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Drip, drop, dry

October 11, 2010
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Texas is drying up. Operators like Bill Sartor, who owns four self-serve carwash locations in San Antonio, TX, are reminded every time they pick up the morning newspaper and scan the headlines: “Texas shutting off its faucets.” “Wildlife gets thirsty in drought.” “Drought raises economic development questions.”

The implications of a drought in Texas extend far beyond state lines, though. Even if the predicted El Nino weather pattern returns to the Pacific Ocean and alleviates the State’s crops and businesses, the regulations, hiked water rates, and public perceptions will remain – and spread throughout the country and the world.

The drought affect
“Without water, you cannot sustain life,” explained Charles Borchard, vice president of operations for New Wave Industries, the manufacturer of PurClean Spot-free Rinse Systems and PurWater Water Recovery Systems. This basic principle guides public perception of the resource, including how it is used by businesses.

The hot topic nowadays might be energy conservation or waste reduction, but Borchard painted a picture wherein that discussion quickly changed focus. “Survival without energy could be uncomfortable and could shorten life expectancy by years, but without water you are talking survivability in days,” Borchard stated. “The UN estimates that 18 percent of the world’s population does not have access to usable safe drinking water now.”

Carwashes in state’s affected by drought; such as operations in Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas, know how quickly public perception can turn against carwashes. Many consumers wrongly assume that carwashes waste water and use unfathomable amounts to clean a car. Bill Sartor began fighting that misperception in 1996, and while he has won a battle in San Antonio, he said the rest of the country has some catching up to do.

“Nobody thinks it will happen to them,” Sartor explained. “So they don’t seek out the relationship with the utilities.” Sartor has been a sought after advocate in states like Georgia, where a drought threatened to shut down the carwash industry, and said the key to surviving and thriving in a water shortage is communication and activism.

Sartor encouraged carwash operators to contact their local municipalities and water utilities and create a healthy relationship with officials. “You’ve got to make every sacrifice to make this participation work. You cannot do this by threatening. You can’t do it by telling them what they’re going to do. You have to establish a relationship and then figure out how to make them look good. It’s the mind of the beauracrat,” Sartor stated.

The carwash/utility relationship
In San Antonio, Sartor was successful in creating a certification program which guaranteed participating carwashes could stay open even under Stage 4 water restrictions. All other commercial carwashes, as well as residential washing, would be shut down. As this issue was going to press, the city was in Stage 3 restrictions and heading toward 4.

“Had it not been for our partnership, we would have already been closed right now,” Sartor said. He further explained there’s no good reason for a carwash not to participate in the program, although many operators – most of them gas station locations – have failed to sign on. “We’re having a problem getting them on board. If they don’t think the utility is serious about closing down, they’ll find out soon,” he said.

Sartor said every carwash operator in the country could benefit from creating a conservation program in their city and garnering public support. In San Antonio, the restaurant, hotel and larger industries have enacted programs that are based upon the carwash model; which shows the public just how small an amount of water carwashes use compared to larger companies and fights the perception of carwashes as “water wasters.”

Sartor’s last piece of advice was a warning: “If you don’t do this now, you’ll be facing an uphill battle later on. Water conservation is real and it’s coming everywhere.”

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