Is washing your car bad for the environment? Debates rage over the idea that an automatic car wash uses more water than you would if you washed your vehicle in the driveway. Really, with all the spraying, sudsing, and rinsing, an automatic car wash certainly uses more than what comes out of the end of a garden hose, right? Well, maybe. Maybe not. But, either way, one method has a more direct and negative impact on the environment. And it might not be the one you think. Most modern automatic car washes employ a system to recycle water for reuse. They reduce the impact on the environment – using less water and putting out less waste.
How much water is used in a car wash?
To begin to understand the value of recycled water in an automatic car wash, we first need to know how much water is used in the process.
The actual amount of water required to clean a car in an automatic car wash depends on a number of factors: whether the car wash is an in-bay service or a drive-through tunnel, whether it is a soft-touch wash or a touch-free wash, how many high-pressure applications it utilizes, and how many additional services are selected. How much water is used depends on how an automatic car wash works.
For instance, an in-bay automatic system (where a vehicle remains stationary while a sequence of soft-cloth foam brushes pass along the exterior and whisk away dirt and debris) might use about 35 gallons of water per vehicle. At a high-volume location, one bay averaging 100 cars per day, could use 3,500 gallons in a day. A touch-free wash (one that relies solely on strong chemicals and high-pressure spray rather than on the gentle friction of a soft-touch wash) might use up to 70 gallons per vehicle. On the same 100-car day, that location would use 7,000 gallons of water – twice as much as its soft-touch competitor.
Now, to be fair, other common industries use just as much water. A hotel, for example, could use more than 3,000 gallons of water each day simply washing towels for its guests. And an average sit-down restaurant uses nearly 6,000.
Of course, a tunnel car wash can use far more water than drive-in-and-park in-bay washes. A tunnel car wash that includes a moderate number of high-pressure applications could use 120 gallons of water or more for each vehicle on its conveyor. Because that type of automatic car wash is capable of accommodating far more vehicles (let’s assume 400 cars per day), daily water consumption could top 48,000 gallons.
That’s a lot of water. Those water and sewer costs are often the largest expenses for the owner of an automatic car wash.
The hand-wash water saving myth
It sure seems that washing a car by hand would use far less water than is used in an ay automatic car wash. But that is not what studies have shown. How do hand washes vs. automatic car washes stack up? It is estimated that a car wash in your driveway uses quite a bit more water than many automatic car washes. When you turn on the hose to wash your car, truck, or SUV, you likely pour out somewhere between 80 and 140 gallons. Every time. That is assuming the use of a typical garden hose running for about ten minutes. That is certainly not better than the 35-120 gallons in an automatic wash.
Aha! You say. But I do not leave my hose running. I have a spray nozzle that shuts off while I work from a bucket. I only use the hose to rinse off my vehicle and therefore I use less water. Well, in that case, you are right. With that method, you might reduce your water consumption to somewhere between 22-25 gallons. But that is not the entire impact of your DIY driveway wash.
When you wash your car yourself, you not only use water, but you use chemicals for cleaning. And you rinse those chemicals (and the contaminants they act upon) onto the ground and into the sewer, septic, and groundwater supply. At some point, one-hundred percent of those chemicals and contaminants make their way into the streams, lakes, and oceans, causing an enormous cumulative impact on the environment. That is the true cost of washing your car yourself.
An automatic car wash reduces or eliminates these hazards by installing a recycling system.
How does a car wash recycling system work?
In order to reduce fresh water and sewer costs, and to eliminate the impact of contaminated water on the environment, car wash owners install recycling systems in their washes. In many municipalities, these systems are required in order for the business to meet code and receive a permit.
A water recycling system is a stand-alone operation that works in tandem with other car washing equipment. Not all recycling systems are the same, but, in general, a system draws water from large settling tanks in the car wash, processes the water to remove contaminants and chemicals, treats the water for bad odors, and sends the processed water back to the wash system for reuse.
Sand and clay particles (and any other solids) in the water can damage the paint on a vehicle, so they are allowed to settle and are removed. Many car washes offer extra services, such as Rain-X Complete Surface Protectant and Armor All ® Extreme Shine Wax. Water from the recycling system must also not contain detergents, waxes, or other used chemicals (such as motor oil), so those are either skimmed off in the recycler or allowed to settle. If any water is to enter the sewer system, it also needs to be cleaned.
This system of recycling has some built-in incentives for car wash owners. For one thing, recycling means that most of the water used to wash a vehicle (anywhere from 75-90 percent, sometimes more) comes not from the freshwater supply but from the recycler, which leads to cost and resource savings. It also means that, since the water is being cleaned and reused, it is not being disposed of. Sewer costs (and environmental impact) are reduced. Sometimes the freshwater supply contains too many contaminants to be useful for washing cars anyways. If the water contains too many total distilled solids (TDS), it must first be treated. Having a recycling system in place ensures that even clean freshwater is suitable for use.
A car wash operator has in mind servicing customers, saving money, and minimizing the impact on the environment. A recycling system allows all of those objectives to be met.
When you wash a car at home, not only could you use more water than an automatic car wash, but all of the chemicals and detergents are washed into the sewer system and eventually end up in the water supply. An automatic car wash facility must dispose of any waste in accordance with local regulations. With a recycling system, the amount of waste generated is diminished and the amount of freshwater needed is reduced. That means an automatic car wash is usually a better bet for the environment and for your car.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright
This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs, and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.