Professional Carwashing & Detailing

The need for quality water is clear

October 11, 2010

You wouldn’t drink a glass of water that wasn’t clear or swim in a pool that was murky, so why would you expect anything less for the quality of your wash water? After all, contaminated water doesn’t just sacrifice the washing capabilities of your carwash — it could also ruin a car’s finish.

Charles Borchard, vice president of operations for the PurClean and PurWater Divisions of New Wave Industries, said the best quality water is like the old joke about two ways to get rich: “Be born with it or marry it.” Unless you built your wash next to a source of quality water out of the tap for little money, a more likely scenario, he said, is that you will need to do some level of treatment.

Is it possible to have quality water naturally?
Although there are instances where tap water is sufficient without treatment, this is becoming rare. “High-quality inexpensive tap water is getting harder to come by,” Borchard cautioned. “If there are a hundred operators reading this article, the 12 of you with high-quality inexpensive tap water can quit reading,” he joked.

Even with the good fortune of having a source of quality water, many of these operators will face rate hikes in the future and possibly even a withering of water quality.

Jim Keller, president of Con-Serv Manufacturing, a manufacturer of water treatment and reclaim systems, said carwash operators should first consider building in locations with a municipal provider because the better the quality of the source water the more affordable your treatment options will be, although he said additional research is necessary.

“Pretty much today the government regulators require municipal tap water providers to publish minimum quality standards of the water they provide,” he added. “Is the bar set high enough for the carwash operators? Is the soft water to make his chemicals work best or is the dissolved solids count too low not to leave spot? Most often the answer to this is no.”

The amount of dissolved solids in the tap water, according to Keller, will determine just how visible the spots will be after the water evaporates.

Do your homework and get involved
It’s important to keep a close eye on your water sources and make sure the government is keeping a close eye on them as well. According to Abby Stits, sales and marketing manager for Advanced Water Recycling Inc., owners and operators need to take a hands-on approach when it comes to water monitoring.

“Operators should work with their state and local trade associations and chambers of commerce to ensure that the carwash industry’s needs are considered and addressed in creation of laws and regulations,” Stits said. “Due to lack of information and industry knowledge, annually some laws are passed which benefit household consumers, but unwittingly hamstring water dependent businesses.”

Stits noted that it takes a lot of time and money, in the form of legal fees, lost revenue, etc., to amend the laws, but it’s far better, and easier, to be involved and recognized as a helpful industry resource to avoid such situations.

Operators have plenty of resources already at their fingertips. For instance, Borchard said there is a complete listing of drinking water standards available at and said there are 86 things listed for which there is a maximum contaminate level.

Borchard said operators should understand the legend used in conjunction with the list, which uses the abreviations MCL (maximum contaminant level), and mg/L, (milligrams per liter), which in vehicle washing is usually referred to as PPM (parts per million). “I am sure if all of those things were present at the maximum levels in the same water source it would be bad, fortunately that does not happen,” he said.

However, it is important to note there are certain contaminants to look for and certain particles that will have zero impact on washing a car. As an example, Borchard said that Cyanide, which has a MCL of .2 mg/l, or 2 parts in ten million, can cause nerve damage or thyroid problems, but will have zero impact on your ability to wash a truck.

“In fact,” he noted, “the majority of these things will not impact your ability to wash vehicles.” From a wash operator’s point of view, the criteria to look for are:

  • A pH out of the normal 7.0 to 7.4 range;
  • Water hardness greater than six grains per gallon; and/or
  • TDS, (total dissolved solids) higher than 50 PPM.

Any or all of these would require some level of treatment.

Worst water for your wash
Unfortunately, assessing the condition of your water by sight is not a good indicator of its health. Clear and clean water doesn’t necessarily mean high quality. One of the industry’s biggest concerns is water hardness, which can’t be noted simply by looking at the water.

According to Borchard, hard water will primarily impact detergents’ ability to lather. If you rinse with it and do not get a good dry, the hard water will leave spots on the glass and painted surfaces of your vehicles that may require buffing out.

Fortunately, hardness can be addressed with a water softener. The most common water softening method is “ion exchange,” according to Borchard, which is a reversible chemical process of exchanging hard water ions for soft water ions.

Along with hard water, Keller said dissolved solids, flocculants and chloramines should also be monitored. “Dissolved solids will leave water spots from evaporated water droplets and cause streaks on glass when used with window cleaner,” he explained. He added that flocculants and chloramines are used by water providers in some areas to treat water for drinking or residential use, but will make your situation more difficult.

Keller said sand can also be an issue in some water supplies, although it is more commonly found in wells than in municipal tap water. In carwashes with high pressure or cloth, the sand particulate could impregnate into the cloth and could cause a dulling effect on clear coat and other fine finishes. However, he said, the chances of this happening using municipal water are highly unlikely.

When and how to test
It’s a good idea to test your water or to monitor it on a regular basis because contaminant levels fluctuate. According to Borchard, municipalities and water districts are required to have their water tested every four years, and most utilities will post these test results on their web pages. If the test results are not available online, you can simply call and request a copy.

“If you are using a private source, such as a well for human consumption as well as vehicle washing, you should probably follow the same guidelines,” he said.

Often water will change in areas when reservoirs are dependent on different sources during the year, said Keller, who added that well water can fluctuate slightly depending on the water tables. “Most of the time testing can be accomplished quickly and easily with hand held meters and hardness test kits,” he suggested.

Embracing the treatment system
Unless your wash is located in one of those areas that has top-quality tap water, it is more than likely that you’re going to need, or you already have, a water treatment system. Well, you are not alone.

Keller said he has noticed an increasing trend in the use of treatment systems in the carwashing industry. The primary reasons, noted Keller, are the savings in the chemical cost and the savings in labor. “Also, not having to worry about every water droplet leaving a spot on the vehicle finish and having the water quality work well with the drying aid allows for cleaner, dryer cars without the cost of high horsepower dryers or the labor to manually capture every drop that might leave a spot,” he said.

And water treatment doesn’t have to be expensive. Keller said some operators overdo it and treat every drop used washing the vehicle, but suggested operators on a budget concentrate on a few key areas of the wash process. For instance, treating the water used for pre-soak, foam soap and wheel cleaners will generally pay for itself in the savings they will derive from the smaller amount of chemicals used, Keller noted.

Keller also suggested operators save money by installing a reverse osmosis (RO) spot free system. “Obtaining a water quality analysis from the local supplier most likely will eliminate the need for a water softener prior to the RO system. Most good quality RO membranes are tolerant to the water supplied from the tap. The use of a good back washable carbon filter will be a sufficient prerequisite to the RO spot free system.”

Or, to put it more simply, according to Borchard, yes, “water systems can be expensive, but if they are the difference between being in business and not, then they are worth it.”