Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Water containment, detailers and the EPA

August 9, 2011

When it comes to waste water discharge, most detailers are like the perennial ostrich, sticking their head in the sand and hoping that the problem will go away and the local authorities will not bother them.

Unfortunately, in North America, most detailers are in violation of the Environmental Protection Act in Canada and the Clean Water Act in the United States because they wash cars and/or engines in the street and allow the effluent (water and chemicals) to be discharged into the storm drain or onto the ground. A storm drain is designed to handle only rainwater. In most instances, this system discharges water directly into the rivers and streams untreated.

A sanitary sewer, on the other hand, treats all effluent or discharge before it is put into rivers and streams. All carwash operations, service stations, quick lubes and any business with a wet bay will be connected to the sanitary sewer with an oil-water separator as well.

Environmental and money issues

This comes at no small cost to the businessperson. Sewer connection charges and monthly sewer use costs can amount to hundreds of dollars. Not to mention the expense of putting in the grease trap and the oil-water separator and the connection costs themselves.

Is it any wonder that carwash operators are keeping an eye out for mobile carwashes, charity carwashes and mobile detailers who are not only violating the law, but also avoiding the payment of costs the carwash operator is obligated to pay?

As a result of this, and the consumer’s awareness that we need to take better care of the Earth, the environmental issue is heating up. As a result, more pressure is being exerted on government agencies to do something about the polluting of our environment.

Detailers, whether mobile or fixed with no connection to the sanitary sewer, had better wake up because they are subject to substantial fines, personal liability and the possible suspension of their business license.

Consider this

Apparently, some detailers do not care, and some do not know about the full extent and power of the above-mentioned legislation. Even if they find out, most cannot afford to comply with the laws.

Put simply, you are breaking the law if you allow wastewater to run into the storm drain or seep into the ground. Every time a detailer washes a car or engine, they use water and chemical to clean and wash away the dirt, etc. Even diluted, this effluent contains 100 to 10,000 ppm of hydrocarbons as it runs into the drain or soil. This means that a detailer is polluting the environment.

A single mobile detailer can generate from 1 million to 10 million gallons of effluent each year. The hydrocarbons on a single car can amount to at least 1 ounce of hydrocarbons each time it is washed. And this does not even take into consideration the hydrocarbons that would come off an engine. Where you might use about 8 to 10 gallons of high-pressure water for a rinse, the contamination would also include several ounces of soap. Just imagine, then, over 12,000 detail shops washing five vehicles per day over a five-day workweek, and you can see the amount of pollution generated by our industry alone. The 12,000 represents approximately 80 percent of the detail shops in the United States and Canada that do not have a proper effluent discharge system. This may even be conservative.

Hydrocarbon pollution

A substantial amount of water pollution comes from the hydrocarbons discharged into the rivers and streams. Some hydrocarbons float on water and form a film. The barrier inhibits oxygen from entering the water and interferes with aquatic insect life, which in turn affects marine life. Other hydrocarbons dissolve in water making it highly toxic.

When you consider that cleaning hydrocarbons off engines and vehicle bodies will require strong detergents, aggressive acids, phosphates and high alkaline products, the problem is compounded. Hydrocarbons are not necessarily as harmful or toxic as many other substances, but it is the volume in our business that is the problem.

So, what is the solution?

If you are a fixed location, do not wash engines or cars without the proper discharge system. If you are mobile, use some type of containment system to catch the water so it can be disposed of properly.

No matter how you look at it, the solutions are not simple or inexpensive. As an individual, and as an industry detailer, detailing must make a first step. In a speech at Enviro-Clean Expo, Doug Latimer suggested this action plan:

  1. Become fully aware of the impact the Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act have on your business.
  2. Analyze your situation to see what has to be modified or changed.
  3. Reeducate and retrain yourself and your people to operate legally and in compliance with the laws.
  4. Identify and source the necessary information and resources to help you.
  5. Develop and implement a plan of action.
  6. If you are washing cars and engines, you must register with your local authorities. You should think about doing it. The National Pollution Discharge Elimination System enacted October 1, 1993, in the United States is something you should all educate yourselves with.

You must realize that polluters — and you are a polluter if you do not have a proper effluent discharge system or catch pad for your discharge — face rising insurance costs given the risks involved, and you may find that you will be liable for cleanup or correction. Worse, any properties that you pollute could ultimately be rendered worthless and you would be held personally liable.

The laws and agencies

In the United States, the Federal Environmental Protection blanket are additional sections identified as RCRA (Re-source Conservation and Recovery Act); CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Responses, Compensation and Liability Act); SARA (Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act), among many others.

There are also local Emergency Planning Districts and local Emergency Planning Committees, some of which have broad regulatory powers and may be involved in site visits and inspections.

Rather than sort your way through all laws and agencies to try and find a loophole that is not there, keep it simple. Basically the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laws state that it is illegal to discharge any effluents into the storm drain and that effluents discharged into the sanitary sewer must be treated and certain elements removed before discharge can occur.

As stated earlier, a storm drain is designed to accept rain and melted snow water and discharges them directly into the streams and rivers, virtually untreated. Ultimately, this discharge hits the federally controlled waterways.

The sanitary sewer, on the other hand, takes all sewage and industrial wastes through a treatment plant before they are discharged into the streams and rivers.

False signals

While the federal law sets the minimum standards, the state and local laws can be even stricter than the federal standards. The federal EPA depends on state and local agencies to enforce the law’s minimum standards as well as their own stricter regulations.

Unfortunately, many of these local agencies with limited budgets, overworked staff and general government inefficiencies are negligent in their enforcement, giving false signals to small businesses that it is okay to discharge effluents into the storm drain. It is not, and if and when they do enforce the laws you could be in big trouble.

One terrifying example was an auto dealer who was cited because his detail department was washing cars, cleaning engines and allowing the effluent to flow directly into the storm drain. He was not only substantially fined but was levied a $300,000 bill for cleanup.

Again, if you wash cars with soap, clean wheels with wheel cleaner and/or clean engines, you must have a grease trap and this must be connected to the sanitary sewer or containment system. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Hazardous waste

In the past, it seemed only large businesses, such as chemical manufacturers, had to worry about hazardous waste. Today, any business that generates hazardous waste, especially small businesses, must understand the hazardous wastes they produce, how they are to be handled and even recorded.

To shed more light on the issue, let us talk a moment about hazardous waste and what they are by EPA law. A hazardous waste is a material you have used that can cause serious problems if not handled or disposed of properly and carefully. Such waste has the potential to cause:

  1. Injury or death, or
  2. Damage or pollute land, air, or water.

Do you generate hazardous waste?

It is an important question. If the answer is “no,” you do not need to read further. But, the detail business does generate hazardous waste, so read on.

If you don’t believe me, and choose to answer, “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t think so,” then you must find out if any of your wastes are hazardous to determine what regulations would apply to your detail business.

What is considered hazardous?

There are two ways for a waste to be considered hazardous:

  1. It is specifically listed as hazardous which means it appears on any one of the four lists contained in RCRA regulations. There are over 400 on the list. And, I can guarantee you, there are many detail chemicals, or elements thereof, that are on the list.
  2. It can possess one or more of these characteristics:
    1. Ignitable: Easily combustible, such as solvents, lacquer thinner, etc.
    2. Corrosive: It dissolves or corrodes metals or burns the skin.
    3. Reactive: It is unstable or undergoes violent reactions in combination with water or other materials. For example, gold plating wastes, bleaches, oxidizers.
    4. Extractor Procedure Toxic: It contains high concentrations of heavy metals, which can be released into the ground water.

This is exactly what engine cleaning does, with or without using engine-degreasing chemicals. Metals from the engine mixed with water and/or chemical create a hazardous waste.

It is your responsibility to know if your wastes are hazardous.

Some hints on determining what’s hazardous

There are a few hints to use to determine if you are generating hazardous wastes.

  1. Do you use chemicals that foul the air in your shop?
  2. If yes, how do you provide for ventilation?
  3. Are you using common sanitary sewers or storm drains for wastes that contain chemicals you are using?
  4. If storm drains, do you have special traps to stop or separate the chemicals, or to treat or neutralize them?
  5. Do you let waste material runoff into the ground or leak into the ground?
  6. Do you store any waste materials?

In every one of the above-mentioned cases, you need at least a permit or to register with one of the EPA agencies to comply with the law. Have you done this? It is very likely you are dumping hazardous wastes in the operation of your detail business.

If you need assistance, you have two choices:

  1. Call in a professional consultant to evaluate your business.
  2. Call EPA’s Small Business Ombudsman Hotline: 1-800-368-5888.

Never, under any circumstances, do nothing.


R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car care industry. He is also the executive director of the International Detailing Association and a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted at buda@detailplus.com.