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Washing your car — without water

 Posted by on May 21, 2009
May 212009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

You know your car is a gas hound. But what about the water it requires?

Keeping a car clean, whether you rinse it off in your driveway or get it scrubbed at a professional wash, uses buckets of agua, more than you might realize.

If you’re careful, washing your car at home might use 10 gallons of water, but probably more like 25 or 50. A car wash can use much more, in the range of 75 to 100 gallons.

The International Car Wash Association says car washes are not a problem because the water consumed at car washes is recycled and reused. Water is properly disposed of via the sewer system where it can be treated and returned to circulation, the association says. (This is not the case with home car washing, which we’ll get to.)

However, just as foregoing paper is more effective at saving forests than using recycled paper, the greenest car wash is the one that doesn’t use water at all.

The cutting edge of the car cleaning biz has been spawning products that clean and polish your car without water, and lately, car washes that do the same.

Take Houston’s new car detailing service and car wash, Eco-Suds Hand Car Wash.

This new service in Northwest Houston, uses a water-based cleaning solution that is non-hazardous and biodegradable. The formula dissolves dirt and the residue is easily wiped off with a microfiber cloth. The process doesn’t scratch because polymers enwrap the dirt. The car is wiped clean and buffed, leaving it smooth and shiny (see photo above), says Kevin Dunn, co-owner of the Eco-Suds Hand Car Wash.

Dunn touts the service as eco-friendly on two counts — it avoids toxic runoff because the cleaning solution does not contain any oil, mineral spirits or kerosene, harmful chemicals that turn up in competitor’s formulas. And, the process is virtually water-less (there’s some water in the solution), saving the community dozens of gallons of water for each car and truck cleaned.

“According to our estimates, we believe we have saved roughly 90,000 gallons since we opened in mid-February,” he said. “Not too bad for one single location in just three months.”

As the Eco-Suds website notes, conventional car washes cannot compete with that level of water conservation because even their recycled water is typically mixed with 40 to 80 gallons of fresh water for each new car washed.

Eco-Suds is frugal with natural resources, but uses significant human capital, employing hand washers. It competes with both mass-market and luxury detailing services, with packages starting at $25 for an exterior wash and interior cleaning, ranging up to $225 for the “platinum package” with various levels in between.

Eco-Suds bills itself as the nation’s “first full service, eco-friendly car wash and detail” — and it is a unique stand alone facility — but it is not the first enterprise to try to create a greener model for the car wash business.

Several have gone eco by switching to greener cleaning ingredients and polishes and adding water recapture capabilities, but they’re still using large quantities of water.

A few select car washes are getting more aggressive about water use.

The Eco-Pit in San Diego is another virtually water-less car wash that uses a line of Earth-friendly products.

Seattle has Advanced Mobile, a car detailing service that uses biodegradable soaps and comes to clients, washing their cars at their location and reclaiming all the water used. The mobile aspect of this business throws a wrench into the process of assessing its carbon imprint (would it be more or the same as a drop in car wash?), but the EPA was impressed enough with its water conservation to award it a Water Efficiency Leader award in 2006.  Advanced Mobile also has outlets in Portland and Chicago.

In Nevada, the Southern Nevada Water Authority promotes car washes that reclaim or recycle their water on its Water Smart program by offering coupons to these businesses on its website.

Now, about washing your car at home. The Environmental Protection Agency and some state agencies warn against it. At least, they tell us not to wash the car or truck in the driveway because the runoff is hazardous to  the environment. The phosphates in some soaps can harm fish down the line, because they act as fertilizers, making algae grow and choking off oxygen for aquatic life. And that oily sheen you see in the rivulets running toward the storm drain (from undercarriage goo and petroleum distillates) can be a real problem for many life forms.

If you must wash at home, park on grass or gravel, so the runoff can be reabsorbed by the soil, the experts say. And use a phosphate-free soap.

It’s better to use commercial carwash, the EPA notes, because that water can be recycled and will be cleansed by local water treatment facilities before being returned to the water system or the environment.

Charity groups should do the same. Instead of setting up a DIY venture in a school parking lot, school and church groups should operate on grass or gravel, or partner with a local commercial car wash.

Even better — work with a commercial car wash that doesn’t use water.

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