Professional Carwashing & Detailing

The 10-gallon wash and other water solutions

October 11, 2010

You can’t just turn on a faucet and start scrubbing customers’ cars. Conservation has become the mantra.

With new innovations hitting the tunnels and bays every day, saving water and money are relatively easy, almost child’s play, whether retrofitting an existing carwash or building from scratch.

This concern for conservation, combined with suburban sprawl which puts a strain on fewer and finite water resources, has municipalities taking a close look at water supplies and growth and casting a wary eye on carwashes, which still carry the stigma of being heavy users of water. Despite advancements in modern water reclaim and recycling equipment, and the effectiveness of new chemicals, most water departments still consider carwashes to be wasters of water.

Years ago, Mark VII tried to market equipment which used substantially less water. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a big seller.

That’s changed. Today, carwash owners and operators are taking notice of modern technology that saves water. According to Craig Campbell, vice president of sales and marketing for Mark VII, it is possible to build a conveyor or in-bay which uses only eight gallons of fresh water per car.

“We’re doing it today,” Campbell said of the eight-gallon level. “In some places, like the suburbs of Denver, new washes are being charged up to $90,000 in (water and sewer) impact fees annually. It’s a matter of economics” to find ways to make water more effective.

The system uses a high-end water reclaim system, which only requires fresh water for pre-soak and spot-free rinse cycles. Carwash owners are buying these new systems and selling their customers, and municipalities, on the fact they use less water.

Weight of water
When it comes to automatic carwashes, there are three factors that delegate how much water is used: pressure, volume, and speed. Competing theories debate the best combination of these factors; some argue that using higher pressure, lower volume is the surest bet for a water-efficient wash.

“We’ve developed turbo nozzles that use up to a third of what other washes use,’’ Campbell explained of Mark VII’s high-pressure, low volume wash.

A different theory allows that the weight of water will do most of the cleaning if the wash uses low pressure and high volume.

Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, Campbell said anyone considering a new carwash, or renovating an existing facility, should look to the future. “Build in the capacity for recycling. You don’t have to add it now, but with the piping in place, you’re ready,’’ he said.

Reclaim systems are improving as technology finds new ways of filtering water. Reverse osmosis membranes are being improved and biological reclaim research are finding better soap- and chemical-chomping microbes. Much of this technology is based upon rsearch conducted in Europe, where water restrictions have been a continent-wide way of life for generations.

Looking toward the horizon in the equipment field, Campbell said there are a couple of trends that should improve matters. Faster conveyors and cycles which use less water per car are becoming popular. There is also a renewed interest in friction washes, which have recently been revived by advancements in foam material. The shift away from high pressure, touchless washes means operators will be less dependent upon water to remove dirt off the car, and instead allow the foam to do the brunt of the work.

Help from other fields
Unfortunately, carwashing is not an industrial giant where research dollars flow. But, as Campbell notes, there are lots of entrepreneurs out there.

And there are companies where their research in other areas, such as chemicals which make “wetter” water or melt dirt, and water reclaim, will have a spin-off effect.

Is it possible to develop a carwash which uses only 10 gallons per car?

It will take a combination of technologies, Campbell believes. Better foam materials, new types of chemicals and even paint technology.

“You will always have to have some water in a carwash,’’ Campbell said. “We don’t have a handle on it (the 10-gallon-wash) just yet, but it’s certainly an active project.”

In the meantime, PC&D has investigated some other water-saving ideas to hold you over until the 10-gallon wash is a reality.

Idea #1: Fight city hall

In 2000, Bob Koo was told the water and sewer impact fees for his new carwash in Lakeland, FL, were $15,000 and $75,000 respectively. Koo took one look at those numbers and reckoned they were about $75,000 too much.

The fees were based upon an ERU (equivalent run-off unit) calculation from the county which estimated he would use 250,000 gallons per month at Auto Shine Car Wash, a five self-serve, two in-bay automatic wash. According to his calculations, this was 215,000 gallons too many.

Koo didn’t waste any time. He picked up the phone and called the municipality. With a background in the water reclaim business — he owns Aquachem — Koo had knowledge on his side.

He told the municipality his carwash was outfitted with a reclaim system and his projections indicated he would use 35,000 gallons of water per month. The county agreed to negotiate. Koo would pay $15,000 for water and operate without sewer for a year, instead feeding excess water into an irrigation system. The county, in turn, would use their meter readings to recalculate the carwash’s impact fee at the year’s end.

Koo hit his projections right on the money, so to speak, and the county used the excess water impact fee dollars to pay for the sewer impact fees. Based on his experience, he recommends all wash owners and operators start with a good understanding of their water usage needs, and most definitely use some sort of reclaim system. From there, he encouraged operators to contact their municipalities and negotiate any differences in numbers.

“Impact fees are all over the board across the United States,” Koo said. “It’s really just a funding mechanism to upgrade municipal facilities. And they’re always going after the carwashes and commercial businesses. You’ve got to be careful.”

Idea #2: Nozzle maintenance

Jerry Hagers, market development director of Spraying Systems Co. based in Wheaton, IL, said carwash owners and operators can save a bundle simply by replacing spray nozzles.

According to Hagers, if a worn spray nozzle causes a carwash to discharge only an additional 10 percent more water, this adds up to 270 gallons of water a day. (18 spray hours per day @ 2.5 gallons per minute = 2,700 total gallons per day.)

Spray nozzle maintenance doesn’t necessarily mean replacement, it also includes cleaning. Sometimes all that is preventing a spray nozzle from working at optimal performance is a bit of debris and dirt. Hagers suggested operators use a toothbrush or toothpick to de-clog nozzles.

According to Hagers, the real cost of worn equipment is opportunity. If the nozzle sprays at your wash aren’t working properly, it will most likely cause a customer to seek out another wash.

“Generally speaking, most people don’t have to go far to try another wash,” Hagers said. “Once they do that, they don’t come back.”

Good operators communicate with their customers and would be aware of an absence, Hagers said, but some operators might not even realize what’s happening to their business until it’s too late.

“If that’s a regular customer, bringing in $20 every two weeks, well then, you’ve just lost over $400 a year,” he said.

Idea #3: Say “yes” to reject water

If Jim Keller’s calculations are correct, most carwash operators are wasting $6,500 a year by not capturing the water rejected from their reverse osmosis systems. According to Keller, it is the most cost-effective way for carwashes, especially older self-serves and in-bay automatics, to re-coup money.

“Most operators have spot-free for the final rinse, and a lot of them are wasting the rejected spot-free water instead of storing it in a tank and using it in the wash,” Keller said. Self-serves, which often don’t have the room or resources for a reclaim system, can easily equip their wash with a holding tank for reject water.

Keller spoke of one operator in a community where the water and sewer rates had just doubled. “They were up to like $6 per thousand for water and sewer,” Keller said. The operator was dumping his reject water, about 1,000 gallons a day, which meant his cast-off was about 3,000 gallons total each day at the wash.

“He was dumping $18 a day. He never even considered capturing that RO water and getting that $18 back,” Keller said.

Most operators use 5-6 gallons of water per car for RO. For operators who also use the spot-free water to clean windows and longer rinse times, the amount per car is usually 6-7 gallons. The rejected water cast-off from these systems depends upon each application, but is typically between 2-3 gallons.

Determining how many vehicles the carwash does a day, and how many gallons of RO is used per car, an operator can arrive at a figure of water savings. From there, the operator must decide if he has room for a holding tank — either above ground or below ground — to capture the rejected water.

“Older washes usually don’t have a lot of room for storage,” Keller said. So for these sites, capturing the rejected water can be a challenge. What these sites do have, Keller said, are abnormally small RO systems with abnormally large tanks. Most have 1,000 gallon tanks which are unnecessary and RO units equipped with only one membrane. The smarter solution would be to install an RO system with more membranes, and a smaller storage tank. The more membranes an RO system is equipped with, the more reject water is available to be captured. A smaller holding tank can still contain all of the water necessary to make good use of the reject water.

One of the most overlooked benefits, Keller said, is the reject reservoir’s ability to reduce water supply and meter fees associated with larger supply lines. Cutting down these numbers means huge cost savings for operators.

Idea #4: Dig a well

It pops up on Internet forums and during conversation at convention trade shows every now and then — well water and carwashes. Sometimes, the response is favorable. Other times, it is discouraging. At any rate, the intriguing, if sometimes taboo topic, has become a more popular discussion piece in the last five years as water rates continue to escalate and operators grasp at any method that might help cut operating costs.

There are hurdles involved, like dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local regulations. Operators must invest in additional equipment and chemicals to clean their water. And cost savings, some argue, cannot be fully realized unless the carwash illegally finds a way around sewer meters.

Despite these hurdles, the appeal of well water remains. It’s a chance to live off the grid, to renew your own renewable resource and to forget about one more bill on your list of operating expenses. Operators and industry experts caution operators interested in this water solution to tread carefully and pay due diligence to all of the pitfalls before they start digging.

John “Mac” McCarthy, a Magic Wand distributor in North Fort Meyers, FL, recently set up two of his customers, both located in Florida, on well water. In both cases, the investors came to him with the idea of well water, which hasn’t yet become popular among distributors and water equipment manufacturers.

“I wish I had been the guy that thought of using a well. It’s been really successful,” he said. In his opinion, well water should be used wherever it’s practical.

Based upon his experience setting up the two washes, McCarthy offered the following advice:

  1. Even though the carwash will use well water, city water should still be plumbed to the wash as a backup source;
  2. Choose a reputable well-drilling company. Make sure they have been around a while and understand your specific needs;
  3. Install a high-quality sand/particle filter in the equipment room. This filter is critical. There are some made of clear plastic that can be visually inspected. If a bunch of sand gets into the equipment it can create a nightmare of issues; and
  4. Decide how you will dispose of the wastewater. This can be done with city sewer, partial reclaim, irrigation use or a combination of these methods. Climate and local building codes will determine what needs to be done.

On the topic of chemicals and water treatment equipment, Cary Wise, general manager for North American Operations of Rowafil USA, LLC in Lakehills, TX, warned operators of a multitude of situations that arise when operators use their own water.

“The scenarios you’ll come across are very geographical,” Wise said. “For example, out here in Texas, the hardness of the water is a real concern. Up in New England, arsenic is a real concern.”

Operators should test their water for iron, hydrogen sulfide (the rotten egg smell) and hardness. They should also take a good look at the pH level.

Not addressing any of these issues would wreak havoc on carwash equipment, Wise said. The black sludge created when hydrogen sulfide oxidizes can ruin pumps and screens.

“There is a list of probably 60 or 70 more things that you would need to test for,” Wise said. But iron, hardness, hydrogen sulfide and pH are the main concerns. He encouraged operators to work with a water technology expert to achieve the best possible results.

“Just make sure it’s someone who knows the carwash industry,” he said. “You’ve got a whole bunch of complex situations that are going to arise, and they should have some experience with those.”

Even if your carwash offers close to 100 percent reclaim, you will need to hook up to the city sewer facility and use a sewer meter. There are fees associated with this service, and some operators claim this means using a well is not worth the hassle.

But with average water rates doubling this year, and most likely doubling next year, industry veterans like Wise and McCarthy continue to believe in the advantages of well water.

Currently, only about one to two percent of operators are using well water, and a majority of these carwashes are found in rural areas or in Canada, where cities are less populated.

Wise estimated that a typical carwash would need about $5,000 in equipment and chemicals to fix the water for use. “That’s a one time expense,” he explained. “And water treatment equipment today is really reliable. It’s made to last a long time, about 20 to 25 years.”

Idea #5: Close it off

In the world of filtration, the future is now in many respects. In Connecticut, there are two conveyorized carwashes operating closed loop, zero discharge systems.

Designed by SoBrite Technologies Inc., of Eureka, IL, the systems are so balanced, the only water they draw from the municipal system is what is lost to evaporation, about 4-6 gallons per car, according to Bryant Ruder, vice president of the carwash division for SoBrite.

The key is water management, Ruder said. The system uses 2,000-gallon tanks which hold the water and collect the solids. One tank is a back-up, another collects the solids and the remaining three hold the water which gets filtered on a 24/7 basis.

The closed loop systems were installed because the local municipality would not allow a carwash to dump into the sewer system. “The only discharge they have is for the toilet,’’ Ruder noted.

Cost of the extra equipment was more than offset by the lack of any sewer connection fees. Ruder said one of the operations immediately saved more than $200,000 on the connection fees.

In actual construction costs, Ruder said “an electrician was probably on the job for a day, day-and-a-half more and a plumber a couple more days.’’

Ruder said RO systems are probably at their peak efficiency for the carwash industry right now. While there are stronger systems out there, they require more pressure, and therefore stronger construction. That extra cost makes them prohibitive for a carwash operation. “Carwashes aren’t nuclear submarines,’’ he noted. “You aren’t making freshwater from the sea.”