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Green car care

September 16, 2009
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As with just about every other industry, the auto detailing/carwash industry is going green. One of the big green concerns in the professional carwash industry is finding ways to use less water. And according to the International Car Wash Association, an industry group representing commercial carwash companies, they have been quite successful. The association reports that automatic carwashes use less than half the water of even the most careful home carwasher—about 45 gallons per car versus as much as 140 gallons.

Auto detailers may also be concerned about using less water, especially in states such as California, parts of the Southwest and Southeast, and other areas that are experiencing mild to severe drought conditions. Another big concern for auto detailers is selecting detailing products that are either Green certified or are manufactured with ingredients that are known to have a reduced impact on the environment and/or are derived from more sustainable sources.*

However, before jumping on the green bandwagon, auto detailers need to ask themselves a few questions. First, do they need to go green? Second, are conventional car care products potentially harmful to the user, car owners, and the environment? And finally, what does it mean when we say a product is green?

These are important questions and ones virtually every industry and business owner contemplating going green have been forced to answer at one time or another. Fortunately, auto detailers can learn from the experiences of other industries that have walked this path before them, which should make the process a bit easier.

Is green really necessary?

To determine whether it is vital that they go green, auto detailers can consider what has evolved in the professional cleaning industry, which uses literally billions of gallons of detergents, floor finishes, strippers, and carpet cleaning chemicals each year. When the professional cleaning industry first began wrestling with the “Green issue,” most in the industry considered the use of environmentally preferable products little more than a fad. Some experts believed at best the 80/20 rule would apply to green cleaning: 80 percent of the industry would use conventional cleaning products, while 20 percent might transfer to green products, tools, and equipment.

However, what many in the industry did not anticipate was the growing customer demand for green cleaning products. School districts throughout the country started requiring the use of environmentally preferable products. Office and other buildings seeking LEED** certification were required to use Green cleaning products to be certified. And as the technology improved—which meant green products became cost effective and performed as well as conventional products—there simply was no reason not to be Green.

But to answer our question about whether auto detailers need to go green, if we use the professional cleaning industry as our guide, the answer is, or soon will be, yes. Our customers are simply going to expect it, and many are asking for it now. Astute detailers are heeding their calls, Greening their businesses, and using this as an effective marketing tool. And just as with the cleaning industry, as the demand increases, the technology to develop cost-effective, high-performing, environmentally preferable detailing products will likely evolve as well.

Are the products we now use harmful?

The goal of a green product is to have a reduced impact on the user and the environment when compared to similar traditional products used for the same purpose. We recognize that most of the conventional waxes, washes, protectants, and other products used in the professional cleaning industry have served us well for decades. However, it cannot be denied that many of these products contain ingredients that have proved to be unhealthy for the user and can have negative environmental impacts, especially if used improperly or in large quantities.

One of the big problems with auto detailing products is that many contain large amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs contribute to the formation of ozone and are unhealthy to breathe. Many experts believe the use of conventional cleaning chemicals with high levels of VOCs is one reason for the increase in asthma attacks and respiratory problems in children.

Also, many conventional liquid and paste waxes contain hazardous components that are considered carcinogenic and can pollute the environment. And some products contain chemical solvents that can also prove harmful. Further complicating matters, many of these products contain petroleum products. This is a nonrenewable resource that hampers the goal of becoming more sustainable.

Fortunately, there are green alternatives for many of the products auto detailers use every day. For instance, for cleaning auto carpets using a carpet extractor, Green carpet cleaning products, rinsers, and even degreasers are available. Also, the use of a low-moisture carpet extractor is considered Green as well. This is because these systems use significantly less water, allowing carpets to dry in two hours or less.***

Even the use of ozone equipment to eradicate odors is often viewed as a Green alternative. Instead of using large amounts of detergents to eliminate odors, once the source of the odor has been removed, any remaining malodors can be removed by the ozone system. This has a reduced impact on the environment, and using fewer cleaning chemicals — green or conventional — is considered environmentally responsible.

How Is “green” (certified) defined?

Accepting the fact that more of our customers will soon be asking that Green products be used in their automobiles and that the technology to develop these products will increase and improve, auto detailers must make sure that the Green products they select are indeed Green. Using the professional cleaning industry as a guide once again, we see that this is more of a problem than many auto detailers may realize.

Going back more than a decade in the professional cleaning industry, it was not uncommon for a manufacturer to “self-declare” products green. From their own tests and evaluations, many reached this conclusion and honestly believed it to be true. However, in some cases, the declaration was based more on a marketing decision than scientific data.

Today we have independent, third-party sources that have developed criteria for scores of green products. Many of these standards are comparable or are shared by different certification organizations. Using a certified product means that the product not only uses ingredients that have a reduced impact on the environment but that it has been independently tested and evaluated by an accredited laboratory, ensuring that green standards have been met.

This even applies to such things as packaging. A green product is to be contained in materials that are recycled and recyclable. Also, it should be noted that certifying a product is not the end of the process. Many manufacturers face surprise “audits,” ensuring that the ingredients and manufacturing processes have not changed. Further, a product may be certified for only a set period of time. Often the standards are raised, which means the green criteria established two or more years ago no longer meet the current green criteria.

Reluctance and acceptance

There is always some reluctance when businesses must make changes, and this has certainly proved true for many industries as they transfer to more environmentally preferable products and processes. However, the more the change is seen as a positive for the health of the user, the customer, and the environment, the easier the transfer. The best ways for auto detailers to accept Green is to focus on the health benefits of green products and see them as a marketing opportunity. Those who go green now will be ahead of their competitors, giving them an advantage for years to come.

Charlie Marinella has been involved with the professional carpet cleaning industry for more than 10 years. He now heads the auto-care division of US. Products, a leading manufacturer of carpet and car care cleaning products. He may be reached at

*“Sustainable” refers to using products today in such a way that they will be available for use by future generations.

**Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design recognizes new and existing buildings that have taken steps to reduce their environmental footprint in the way they are built, retrofitted, and operated.

***Drying times can vary and are dependent on climate, airflow, and other conditions in both automobiles and facilities.

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