Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Tame your reclaim system

October 11, 2010
Our industry is going through a transition. The buzz word is “green,” and it can assume many different meanings as society pushes to new heights of environmental conscience. It does not matter if claims about global warming are factual or sensationalist, all that matters is the reality of water shortages are being recognized globally and drought conditions are impacting the general public and the carwash industry in particular.

As a carwash operator, my opinion is the situation as a whole will be positive. The untapped home washer market, about 40 percent according to the most recent International Carwash Association survey, may someday be forced to use a professional carwash. The goal is to keep our facilities open during periods of drought or water shortage.

Dealing with IBAs
Whatever type of in-bay automatic carwash — touch free, friction, or hybrid/combination — the common denominator is water. (If I wanted to stand on my soap box, even the new phenomena of the “waterless” carwash uses some amount of water in the compound or product. Can you wash a vehicle with chemical in a pure powder form that isn’t mixed with water to hold it together? Nope.) Back to the subject at hand, let’s discuss the reclaim unit that is used in your site.

If you are operating a reclaim unit in your facility, it was put in for a reason. It may have been mandated, it may have saved you a lot of money at start-up in the form of reduced impact fees, or it may be saving you money each month by decreasing your utility bill.

Ask yourself why the unit was initially installed. That reason should define your initial expectation of reclaiming water. This factor alone will be the first critical factor in determining whether you are successfully using your reclaim system.
I would venture to guess if you are happy, the customer can’t tell you are using reclaim. The wash experience you offer is equivalent to using all fresh water, it doesn’t smell and the vehicles are coming out clean, dry and shiny. If you are not happy, you may have fixed the problem; it is called the “off” switch on a reclaim unit. Ask yourself, “Why is off a fix?”

Fixing the “off”
The reclaim unit in your facility is a piece of equipment that was designed to do a job and provide you with a return on investment. If it is off, it cannot be doing its intended job. It costs you money to purchase and occupies valuable space in your equipment room, so it is in your best interest to have it operational. You own it, so it is your responsibility to understand its operation and make sure it is operating like any other piece of equipment in your facility, especially in today’s “green” environment.

As a start to understanding the function of the reclaim unit in your facility, I would state a fact in the reclaim world: dilution is a solution. The more reclaim water used in the wash process, the more concentrated the reclaim water will be in your facility.

The equipment that is in your facility is the combination of a piece of equipment and an associated tanking system. The reclaim unit can be thought of as the heart since it is a pump that moves water, provides polished filtration for application of water on the vehicle surface, and/or pre-treats water held in reclaim claim tanks to eliminate smell causing wash chemistry or other contaminants were left from the wash process.

The reclaim unit was designed to accomplish an objective, you should understand its function and how it was designed to operate. If you are unsure, the distributor that sold it to you or the manufacturer should be able to explain it to you. The bottom line is to understand the function of the unit. It is a piece of equipment and built to do a job. It is not a miracle; it will require some maintenance, it can break and will require repair.

The basics
The reclaim tanking system is strictly an extension of the reclaim process and uses gravity to make it work. Solids and/or oils are trapped in the reclaim tanks based on the specific gravities associated with the contaminants left from the vehicle that you provided the service of cleaning. Specific gravity is defined in terms of the common denominator of water. Simply stated, oils are lighter than water and will float, and solids for most purposes are heavier than water and will sink. The overall impact is the contaminants become trapped in the reclaim tanking system.

I am often asked why the reclaim tanks are so big. Simply stated, they may seem big at first, but they always get smaller. We are in the business to wash vehicles, this means we are left with all the contaminants from the wash process. The reclaim tanks keep getting smaller until they are completely filled with solids and oils. In this case, you will notice a flood in your bay since water will always take the least path of resistance and back up in your mud collection pit.

The other scenario seen over time as the reclaim tanks become filled with solids is the concentration of the reclaim water being clarified will increase, placing an additional burden on the water reclaim unit and possibly decreased performance in the form of poor water quality.

How is it being used?
The last point concerning operating tips for an IBA reclaim system is to look at how reclaim water is being used in the wash process.

The process of washing a vehicle is a progressive process: a dirty vehicle (a combination of dirt, oils in the form of road film and other contaminants on the vehicle surface) enters the facility, chemistry is applied to loosen the contaminants, the vehicle is cleaned with high pressure water or a friction material, pre-rinsed, sealants or waxes are applied to condition the vehicle surface, the vehicle is then rinsed and dried.

When using reclaimed water in this progressive cleaning process, be sure to look at the process. The wash process will not be compromised if it is viewed as a progressive process.

General rules would be:
  • Do not use reclaimed water for chemical applications. These are low volume functions anyway and the chemistry does not need to react with reclaim water rather than contaminants on the vehicle surface;
  • Do use reclaim in the production wash process; high pressure rinsing, wheel blasting, or undercarriage washing. These will normally represent 70 percent of the water consumed in the process; and
  • Do not rinse with reclaimed water. Use spot free or at least softened water. This is the final water left on the vehicle surface and spots on a clean car will appear dirty to the customer.
The bottom line when using a reclaim unit for washing vehicles in an IBA facility is as follows:
  • Define your expectation of using your reclaim system;
  • Understand the design and operation your reclaim unit and tanking system; and
  • Understand your wash process and integrate reclaim water into your process without sacrificing wash quality.
A reclaim unit is a piece of equipment that can be used in the wash process that will allow you to manage your utility expense or allow compliance to mandated government regulations. Treat your system as any other piece of equipment used in the wash process: understand it, execute required maintenance and manage it. It isn’t a mystery, just common sense. It can make you money and save you money.

Bob Koo is president of Aqua Chem Inc. and an owner/operator of in-bay and self-serve carwashes. He has been in the water treatment industry for 14 years. Koo can be reached at