Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Down the drain

Recycled and collected water is a valuable resource, and many self-serve carwash owners are missing out.

August 15, 2012

While the calendar year may be different, it seems that the grim reports on water usage have stayed the same. In the U.S., though it is still a few weeks until summer, water shortages and usage restrictions have begun to pop up across the nation. In some areas, the lingering results of last summer's damaging droughts are to blame. In others, a severe lack of winter snowfall is the culprit.

Ask almost anyone in the water industry what the resource's future holds, and you will frequently hear the same refrain. The infrastructure is old and insufficient. As the population grows, the fresh water sources are shrinking. And, as water wars between certain states and urban areas have intensified, it has become clear that clean, potable water is now a precious commodity.

Reading through carwash news stories, it is plain to see that this industry will not be immune to any upcoming changes. Many municipalities have recognized the conservation efforts made by a number of wash owners. Yet some legislative bodies will still seek to change industry practices through new laws, restrictions and selective zoning.

Before these laws hit the books, carwash owners can prepare their businesses by utilizing water reclaim systems. Specifically in the self-serve market, these systems offer the owner the opportunity to recycle all wash water. But, that's not their only use. These systems can reclaim and clean rain water gathered from roofs and parking lots as well.

Self-serve reclaim

When recycling water for carwashes, there are two options available to an owner or operator, Steve Suchanek, owner of Water Reclaim Factory, said. The first, partial reclaim, captures and recycles water from the wash phases only; rinse water is not collected. The other choice, total reclaim systems, is ideal for self-serve locations because both wash water and rinse water are reclaimed and cleaned.

By recycling wash water, reclaim systems reduce overall fresh water usage, according to Gary Hirsh with New Wave Industries. This reclaim water can then be effectively reused in all high-pressure applications. Here, the reduction in the use of fresh water would also lead to "significant savings."

With a functional reclaim system, Suchanek explained that reclaimed water can commonly be used right up until the final rinse. The system provides a carwash with crystal clear water that is often cleaner than tap water.

"The only thing different between tap water and the reclaim water is that it's higher in total dissolved solids (TDS), which means it's going to have a bigger spot, a more noticeable spot when it dries," Suchanek said.

Even so, water spotting can be one of the biggest customer complaints a carwash owner can face. Suchanek noted that spotting should not be a problem if a carwash has a dryer system or a "good blast" of reverse osmosis rinse water available.

Cleaning the water

When it comes to cleaning the reclaimed water, some systems use large filters, reverse osmosis filtration and sand filters. Suchanek said that when he started learning about water recycling technology he decided to instead address the contaminants found in the water. A reclaim system has to be prepared to deal with these problems, mainly through the development of a unique filter that will remove problem contents.

A list of common chemicals found in reclaimed carwash water includes:

  • Soaps;
  • Detergents;
  • Dirt;
  • Grease;
  • Oil;
  • Road grime; and
  • Brake dust.

One way to remove these items is to oxidize the dissolved solids. "I had to do a lot of oxidizing in order to bring things that were sort of dissolved in the water but were oxidizable," Suchanek revealed. "It would bring it out to a state where it could be filtered. Then, the filter had to be good enough to remove it from the water. It's not that easy, but you've got to figure out a way to do it," Suchanek said.

Hirsh described a water reclaim system that utilized "proprietary hydrocyclones." This system spins solids out of the reclaim water at 600 Gs. This process is totally physical, and it does not require disposable filters or ongoing chemical costs.

Other savings

It is easy to see how a reclaim system can save an operator money on the front end — every gallon an owner does not need to buy means a water savings on the gallon. But, it is a carwash's sewer cost reductions that can offer the biggest savings.

According to Suchanek, sewer and waste water charges are usually based on the amount of water a business buys. Sometimes, the sewer charges end up being as high as three or four times the cost of the water. By buying less water, an owner can avoid the significantly higher cost involved with getting rid of it.

Another area where cost savings may be possible is in chemical usage. Suchanek is experimenting with the TDS content of reclaimed water. When soaps and detergents are added to wash water the first time, there are certain things that cannot be taken out of the water afterwards. Because certain TDS remain, Suchanek is thinking that, perhaps, a wash may not have to use as much soap and detergents in the reclaimed water afterwards. "You could conceivably save on chemical costs," he said. "It might be minute, but it would be a savings."

Using a reclaim system may also allow a carwash to tap into other resources for water. Owners may be able to gather water from their roofs and filter it. Also, there are ways to gather reclaim water runoff from a carwash's black top or cement parking lot. Suchanek said he has heard of carwashes doing this quite a bit, and he said the practice is pretty common in areas of Wisconsin.

Another way a carwash could utilize a reclaim system to save money would be using excess reclaim water for tasks outside of the bays. Hirsh said that his company often sets up a carwash so it can use reclaimed water for irrigation. Instead of paying to irrigate plants with municipal water, businesses get government approval and use the reclaim water instead.

Suchanek agreed saying many washes use recycled water to water their lawns, trees and shrubs. In addition, the water can be used to clean different areas of the carwash. Businesses currently use the water to spray driveways, clean floors in attached oil change centers and wash their buildings.

Reclaimed water is fit for non-potable use, and Suchanek offered one bit of advice. If an outside spicket outputs reclaimed water, it must be clearly marked as only for non-potable uses.


When retrofitting an existing self-serve wash with a reclaim system, there are two options, Hirsh stated. The first would be a wash that has an existing underground tank or is interested in installing an underground tank. The second option would be a wash that wants to install an above-ground tank. Other than these tanks, the system has a relatively small footprint.

Suchanek said the first step is an owner positioning the reclaim unit where he or she wants it. Next, a pipe must be run to the dirty water collection tank. After the water is pulled from there and run through the system, it is put into a holding tank. From the holding tank, it is run back into the wash's water system. "It's quite simple, and it takes less than a day to install," Suchanek noted.

Once installed, do self-serve carwashes offer any unique challenges for water reclaim systems? "I would say that the biggest challenge with self-serve always is somebody inadvertently or purposefully putting something down those drains that should not be put down those drains. That is definitely always an issue with self-serve," Hirsh said. If this occurred, it would require an operator to pump out the water tanks, clean the tanks and start over fresh.

Common misconceptions

Water reclaim systems have long been hounded by industry misconceptions. Hirsh offered two examples of common misnomers about the systems. First, many owners mistakenly think that reclaim systems are "very labor intensive." Second, there is the false impression that many reclaim systems have unchecked odor problems.

Suchanek said water reclaim's biggest public relations battles are odor problems as well as expenses. Also, some early reclaim systems that were less-than functional may have tarnished the reputation of water recycling for systems that actually offered results. Because of problems with some early systems, many owners today are vigilant when it comes to their results with reclaim. Due to this, Suchanek said he often spends more time educating potential customers than he does actually selling the product.

The final misconception Suchanek cited was that reclaim water was unsuitable for any rinsing. Many years ago, he installed reclaim systems that allowed a number of units to operate with no sewer connection. These washes would not use the reclaimed water for rinsing, so they ended up with a large amount of excess reclaim water from the wash process.

Looking forward

Suchanek feels that, with the growing water problems, water reclaim systems will be very important moving forward. "This is going to be a big market in the near future. The natural resource of fresh water is becoming less and less because of pollution and droughts and lack of rainfall and things of that nature," he said. As the world's water problems continue to rise, so too will the demand to cut down on fresh water usage.