Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Water issues for carwash professionals

January 25, 2012

The winter can be pretty rough for most parts of the country, but spring is almost here…thank goodness…and business at most professional carwash centers will soon be in full swing once again.

This means that lots of water, which is becoming increasingly expensive in many parts of the country, will be needed. For some professional carwash locations, the costs related to both water and water treatment are becoming so high that they can trim profits, in some cases rather significantly. Worse yet, virtually all experts say the cost of water will likely go up in years to come.

So there is no better time than now to start investigating ways water can be conserved and used more responsibly where necessary. In some cases, steps can be taken that are relatively inexpensive. In other cases, they may require a significant investment. However, for carwash owners planning to be in business for several years, the return on the investment for even pricier water-reducing systems may be far quicker than anticipated and improve profits more than expected.

Know the facts…don’t take it on the chin

Often communities experiencing water shortages find carwashes quick and easy targets because commercial carwashing is such a water-intensive industry.

But while it is important that we all do what we can to conserve water, the carwash industry must remember that when cars are washed in a professional carwash center, less water is used than when car owners do it themselves at home. In addition, fewer contaminants are sent down sewers to be treated by local water departments in order to protect waterways. This invariably becomes an issue during the spring and summer months, especially in parts of the country that are dry or drought stricken.

The facts speak for themselves. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other sources:

  • A home owner washing a car with a garden hose uses as much as 10 gallons of water per minute (GPM); average flow rate at a professional carwash is about 3 GPM.
  • Washing a car at home can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes; at a professional carwash it takes about 3 to 5 minutes.
  • The average home owner uses about 116 gallons of water to wash a car; most commercial carwashes use about 60 percent less water, with some advanced systems reporting using less than 10 gallons of water.*
  • Carwashing can be a major cause of water pollution; however, on a per car basis, pollution levels are significantly higher when cars are washed at home than when they’re washed at a commercial carwash location.

Professional carwash associations and spokespersons encourage commercial carwash owners to be aware of these facts about water use and disposal. If cars are to be cleaned, it appears fairly conclusive that less water is used and fewer pollutants stream down sewers when they are cleaned at a professional carwash.

The big fix

Although there are several smaller and less expensive ways commercial carwashes can reduce water use, one of the most effective steps they can take is to install a water reuse/recycling system. While such systems can be costly — as much as $100,000 — the return on the investment can come in less than five years. When compared to other types of renewable resource systems, such as solar panels or wind turbines, this is an impressive time frame.

Case in point: A commercial carwash in Illinois has been using some type of water recycling system for close to 20 years. “We were doing it before it was cool,” says Frank Trilla, owner of the carwash. “We were doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

This system works by pumping used water into four 2,500-gallon filtering tanks. The soapy water, soils, and contaminants work their way down through filters via gravity. Clean water stays at the top and is then ready for reuse. The cycle takes about 10 hours to complete but allows the carwash to recycle approximately 10,000 gallons of water daily. As mentioned earlier, because most carwashes must pay for water twice — first by purchasing the water and then through the sewer bill — this equals a huge savings in water consumption and the related costs.

According to Trilla, the carwash must still purchase water from the city, and on high-volume days, this amount can be significant. However, overall, the center uses far less water with the recycling system in place. On moderate- to low-volume water days, as much as 80 percent of the water used by the carwash is recycled with the rest coming from the tap.

Other than recycling systems, less costly but still significant water-saving technologies that can be considered for conveyor and in-bay locations include the following:

  • For light trucks and smaller cars, select rollover conveyor equipment that uses less than 3.5 gallons of water per minute.
  • At in-bay locations, replace nozzles regularly and check for and repair leaks.
  • Check alignment of the nozzles to make sure they spray cars rather than the walls.
  • Time the arches so that spraying systems are activated as soon as the car approaches and stops as soon as it leaves the arch.
  • Institute a “hold” time after the wash to allow water to run off the vehicle into the reclaim pit if a recycling system is in place.

And for both types of locations, institute a scheduled maintenance program — in writing. Putting it in writing formalizes the program and ensures that inspections and maintenance are completed on a set schedule to help catch small problems before they become big issues.

In-house savings

The carwash bay is not the only area of a commercial carwash that uses water. Carwash managers are often surprised by how much water is used and can be saved by making changes in the restrooms of the facility.

To help reduce water use in restrooms, carwash owners should make sure that low-flow and no-flow restroom fixtures are installed. And typically, this can be done at relatively little expense. For instance:

  • Install flow-reduction nozzles to reduce the amount of water used per minute from about 2.7 gallons to less than 1 gallon.
  • Replace older toilets with new systems that use 1.6 gallons of water per flush; this can be further reduced with a variety of technologies such as dual-flush systems that use approximately .8 gallon for liquid waste and 1.2 gallons for solid waste.
  • Replace older urinals with newer systems that use about 1 gallon of water; taking this a step further, no-water or Waterless® systems use no water at all and can save as much as 40,000 gallons of water per year per urinal.

The Long and Short of It

“Water is going to be the biggest environmental issue that we face in terms of both quantity and quality in years to come,” stated Christine Whitman, administrator of the EPA.

Many others including scientists, government advisers, and environmentalists have called water the oil of the 21st century. This means it is going to get more expensive, there may be shortages from time to time, and more areas of the world will have to import water instead of depending on their own local resources. In fact, in many parts of the world, this is already happening.

This means that professional carwash owners must take steps now to reduce water consumption and should view this as an ongoing process. As the industry takes a leadership role in this endeavor, it is less likely to be targeted by those who believe carwashes waste water. And it will be honored as an industry that has heard the call and is taking measures to save water not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is cost effective and the only way some locations will be able to survive in years to come.


A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc, Vista, Calif. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. The company's key product, the Waterless No-Flush urinal, works completely without water and was invented by Reichardt.

He is a member of U.S. Green Building Council since 1999 and joined the University of California Santa Barbara EcoEntrepreneur Advisory Board in 2008. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com.

*These statistics can vary and be impacted by local climate. For instance, in Arizona, a warm and dry state where evaporation is typically higher than in a damper, cooler state, it is estimated that cars washed at a self-serve location use about 12 gallons of water per vehicle; at an in-bay location, this jumps to about 72 gallons per vehicle; in a conveyor system, it’s about 44 gallons. However, these numbers are still lower—in some cases much lower—when compared to washing a car at a residence.