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Be Water Smart

June 01, 2011
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Over the last few months, as our televisions and newspapers and radio programs were dominated by news related to the economic downturn, many media outlets made comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In certain parts of the United States — like California, Texas and Georgia — they might as well have brought up another dismal phenomenon of that period: The Dust Bowl.

The average American hears the word “drought” and thinks of water restrictions and rising water rates, but in the early half of the 20th century, drought meant dead crops, livestock and people. Although the consequences are not likely to be as dire as they were 80 years ago, the implications and impact of drought — especially the economic and legislative ones — should never be far from the carwash operator’s mind.

Water wasters
As water becomes a more precious (and expensive) commodity, it is imperative the commercial carwash industry position itself as a steward of the environment and a conservative user of water. Bob Koo, president of AquaChem, a company which manufactures and supplies water reclamation and treatment systems, explained that carwash operators face an uphill battle in defying the consumer’s preconceived notions of the carwash industry. Education and marketing efforts should be combined in order to reach your customer and potential customer bases. (For more ideas on marketing and education, see the sidebar titled "Water-friendly marketing tips and tricks".)

In addition to educating customers, Koo said operators should also consider the financial benefits of a water reclaim system which can be realized in as little as 12 months. These cost savings are especially important as water rates rise along with chemical expenses, labor costs, and energy expenses.

Not only is it important to carefully manage your use of fresh water, and then to try and capture and reuse as much of it as possible for cost savings, but in some parts of the country it will soon become mandatory. Even operators who aren’t in drought-affected states need to be prepared for an onslaught of new legislation as the Obama administration works to improve environmental protections. Koo said operators in many of the states affected by drought and water shortage are already being told they must reclaim or recycle at least a small percentage of their water.

Also, many cities are facing growing demands for water services and their utilities are struggling to catch up. For example, in some Colorado cities, carwash operators have reported water rates that have doubled and then tripled in a matter of years.

The bottom line is carwash operators need to prepare now for drought, for legislation, and for the growing costs of water use. The best way to start is by implementing a water management plan that is tailored to your carwash business and needs. Professional Carwashing & Detailing tracked down one operator who has had great success in this area, and we are sharing his story with you.

A case study in water management
Mark Ellis is a second generation carwasher who operates five conveyor carwashes with full-serve, detail and express offerings in and around Grand Rapids, MI. Michigan may seem far removed from the issue of drought, but in the summer of 2008, at least 46 Michigan counties were affected in some degree by a drought that swept through the state. According to data from the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the state also was affected by heavy rain, flooding and considerable frost/freeze; a virtual trifecta of poor carwashing conditions.

But Ellis kept his head up. Thanks to efficient water management, he is able to keep operational costs to a minimum and process high volumes during good wash weather. These best practices have helped him maintain and grow a healthy business even when the chips were down.

Ellis practices water management at all five of his locations, but we will focus on his fourth site, Southland Auto Wash in Woodland, MI, as a case study. He purchased the 37-year-old carwash in 2005, after it had been blown up when “a little old lady ran into the gas meter.” As Ellis explained, no one was hurt, but the building was leveled. He purchased what was left — the property and foundation — and built a similar-sized modern carwash in its place.

In addition to its water management system, the Woodland site features skylights the length of building, a galvanized metal roof, high-efficiency boilers, variable frequency drives, and three automated tellers which have RFID and fast pass technology.

About the water management system
The 180’ conveyor has a trench designed to self clean and drain into a two stage sand/settling pit with adjustable height sanitary sewer overflow. Ellis said 98 percent of the sand and solids settle into the first two pits and are then pumped out by a sewer cleaning vac-truck twice a year. The two pits also use a turned-down flow through pipe which forces oils to stay in the pit, thus accomplishing the task of an oil separator as well. Any built-up oil can be skimmed off the top of these pit sections and the water then flows into a series of three 2-compartment septic tanks.

“This creates essentially six more compartments for the water to settle out any solids and stop moving quickly,” Ellis explained. The wash then relies on an AquaChem reclaim system to pump out of the last tank with a 10-hp pump. It doesn’t use an intake screen, but instead pumps directly through a pair of hydro-cyclones which take out remaining solids bigger than 12-15 microns. Those solids are then returned through a drain line to the conveyor trench.

Upon leaving the cyclones, the water is routed through an advanced oxidation chamber, where it is treated with a combination of ozone gas and an oxidizing chemical treatment. “This process removes the chemistry from the water,” Ellis said, “which ultimately keeps bio-degradation from taking place inside the pipes.” By removing the chemistry, Ellis is able to filter and use over 200 gallons per minute with no residual odor and very good water clarity.

About the wash process

The Woodland site utilizes a high pressure washing system which requires between 150-175 gallons per minute of the reclaimed water to wash a vehicle. The nozzles are “very well directed and effective,” Ellis said, and follow the entire vehicle, from the door handles down, including a following wheel washer and side/corner blasters to penetrate ice and snow in the wheel wells and on the lower body. These nozzles are also directed at the nose through the rear license plate, front, back and top of the vehicle.

Using high pressure sensing technology, the wash provides three pressure settles for each pump. This allows Ellis to offer his customers with a pinstriped car or convertible top a gentle cleaning, yet also aggressively clean an icy, snowy or muddy car. The pumps for this system are directly fed with reclaim water and plumbed through a gravity check valve so that if the reclaim system loses pressure, a reserve system holding city water automatically takes over.

The high pressure rinsing system is just prior to the last mitter. It is fed from a tank which captures the reject water from the reverse osmosis system and produces water for a spot-free final rinse. The reject water from RO production is saved for reuse along with the reject water from the RO carbon filter system backwash; this tank is also backed up by city water in case the volume can’t keep up on a production day.

Other best practices
In addition to these water efficiencies, Southland Auto Wash also uses reclaimed water for sprinkling its landscaping. The sprinkler system is run during business hours so it can add water back in, otherwise the system would empty the tanks.

City water is used for chemical applications, drying agent and spot-free rinse. Ellis reclaims 80-85 percent of the wash’s water for at least a second use — and in some cases a third pass.

“We believe that this is good stewardship of the natural resources, even though we live in Michigan where water is plentiful,” Ellis explained. “Generally speaking, we see a two-year payoff in direct water and sewer savings in our reclaim system investments.”

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