Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Taking on charity washes

August 9, 2011

Sure, they’re cute: Little Susie and Jenny holding up carwash signs outside of a church, calling out to drivers to come in and help them raise money. And drivers do stop in, getting their car washed for a donation. It’s a charitable-cycle that has been set on spin for decades now. But, what isn’t cute is these charity carwashes are wreaking havoc on the environment, water supplies, as well as your potential customer base. And, while no one wants to be the bad guy, it’s time to put Susie and Jenny out of “business” and try to usurp these charity washes for good. Now, we’re not saying you should leave non-profits high and dry. Instead, we’re encouraging you to reach out to them, and forge a deal: A deal that will benefit them, your carwash, and ultimately Mother Earth.

Shawn Johnson is the owner/operator of Suds Car Wash & Detail in Las Cruces, NM, and knows a thing or two about the battle against charity washes. “I guess what stresses me out the most about charity carwashes is that as a business, we must comply with the many regulations for not only businesses but also carwashing (EPA regulations). On most summer weekends we have multiple charity carwashes operating up and down our city street, and let’s face it, it’s hard to compete with ‘free.’”

An entire state takes action

The state of Washington has blazed a trail before. In 2007, it was the first state in the United States to ban PBDEs from common household products. A year later it took on certain dishwasher detergents that contain more than 0.5 percent phosphorous. The state placed a ban on big name-brands stating that they polluted local waterways.

Then, a year after that, the state took another cause: Charity at-home carwashes. The state began discouraging at-home washing via educational sessions and town hall meetings and offered up fish-friendly carwash kits to those planning to host charity carwashes. Dan Wrye, water quality manager for Surface Water Management, said in a Daily Index story, “We encourage residents to watch for these signs and make a point of patronizing carwash fundraisers that use the fish-friendly kit. Another good option is to use a commercial carwash where the water is recycled and then sent to a wastewater treatment facility.”

The Puget Sound Car Wash Association's charity carwash program, complete with its own website ( and hotline, lists carwashes throughout the state that charities can contact to partner with for a fundraiser. The program was established in 1995 and it's currently working on two grant-funded projects in Tacoma, WA. One is to produce a video, and the other is a project funded by a grant from the Department of Ecology to produce a newspaper supplement and lesson plan geared to high school students. The Seattle Times is their partner in the newspaper supplement which they plan on running in the The Seattle Times Earth Day issue next year.

And, back in October, residents in Toppenwash, WA, were told they would now need a special permit five days in advance if they wanted to hold a fundraiser carwash. The Toppenish City Council unanimously approved the measure, which comes with a $500 fine for those caught in violation. The ordinance also requires these charity washes to use biodegradable soap and hold the wash on grassy or permeable surfaces where runoff water can seep into the ground and not the city’s stormwater or sewer systems.

How to approach charities and non-profits

This is where a little “PR” work is needed. Some phone calls, emails, a website announcement, Twitter, Facebook, or maybe even an ad in a newspaper would all work. You as an owner and operator will need to do some work to let a non-profit or charity know that your facility is available to help raise funds. After all, charity washing events at commercial carwashes aren’t commonplace … yet. You will, of course, end up contributing money in doing this, but you will also end up attracting not only new customers, but taking action to thwart parking lot fundraisers. It’s a win-win. You’re doing something good, and will be doing good PR for your business as well.

Johnson said it’s discouraging to witness the charity washes in action. “They have been in our opinion the worst on allowing water and soap to drain into the storm drain while using garden hoses and leaving them on between cars,” said Johnson. “We as a professional carwash offer fundraising with a 30 percent return on all tickets sold … We do our part and only use an average per car of only 32 gallons.”

Of course, you won’t want to approach a charity, or a charity carwash while it’s in action, and tell them they’re Mother Earth violators for holding a charity carwash. Chances are they probably don’t know that what they are doing is wrong. Start out by letting them know you want to help serve as a stomping ground for a fundraiser. Give them your business card. Tell them you can offer up coupon booklets, or will host volunteers on-site who can try and collect donations. Then, let them know about how a parking lot based fundraiser can waste water and hurt the environment.

Jim Fitzpatrick, an environmentalist and co-owner of ProntoWash Eco Autospa, a mobile carwash and detail business based in Newport, CA, has helped raise money for the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1) USMC, Camp Pendleton. He said in California the stereotypical charity washes are starting to dissipate.

“Where water is scarce, and tiered pricing is in place, one charity carwash used $600 worth of water to raise about $400. Many communities are banning such events. … If your community does not specifically ban such washes by code or by ordinance, then perhaps you need to spend some time with the local leaders and correct the situation.”

Fitzpatrick said that now 14 cities have participated in raising funds for Camp Pendleton by using his on-site carwash solution. “We have raised over $250,000. And, because the carwash solution was consistent with water conservation and water quality standards, we selected high traffic, high visibility locations that yielded significant donations.” He advises to:

  • Talk to organizations about water conservation, reclamation and water usage.
  • Target large and influential organizations in your community.
  • Offer to promote the fundraiser on your website.
  • Invite the press to the event.

Follow their lead

Autobell Car Wash Inc., the nation’s third-largest, full-service conveyor-operated carwash chain (with 63 locations), knows a thing or two about charity carwashing. In an effort to keep them out of parking lots and instead at their facilities, the chain has now raised $4.1 million in donations.

Autobell’s Chief Operating Officer Carl Howard said their efforts to give back, and help the environment, have long been ideals engrained into the company’s mission statement.

“Autobell committed at its inception in 1969, at founder Charlie Howard’s insistence, to be as ecologically responsible and conservation-minded as possible. Early water management policies were established and have evolved as technology allowed. After being inundated with myriad charitable and fundraising requests for donations, gift certificates, and carwash coupons, Autobell established its Charity Car Wash Program in 1998. The result has been an extremely popular program that benefits the non-profits, Autobell, and our environment. It’s the quintessential win-win-win scenario.”

Howard said that the non-profits win because they buy Autobell carwash certificates (with the non-profit’s name imprinted thereon) with no up-front money. They sell the certificates for the same price as a basic full-service carwash, keep half the proceeds, and return any unsold certificates. Moreover, they don’t have to:

  • Worry about actually washing cars,
  • Incurring the potential liability therein,
  • Worry about uncooperative weather, or
  • Worry about unsold certificates.

But, on the other side of the equation, Autobell wins because it gets trial business (with upgrades available) and the opportunity to cultivate new customers, while serving as a cooperative civic philanthropist.

“Our environment wins because the program helps eliminate parking lot and driveway carwashes that, when executed improperly, can damage a car’s finish, in addition to contaminating our waterways and drinking supply when untreated wash water and its associated pollutants enter storm drains,” Howard said.

Autobell promotes the charity carwash program via in-store marketing pieces; their employee newsletter (which is also sent to vendors, media, and utility and municipal officials); through their annual cartoon/coupon calendar, which is sold at each of the 63 washes; and through annual news releases touting the total amount of money raised through the program.

“The program is also promoted on our website at, through various special events in which we participate, on sign marquees (where allowed), and in most news releases and stories about the company. Word-of-mouth between non-profits and those who purchase the program’s certificates is also a strong avenue to promote the program,” Howard said.

The proof is in the law

Those looking for a good way to encourage non-profits to use their carwash location should look no further than The Federal Clean Water Act of 1977 (see below) for their best vindication. But, unfortunately, according to Howard, it is not well-enforced in most states. “Those that take it most seriously at this point (according to most information gleaned by us) are Washington, Oregon, and California,” he said.

The act, Howard said, refers to people or groups that wash cars on impervious surfaces where the wash water discharge (or its dried residue) goes untreated into municipal storm drains or any tributary to a drinking supply.

Here is the Summary of the Clean Water Act 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. (1972).”

The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. The basis of the CWA was enacted in 1948 and was called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, but the Act was significantly reorganized and expanded in 1972. “Clean Water Act” became the Act’s common name with amendments in 1977.

Under the CWA, the EPA has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. They also set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters.

The CWA made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained. The EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program controls discharges. Point sources are discrete conveyances such as pipes or man-made ditches. Individual homes that are connected to a municipal system, use a septic system, or do not have a surface discharge do not need an NPDES permit; however, industrial, municipal, and other facilities must obtain permits if their discharges go directly to surface waters.

For more on the CWA, visit the Environmental Protection Agency website which can be found at