewer utility costs, pressure by environmentalists and federal or state mandates. Regardless, the industry is compelled to deal with it. An examination of these issues offers clear indication for the car wash industry to move forward—and not hesitate—in efforts to reclaim and recycle.

This past year, in particular, has been so dry in the U.S. Southeast and Southwest—as well as some of the mid-Atlantic and north central states—that in some areas car washes were shut down unless they employed reclaim and recycle equipment. In many other cases, car washes were forced to limit the hours during which they operated.

Restrictions on water use
With some restrictions put on individual use of water, consumers in a drought-ridden area may want to wash cars at home but find hours allowing such activity so restrictive they rely on car wash operations. While such facilities that reclaim and recycle their wastewater aren’t widespread yet, they’re on the increase for a variety of reasons.

There are restrictions placed on home car washing that cannot be disputed. According to industry experts, compared to a self-service operation, which utilizes an average of 25 gallons per vehicle, the home car wash averages 75-to-150 gallons per car! Note, however, that the self-service car wash averages much less than full-service car wash operations, which utilize about 45-to-50 gallons per vehicle.

Another reason experts give to not wash vehicles at home is strictly environmental. Home washing damages the environment, not only by wasting water, but also allowing the dirty wash water to flow into storm drains, or into the ground, thus polluting the soil.

In North Carolina, a county department of environmental protection officially recommends that cars be washed in approved car washes because state statutes prohibit discharge to the storm system of pollutants, such as motor oil, lubricants, salt, dirt, soaps, detergents and cleaning chemicals, to ground or surface waters.

One Florida car wash owner, who has recycled water with different equipment for over a decade, suggests car washes are targeted for negative public perception because they’re so obvious. “Although some water conservationists might consider car wash operators ‘the bad guys,’” he said, “studies show that, depending upon the car wash system being used, 10 cars at a car wash can use the same amount of water a person uses for washing a car at home with a garden hose.” Thus, a car wash that recycles or treats discharged water is, in fact, a significant improvement over home washing.

Outside pressure
Compared to the polluting effect on the environment by the chemical industry, car wash wastewater pollution is right up there on the charts. Grease, oil, detergents and garden-variety dirt as well as other major pollutants are all present in car wash wastewater.

In fact, last year a Western Carwash Association spokesman commented, “Government studies indicate the untreated effluent and solid waste that car wash activities generate enter the storm sewer system with devastating effects on the environment. These by-products of car washing may contain high levels of lead, copper and other heavy metals. Until recently, all of these pollutants were just allowed to run off into the ground or down the local sewage system. The pressure is on from environmentalists not to allow this to continue to occur.”

And rightly so.

Local regulations
Regulations during drought conditions are generated by local governments who work in conjunction with the water and sewer authorities to determine the need. In a Midwest county struggling with drought, the local authorities agreed to allow residents to resume washing their cars at home, but only with a spray nozzle on their hoses.

No matter whether they have a reclamation /recycling system in place or not, the car wash operator will always have to buy water. This is due to the fact that 30 percent or more of the water is lost through evaporation and “carry out” on the vehicles themselves. But the water costs are greatly reduced with recycling. To illustrate, car-care writer Steve Prior, president of Waste Water Management Inc., Jupiter, Fla., found a car wash owner who’s saving up to 80 percent on both his sewer and water bills with a partial recycling system.

Cost of equipment
Depending upon the type of car wash equipment being used, there are a number of variables that need to be considered. According to an industry expert, it’s important to “look at the flow process and how the water is cleaned and reused.” Some systems reclaim only wash water while others reclaim both wash and rinse water. For many, the costs of implementing reclaim/recycle systems seem prohibitive and complicated. But, with some research, the car wash owner can find a system that works best for their car wash set-up. That’s because the many reclaim/recycle systems on the market today vary from simple and inexpensive to complex and quite expensive. They also differ in the amount of water they can reclaim.

For example, wash-only reclaims—while accounting for the 30 percent average rate of water loss—are used in full-service and rollover-washes. They provide nearly 60 percent recovery vs. the wash/rinse reclaim, which offers a 10 percent higher recovery rate. (If a car wash operation doesn’t have access to a sewage system, it must employ a total reclaim system.) In many cases, there are odor problems since the water is reused and never allowed to run off, necessitating use of disinfectant products.

On the uncomplicated and inexpensive end of the spectrum, a car wash operator can opt to use a disinfection product directly in the water-holding tanks. Odorless, environmentally safe, non-corrosive and effective in disinfecting the water, this product requires no installation of expensive reclaim/recycle equipment. On the more complicated side, all kinds of mechanical systems––some of which require filters, chlorine, ozone or UV light treatment––are being installed in a growing number of car washes nationwide.

Conclusion
In summary, the issues addressed here are all “top of mind” in the car wash industry. And, as they’re dealt with, the need for conservation and environmental responsibility will continue to be at the forefront for what should be a win-win situation for us all.

About the author
Contributor Douglas Smith is chief operating officer of EnviroClean Technologies Inc., which recently introduced the wastewater disinfection product, ECT-2000W. ECT-2000 is currently awaiting a patent. He has 20 years experience in the water disinfection and purification business and consulted with the Russian government after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Smith may be reached at (305) 253-1223, (305) 232-1011 (fax) or email: http://dsmith@envirocleantech.com.

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