Why You Should Use a Car Wash

Wastewater-CarwashWastewater and the Benefits of the Car Wash

For many, washing the car in the driveway each weekend has become something of a ritual. It’s idealized in car commercials especially when we see happy fathers gleefully playing with their children while splashing about.

When we see these commercials, we see something entirely different than the happy family enjoying a sunny weekend afternoon. We see the chemicals from the soap, wax and polish as they rush down the driveway, into the gutter and flow into the wastewater stream.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Washing your in your driveway makes a serious impact on the storm water system. But it’s an impact few people actually see because the problem literally gets washed down the drain. Once the suds disappear, they cease to exist for most of the public.

As members of the wastewater community, we see first hand where the runoff from car washing goes and how it impacts the water and the local environment.

The Wastewater Myth

Contrary to many homeowners’ assumptions, the runoff that flows down the street and into the gutters does not enter the wastewater treatment process. It flows directly into the storm water system and these systems feed directly to the streams, lakes and rivers in the community.

In the wastewater system, water is treated for common pollutants and returns to a specific state of purity before rejoining the water system. Not so for storm water.

What’s in the Suds?

Soap is the most obvious polluter on the car-washing scene. Canada already limits the amount of phosphates in soap and detergents because it can cause massive algae blooms in lakes and rivers that kill off fish and other marine life.

But soaps still contain other chemicals such as nonylphenol ethoxylates and other detergents can also promote the growth of algae and affect the surface of a fish’s skin.

The soap that rinses off cars washed in driveways actually contains many more pollutants than just what is in the soap as well. The soap picks up the grease, dirt, oils, heavy metals, brake dust, carbon and a host of other pollutants on your car (that’s why we wash our cars after all) and sends those down the drain as well.

Cities Take Action

Many cities, recognizing the serious environmental impact washing your car at home can have on waterways, have taken steps to limit this practice. Toronto, for example, has a bylaw prohibiting the discharge of any water except storm water and snow melt into the storm water sewers. The state of  Washington takes a similar approach, encouraging municipalities to educate homeowners and adopt ordinances similar to Toronto’s.

The Canada Car Wash Association and RiverSides, a Toronto-based non-profit, have teamed to educate the public about the side effects of washing cars in driveways and more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Commercial Car Washes: What’s the Difference?

The next logical question is whether getting your car washed at a commercial facility is any better for the environment. Don’t they use soap as well? Doesn’t their process also wash pollutants off your car?

Yes, that is all true but there is one key difference between a commercial car wash and an at home job. Car washes funnel their wastewater into the wastewater system where it is treated and meets specific purity requirements before returning to the water stream.

Many car washes also treat their water before flushing it into wastewater as well to remove grease, oil and other pollutants like radiator fluid or transmission fluid.

What You Can Do

First and foremost, you can choose to wash your car at a commercial car wash facility. But you can still wash your car at home and minimize your impact on the environment.

Choose non-toxic soaps, wash your car over gravel and use a bucket and sponge. Then, dump the bucket down a drain that leads to the wastewater system as opposed to the storm water system.

The next time a sentimental car wash commercial comes on the air, think about it from a new perspective. Instead of seeing the cute kids and the happy family, see the soap headed for the gutters and commit to doing your part to protect the lakes, rivers and streams of your community.