In 2017, car wash owners and operators have some good reasons to use less water.
Sometimes, we’re motivated by water restrictions. During dry spells, local rules and regulations might require us to reduce usage. The typical city council member might not realize that a tunnel car wash generally uses less water to clean a car than the average person would use doing it at home — that’s why our industry is often the first one targeted when businesses are required to cut their water use. Fair or not, it’s something we have to overcome.
Other times our motivation has more to do with the bank account than local ordinances. Who doesn’t want to save money when faced with sky-high water and sewer bills? Even those of us in areas unaffected by drought feel the pain of rising utility costs.
Whether it’s because of legal restrictions or legal tender, if you’re looking for ways to conserve water at your tunnel car wash, you’ve probably considered a few options. Thanks to new technologies and equipment, most car washes are already using less water than they were just a few years ago. However, you can do more.
The biggest thing owners and operators do to conserve water is… well, conserve water. In other words, we try to not use so much water in the first place. For example, you’ve probably already checked your equipment for leaks. You’ve probably looked for areas where you could reduce flow. You might also try reducing prep-gun nozzle sizes and nozzle sizes on all of the wash arches to limit the amount of fresh water used (making sure you follow the guidelines manufacturers set for the wash equipment, of course).
Sure, water conservation needs to be a part of your strategy.
But sometimes these conservation measures aren’t that great for the operator or the customer. No matter how much you promote your “green, eco-friendly” car wash, customers won’t come back if you don’t get their cars clean or if you take too long to do it.
We’ve heard the complaints before. Sure, a lower flow saves water. But the time it takes to prep each car might get longer. Smaller nozzle sizes may not deliver the volume of water needed to clean and rinse the cars. It’s like the “low-flow” toilets that use less water per flush… And you have to flush them three times for them to work. Are you really saving water?
Put another way: Water conservation should go only so far as to not interfere with the business of cleaning cars. That’s why there’s another way to save water, one that owners and operators don’t often consider.
We’re talking about water recycling, also known as reclamation.
The reclamation process removes dirt, oil and grease via chemical and mechanical processes, including the following:
- Separation: Reclaiming water by skimming oil and grease in settling tanks or via cyclonic separation.
- Filtration: Removing solids from collected wash water. Common methods include reverse osmosis (using a high-pressure pump to force water across a semipermeable membrane) and de-ionization (the removal of mineral ions through chemical processes).
- Flocculation: Removing anionic and cationic materials from collected wash water through the use of polymers and metal salts. In other words, the gross stuff clumps together, making it easy to remove.
- Oxidation: Removing electrons from wash water to convert unwanted chemicals to eliminate smells, colors and organisms such as bacteria and algae.
What can you do with reclaimed water?
If you’re just using the “separation” method described above (and no additional treatment occurs), the reclaimed water won’t be useful for high-pressure applications or any instance where customer contact will happen (as the water may still be discolored and have an odor). But it is suitable for wetting curtains and brushes, for a high-pressure undercarriage rinse, for wheel washers, for the rocker panel pass and for washing down the inside of the tunnel itself.
If you’re using filtration, flocculation and oxidation methods, best practices dictate that water filtered down to 10 microns can be used for all stages of the wash and pre-rinse, including high-pressure applications.
You’ll want to keep using fresh water for the pre-soak “foam show” and possibly for the spot-free rinse, wax, polish and drying agent cycles. But you will see massive reductions in your water consumption (and your costs) by treating water after it has been used and recycling it during the pre-soak, wash and first rinse.
Reverse osmosis and de-ionization can stretch the use of reclaimed water through many parts of the car wash process, especially the rinse cycle. These are also effective water-softening methods. As you know, hard water causes spotting, so the majority of spot-free systems today are reverse osmosis based—widely considered the most cost effective way to remove calcium and magnesium from municipal water.
What are the costs to start?
Retrofitting an older tunnel car wash for water reclamation requires that you consider the existing space and plumbing layout. If the original construction included room for in-ground tanks, adding equipment should be relatively affordable. If not, you may have to make lots of expensive upgrades to get the tanks and plumbing in place. Considerations may include construction permits and electrical systems upgrades.
In addition to installation costs, you’ll need soaps and waxes that are compatible with your treatment system. It is important to note that choosing the wrong combination of cleaning solutions or treatment processes can create more problems than it solves. You’ll also need to budget for the increased maintenance costs of reclamations systems (cleaning and changing filters, for example).
Check with your local car wash association and public utilities to see if grants are available to offset these costs. You might be pleasantly surprised!
What Do You Gain?
How about the benefits? According to a 2013 Carwash.com article, “The use of water reclamation can save an operator anywhere from $8,000 to over $20,000 per year in water and sewer costs.”
In addition to lower water bills, operators who install reclamations systems see a reduction in the cost of soap, wax and drying agents. There’s less water discharge routed to the municipal sewer, so that could lead to smaller utility bills.
Don’t forget one more benefit — you can now market your “eco-friendly” car wash to customers. Raising public awareness of your resource-conscious operations will attract customers and could help your business in the eyes of local officials seeking to impose water use restrictions during droughts.
Get the WaterSavers® designation from the International Carwash Association to promote your environmentally responsible business practices. To be a certified WaterSavers car wash, you should use no more than 40 gallons of potable water per car, and all water discharged must be routed to water treatment centers or a septic system.