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Environmental Issues

The future of waterless carwashing

March 08, 2011
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Federal law requires that discharges of stormwater from municipal storm drain systems and specified types of industrial facilities be regulated by National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.

NPDES Stormwater Permits have prescribed two basic requirements for a regulated entity:

• Non-stormwater discharges (with very few exceptions e.g. emergency fire fighting flows) must be eliminated; and

• The discharge of pollutants in stormwater runoff must be eliminated to the “maximum extent practicable.”

It is the first requirement that has significant implications for mobile industries that generate waste water.

A look at the regulations
The stormwater regulations have caused most urban counties and flood control agencies to develop educational materials for mobile businesses, highlighting code sections that prohibit the use of storm drains for waste water disposal and establish water pollution hotlines. The Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association, for example, has established an on-line training and self-certification program.

In accordance with NPDES requirements Orange County commenced in 2003 a comprehensive water quality monitoring program of flow at over 60 sites during dry weather throughout its system of major flood control facilities. In 2008-09 it was found that 22 of the 44 instances of detected water pollution were attributable to the presence of detergents. Other programs have similarly found detergents to be particularly problematic during dry weather (see Dallas-Fort Worth).

In 2009, the state of California issued fourth-term permits to the County of Orange, Orange County Flood Control District and cities of Orange County (the Permittees). These permits cited the findings of the dry weather monitoring program as a basis for requiring the Permittees to develop and implement a program to specifically regulate mobile cleaning businesses. Moreover, the Permittees in the southern Orange County area are now obligated to show that they have eliminated any dry weather flows into their storm drain systems that are not “natural in source and conveyance.”

Based upon the latest NPDES permits for municipal storm drain operators, such as Orange County, mobile businesses will certainly start to see more education and outreach often involving self-certification training schemes, increasingly coordinated enforcement by municipalities, and escalating enforcement action against mobile businesses using the storm drain system for waste water disposal as municipalities seek to demonstrate the efficacy of their efforts to eliminate instances of water pollution during dry weather.

Orange County Best Management Practice Fact sheet IC 24 is a typical expression of the expectations of a municipal stormwater program for the environmentally – responsible management waste water in a manner that ensures the compliance of all parties with an unequivocal Federal Clean Water Act act mandate.

Now what?
So the industry has known such requirements would come, that time is here. The draft Best Management Practices and Enforcement Database are in final stages of development. Several observations are relevant. First, “waterless” has been indicated to be the preferred model for mobile car wash and detail, recognizing this NPDES Permit covers all mobile business that can create pollution.

The biggest industry change will be enforcement on a higher standard. Cities in Orange County will require control, capture and proper discharge of waste water. A county-wide database will be established to allow all cities to be aware of violations that occur within the County.

The industry has known it must change, and enforcement is that change agent to compel the mobile operator to either, buy new equipment, change the wash process, introduce a “waterless” or no rinse option, or all.

Why should you care if you do not live in Orange County, CA? NPDES Permits are reviewed every five years, everywhere. They are an iterative process meaning that each new permit will increase standards and enforcement to prevent pollution. The permit requires reasonable and practicable standards and expectations.

If one region has successfully introduced standards and enforcement, then by definition of practicable, other regions must adopt these practices. And that is how this new requirements will be coming to a region near you, within five years. I believe Southern California’s next NPDES Permits will eliminate the exemption for home carwashing.

Jim Fitzpatrick is an industry subject matter expert on water conservation, waste water discharge, land use and many green and sustainable solutions. He can be reached at

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