Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Water Woes

October 11, 2010
This summer, as water-related disasters plastered the headlines at, the staff of Professional Carwashing & Detailing set out to investigate some of the most troubling issues related to water in the carwash industry. From drought to sewer fees to the recent outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease at an Australian carwash, PC&D has sought out experts and experienced operators to provide solutions to the most pressing water woes and to help readers better understand their options for the future.

As a complement to this issue, suppliers of water reclamation and recycling equipment are listed in a special advertising section found at the end of this article. Whatever your course of action after reading this article, let there at least be an action. From educating customers to installing a reclamation system, even the most minor of changes can help set a pace for our industry as we move into more challenging and expensive times of water usage.

The Issue: Drought
If Bill Sartor had his way, he’d be flying to a different American city every week giving the same speech: Unite
as an industry and prepare your businesses — for impending drought now.

Sartor, general partner of four Washem Car Wash self-serve locations in San Antonio and former president of the International Carwash Association, is best known in the industry for his efforts to organize the carwash industry in San Antonio after carwashes in the city were caught unprepared by a drought in 1996. He has since used that experience to benefit countless other operators who have dealt with water shortages; making speeches and presentations to groups of carwash operators, as well as to water districts and managers. Earlier this year, he coached operators in Georgia and North Carolina through their own drought crises.

The first step in preparing for drought, Sartor said, is to understand the current drought management rules in your municipality. After you’re familiar with the current plan, it’s time to get to know (and then to educate) your regulators. Simultaneously, you should be aligning with other operators to create a unified front. These groups can be state associations (as was done in North Carolina and in Georgia) or they can be regional efforts. In North Carolina and in Georgia, operators created a state association under the umbrella of a regional group, the Southeastern Car Wash Association.

Most importantly, don’t wait until it’s too late, Sartor cautioned. “It needs to be a proactive measure, not a reactive one,” Sartor said. “When you’re not in a drought, it’s time to get ready for the next. The biggest mistake is waiting for a drought to happen.”

Another big mistake is making the standards the same for all carwash types. “They did that in North Carolina,” he said. Instead, make sure your plan offers flexibility for all the different types of carwashes. “Self-serves use water differently than in-bay carwashes and conveyors,” Sartor explained. “Remember to make provisions for that in your plan.”

Inspection program used to certify San Antonio carwashes, courtesy of Bill Sartor.

Sign displayed at San Antonio carwashes, courtesy of Bill Sartor

United we stand, divided we dry out
California is the latest state to get caught with its pants around its ankles. Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought in June and since then operators have been busy playing catch up. Aaron Zeff, CEO of Harv’s Car Wash, a chain of three conveyor locations in Sacramento, said he has already met with city officials at his city’s public utilities commission as well as the various local water agencies to discuss collaborating on education efforts around water conservation.

The chain, which has made conserving water a priority as part of its overall eco-friendly focus, has launched several initiatives to raise awareness of its conservation efforts during drought, Zeff explained. “I believe it is important to underscore that conserving water is not just about maintaining the quantity of our water supply but is also about preserving the quality of our water supply,” Zeff said.

Zeff also expressed interest in uniting with other California operators, perhaps under the umbrella of the Western Carwash Association.

“I do believe that there may be value in following the example of other states and creating a statewide association specifically focused on the unique needs and challenges of California based operators,” Zeff explained. “[It] is clear that a ‘California Car Wash Association’ could provide a practical and important vehicle for reaching out to key state agencies and working with the appropriate elected officials to help address our current water and environmental issues.”

The Issue: Waterless Carwashing
If you still think waterless carwashing is just a blip, perhaps Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) latest business venture will change your mind. The Fortune 500 company, together with international franchiser ProntoWash USA, has opened a waterless Mr. Clean Auto Spa in the parking garage of an upscale Cincinnati commercial center.

Although it’s most commonly known as a waterless carwash franchiser, ProntoWash CEO Stuart Williams shies away from the term “waterless.” Instead, he explains that workers at the Mr. Clean location will use a spray-on product and “miracle” lotion to hand wash and wax the vehicle, just as they do at over 25 of ProntoWash’s franchised locations in the United States. The company’s website says the solution is a “mix of water and Teflon waxes that attracts and adheres dirt, which is later removed by using a cloth with a specific porosity.”

According to Williams, the entire process is biodegradable and typically uses less than one pint of water, making it a media darling in Texas and in California, where drought has put carwashes in the center spotlight.

Coming down the pipe
Williams says you can expect a lot more from the ever-expanding world of waterless carwashing in the near future. “Years ago, when this stuff was first coming out, it damaged cars and just generally wasn’t an acceptable cleaning method. But now, you’re seeing the next generation and you’re seeing some products that really clean very well,” Williams said. “This category is definitely continuing to expand. We see a lot more coming.”

For now, the Mr. Clean venture is simply part of a pilot program to test the viability of a waterless carwash business. In fact, P&G doesn’t even technically own the carwash station — ProntoWash does. “They [Procter & Gamble] approached us because they were very interested in adding a premium hand wash and detail system as another way to reach their customers,” Williams explained. “This service fits very well with their brand, especially as they increasingly market themselves as an eco-friendly company.”

There are already two full-service Mr. Clean carwashes in the Cincinnati market and the company has plans to open several more in the next year. Each location recycles a large amount of the water used and mentions this and other environmental benefits of the carwash in its marketing, so trying the waterless method wasn’t exactly a stretch.

From conveyors to parking garages
Zeff of Harv’s is another conveyor operator interested in waterless carwashing. He told PC&D he has had “extensive” conversations with several companies that produce waterless carwash products and he is exploring the possibility of piloting the use of such a product at his conveyor locations as a means of offering customers a car care alternative that uses a minimal amount of water.

And he says he’s not the only one. “I know that there are operators in Georgia that are also evaluating the possibility of integrating a ‘waterless’ carwash product into their service offerings,” Zeff said.

The Issue: Rising water and sewer fees
According to a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, cities and towns will need to spend $250 billion to $500 billion more over the next 20 years to maintain the drinking water and waste-water systems needed for modern living. Who will pay? That’s up for debate. The same story said federal funding for clean drinking water and wastewater treatment has declined 24 percent since 2001 so it’s likely that local water systems will be largely responsible.

The article pointed to the example of Atlanta, a city that doubled water rates and started a voter-approved referendum for a one percent sales tax to fund a $3.9 billion improvement program. How will your city pay? According to Greg McCadden, sales director of Advance Car Wash Solutions, LLC, if they start charging you, you’ll have to get smart.

“You’ve got to do your homework if you expect to survive these fees,” McCadden said from his company’s base in Denver. “Essentially you need to look at any way you can realistically conserve water.”

McCadden knows what he’s talking about. A few years ago, when the Denver market first started experiencing its growth spurt, he watched as the typical tap fee, which he said was a reasonable $20,000-30,000, ballooned to as much as $400,000 for a single carwash site.

“There were more people moving in than the city had water, and regardless of the level of conservation of the carwash — or its other environmental benefits — the city was going to make them pay.”

McCadden said the local municipalities were not very sympathetic to the plight of carwash operators, so it was up to the operators themselves to find ways to reduce these dramatic fees.

“These fees are absolutely incredible in some areas, which is sad when you consider that it’s critical that these carwashes should survive and perform. After all, they are providing a service that this community, more than ever, needs,” McCadden lamented.

Money down the drain
The benefits of professional carwashing that several municipalities in the Denver, area seem to be overlooking are the very benefits that may save operators, McCadden explained. Reclaiming and recycling water (thereby conserving its supply) also helps to reduce the water and sewer fees for these operators.

“In some locations, I’ve reduced water consumption by 40-50 percent simply by adjusting the reclaim,” he said. But you’ve got to do your homework, McCadden emphasized. This means not only meeting with a sales representative from a water reclaim company, but more importantly going out and meeting with operators who have such systems in place.

“You need to be asking them — not the sales guy — about the maintenance issues, the water quality, the odor. You need to hear it from someone running a carwash like yours,” McCadden said.

Aside from reclaiming and recycling water, you can also reduce consumption by changing nozzles, capturing reject water, using heated water and softening your water.

McCadden explained the reasoning behind the latter of those four tips: “There’s a number of people out there who don’t feel they need to heat or soften their water, but by heating your water you are reducing the amount of soaps needed and you’re also improving in the amount of performance you get out of the chemical or product you’re using. That helps.

“And by softening your water you use .3 percent per grain of hardness less chemical which requires less water to get the same results. People who are not heating and not softening their water are using considerably more water than people who are heating and softening their water. So that, within itself, is a huge difference.

“The plan is to be as frugal as possible without diminishing quality,” McCadden explained. “It’s very important that you still offer a quality product.”

Heading to city hall
Approaching government representatives is another way to reduce your water costs. In Denver, the Rocky Mount Car Wash Association, a group representing Colorado carwashers, has in some cases successfully lobbied for reduced fees.

When approaching your local water utility, have these facts in hand:
  • A copy of the ICA’s Water Use in the Professional Car Wash Industry report, as well as the Fish Toxicity Report, found at;

  • A list of the carwashes in your market area and their estimated consumption;

  • A list of the benefits of professional carwashing (conservation, control of chemicals, etc.); and

  • A copy of your city’s drought management plan, which highlights the necessity of carwashes during drought and might also explain the everyday benefits of having commercial carwashes available.
McCadden said he knows from personal experience that legislators are more likely to pass a carwash that is “green” than one that is not recycling water or pushing an environmentally-friendly agenda. Playing up the eco-safe benefits of carwashing can really help when dealing with city officials.

The Issue: Legionnaire's
America, consider yourself warned. Greg Boston, former president of the Australian Car Wash Association, says carwash operators here will be able to nip a serious problem in the bud by closely following the steps Australian operators have had to take in the wake of a Legionnaire’s outbreak at a Hoppers Crossing carwash in Victoria, Australia.

“It has taken us quite some time speaking with health authorities in all states, developing a document, and then obtaining approval from all experts to finally be in a position to circulate the document,” Boston explained. “The U.S. is in an advantageous position, prior to an identified outbreak of Legionnaires disease, to implement a prevention program. It involves a bit of effort but does protect operators and the industry from the likelihood of another outbreak.”

Lurking in the background
The threat of Legionnaire’s disease is not new to the industry. In 2001, PC&D reported that an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Cleveland had prompted a safety consultant firm to warn carwashes they were also susceptible to similar outbreaks if equipment is not properly cleaned and maintained. The Ford incident resulted in two deaths and CEC Consultants said carwashes with re-circulated water could be a source of the bacteria in summer periods, especially rinse sections.

Six years later, in August 2007, Legionnaire’s again made headlines on This time, two workers at an Albany, NY, bus washing station became ill after breathing mist from a contaminated washer at the station’s wash. Although the workers recovered, it served as a scary reminder that the possibility of a Legionnaire’s outbreak at a commercial carwash wasn’t too far off base.

The disease Down Under
The outbreak in Australia was reported by Professional Carwashing & Detailing this May. At first, authorities only warned of a possible connection between the reported illnesses of five people and the self-serve carwash they had visited earlier. But within a week, tests confirmed The Grand Car Wash had Legionella bacteria present in its warm water holding tanks. The carwash did not use a water reclaim system.

By the end of the month, Australia’s Department of Human Services had begun reviewing the safety of all carwashes, but stressed customers not to boycott them. At the time, DHS spokesman Bram Alexander sounded hopeful. “We need to talk more with the industry about developing a risk management approach for carwash operators,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers as to what these measures might be, but we are coming up with them.”

As of press time, the ACWA’s list of recommendations minimizing the likelihood of an outbreak was not available, but PC&D has arranged to publish the list online as the August issue is going to press. Check for detailed policies and procedures that you can implement at your carwash to reduce the chance of this situation repeating itself in your area.

The following documents have been provided by the Australian Car Wash Association




Kate Carr is the editor in chief of Professional Carwashing & Detailing® Magazine. Carr can be reached