Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Water usage gets squeezed

October 11, 2010

In the vast and diverse carwash industry, water reclaim systems are the particular favorite of conveyor operators. It’s not hard to understand why. These businesses use more water and, therefore, realize the greater benefit when water is saved and reused.

But reclaim systems are becoming a more popular choice among self-serve, and especially in-bay automatic operators. As regulations, restrictions and public interest grows, so does the need to conserve and appreciate water use. To that end, we decided to track down the reclaim experts to learn how self-serve and IBA operators can squeeze more out of their budgets and still get good, clean water in their washes.

Managing your expenses
Dean Taylor, the system application specialist for CATEC Water Recovery and Ozone Systems, said that sure, there is a lot that goes into selecting and maintaining a system, but it’s all worth it in the end.

“A water reclaim system may very well be the most important piece of equipment an owner will invest in. With the skyrocketing water and sewer costs, I have clients that tell me their water reclaim system is the difference between profits and losses,” Taylor said.

Len Graziano is president of UCW II Management Co., the operating partner of Hydro Management Systems, and Hamilton Mill Car Wash & Auto Spa, and he knows firsthand what it’s like to be a carwash operator and someone concerned about saving water.

“It takes commitment to go ‘green,’” he admitted. “Some operators use that word easily because it’s trendy. We want to be environmentally conscious operators, so we practice what we preach.”

The plusses
Money talks. It’s that simple. Saving the environmental is also a worthy cause, but it’s secondary to operating a profitable business. For existing carwashes the motivating factor is usually a rise or expected increase in water and sewer rates, according to Taylor.

“We’ve seen water and sewer double and even triple overnight. That’s when our phone lines get very busy,” he said. “These increases can have a detrimental effect on the owner’s bottom line and in some cases can even force them out of business if they don’t take measures to reduce these costs. Implementing a good reclaim system can offset these increases and many times offer savings above and beyond the increase.”

Typically, according to Taylor, with an automatic carwash with self-service bays, water use can be reduced by about 70 percent. Almost all sewer bills, he said, are derived from water use, so reducing sewer costs are directly proportional to reducing water costs.

The most water-efficient carwashes, according to Taylor, are typically ones that have no sewer access. These situations demand that the owner make use of every drop to reduce or eliminate overflow.

“Typically,” he said, “these washes have an overflow holding tank installed to capture excess water. When full, the tanks must be pumped and water hauled from the site. This can be very expensive, so measures must be taken to limit or eliminate excess water.”

The concerns
Three major concerns, according to Tracy Smith, vice president of UCW II Management Co., and Hamilton Mill Car Wash & Auto Spa, are odor, water quality and maintenance. “There are systems which satisfy all three concerns,” he said, but, you have to do your homework.

As for the odors, Graziano said it can be a problem because of the small holding tanks in the equipment rooms. “Even reclaim systems with effective odor controls can’t treat this standing water overnight. Bacteria can grow, and that causes the smell. If you can keep the water moving, eliminating the odor is no problem,” he said.

Water quality, according to Taylor, seems to be their biggest concern, but with a good reclaim system installed, the customer shouldn’t be able to detect reclaim water is being used on his vehicle.

In addition to creating a bad smell, poor water quality can also take its toll on wash equipment. “Stinky reclaim water is the number one enemy,” Taylor cautioned. “Water can enter vents and door jams of the vehicle which will stay with the car, even after the customer leaves. Odor problems can and will run customers off.”

Chemical compatibility, according to Taylor, is also an issue. “If the wash chemicals being used are not properly balanced and reclaim compatible, poor results can be expected. Different types of reclaim systems require different chemical blends. It’s very important that anyone using a reclaim system have the proper chemicals that will not cause problems with wash quality or reclaim system performance.”

Taylor advised operators to be wary of any system that claims to be compatible with all wash chemicals. “That is simply a heedless statement,” he said, and advised owners to ask specifically about the chemicals they are using.

To offset these concerns, Taylor said to choose a system with a good warranty, chemical compatibility and odor control and performance guarantees. Addressing these issues head-on before your purchase will pave the way for a successful future.

Advice for self-serve operators
As for self serves, because they use so little water, water reclaims systems are usually installed when it is mandated by the local municipality, according to Smith. “The return on investment is not as good with a self serve and better with an IBA, but the decision to add a reclaim system is based on how expensive the water and sewer fees are,” Smith said.

Many reclaim system manufacturers refuse to reclaim self-service bays because of the possibility of illegal dumping in the wash bays, Taylor said, and some operators may experience difficulty in shopping for a system. Don’t let that deter you, though. Taylor said CATEC has successfully installed hundreds of systems at self-serves across the country.

“We’ve seen just about anything you can imagine dumped in self-service bays. From oil changing to RV holding tanks, to carpet cleaning trucks to hunters cleaning deer in the wash bays, there are people in this world who just don’t care,” he said. “As you can imagine, this could create quite a mess for a reclaim system. Fortunately, there are systems that are very resilient and easily recovered from these situations.”

Graziano agreed in that there is no way to stop or regulate what some customers are sending down the drain. “Oils, paint, and anti-freeze can all wreak havoc on a reclaim system,” he said.

This problem isn’t without a solution, though. David F. Roberts, president of Freytech Inc., suggested self-serve operators invest in an oil-water separator system which can be retrofitted onto existing concrete tanks or installed in new, locally-provided above- or below-ground tanks. These systems come in sizes from 50 all the way to 1,100 gallons per minute.

“You don’t want oil getting into your recycling unit,” Roberts cautioned. “If you have oil in your recycled water, it will negatively impact the chemicals of the soaps and on the drying agents when your next car is washed. Even the smallest traces of oil aren’t good for the water. It’s not just a matter of meeting environmental discharge requirements; it has to also do with your end product, which is a clean dry vehicle.”

As a final precautionary measure, Roberts recommended that operators place signs in the bays to warn customers that changing oil or dumping waste in the bays is illegal. “Put up all kinds of signs, telling them not to dump pollutants on site — even call the cops if you have to.”