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The weight of water

October 11, 2010
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Summary: As the lifeblood of the carwash industry, water is an indispensable resource that owners hate to think about being depleted.

However, this is a problem that must be addressed for the carwash industry to continue to thrive and grow.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing asked industry experts and carwash owners who are dealing with water issues to discuss current water problems, possible future difficulties and what the industry can do to better prepare for complex water concerns.

In 2003, according to Professional Carwashing & Detailing's Automatic Carwash Benchmarking Survey, the average annual water expense for an automatic carwash was just over $8,500.

In 2004, that number rose dramatically to almost $15,000.

As the total expense of water went up, the percent of full-service carwashes that don't recycle water went down from 46.3 percent to 38 percent, and at exterior-only sites it declined from 45.9 percent to 43.1 percent.

Does this mean that although more carwashes are recycling water the cost of using water is still increasing?

In general, water and sewer rates throughout the US are increasing. However, the disbursement of increasing fees is unequal, with some cities and towns increasing significantly and suddenly, while others delay the inevitable or institute a gradual escalation.

The cities must find the solution

Christine Whitman, past administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), brought the water issue to the forefront several years ago when she said, water is going to be the biggest environmental issue that we face in the 21st Century, in terms of both quantity and quality. US drinking water supplies will face challenges in the next century and solutions to at least some of them will require institutional changes. 

In this article, PC&D profiles operators like Mike Wilson and Damian Fox, who are prime examples of how infrastructure and municipal changes can affect carwash water bills in a negative manner. As you will see, Fox's water bills increased by half almost overnight, while Wilson saw a gradual increase that caused his water bill to swell to six times its original size.

This is largely because municipalities are realizing that water is an issue that will only become more complicated. However, without any federal guidelines or regulations, cities are left to determine the best course of action.

In many cases, this results in the city attempting to institute surcharges, taxes, or rate increases to cover the cost of building a new water infrastructure or fixing an old decaying one.

Infrastructure issues

Many carwash operators across the US are coping with higher water and sewer bills than they've ever seen before, and PC&D talked to four of them.

Many agree that aging infrastructure appears to be the culprit behind these increases as municipalities search for ways to raise funds for upgrades.

Although carwashes are not being targeted as they sometimes were in the past, they still bear a large brunt of the burden caused by a high-volume of water consumption.

According to Mark Thorsby, executive director of the International Carwash Association (ICA), in most communities the infrastructure that delivers water to towns and cities is 60 to 80-years-old and is beginning to crumble.

Thorsby explained that the infrastructure must be replaced and the only way for municipalities to deal with the financial burden is to increase the water rates, as many cities and towns have already done.

Most issues arise when municipalities institute increases or changes in billing to raise funds for the cost of replacement.

Because there are no federal guidelines, essentially the cities and towns are left to muddle through the modification process as best they can.

For several carwash owners and operators throughout the US, this has resulted in water bills and sewer charges that reach astronomical amounts, in excess of anything they've ever paid before.

Fighting city council: AZ water bill increased 620%

This tremendous increase is demonstrated by the events that transpired in Bald Knob, AZ, where Mike Wilson, owner of Pressure Point Car Wash, saw his water rates increase over 600 percent in juts half a decade.

According to Wilson, his rates were $290 a month five years ago and peaked earlier this year at $1,800.

Like other municipalities around the US, Bald Knob was trying to deal with the usage and transportation of water head-on by raising water rates to fund a new water system.

When Wilson reached the point where he couldn't handle another increase, he went to the City Council to present his concerns and seek a reduction.

Getting a response

Unlike many other operators, Wilson's points were well-received by the Council and eventually, after many meetings and a significant amount of time, the Council agreed to lower the commercial water fees slightly.

Wilson's rates have decreased from $1,800 a month to roughly $800, which is no small feat. Although his battle ended in success, many other wash owners don't have the same luck.

His advice to owners or operators faced with an unbendable water rate is to invest in a reclaim system, because even if the initial cost is high the savings in the long run will be well worth it.

He also advises other owners to stay on top of their local municipality and to educate the city as much as possible about actual carwash water usage rates.

CT operator sees water bill increase by half, instantly

While some cities will bring about a gradual increase, like in Wilson's case, other cities prefer to inflict a quick and painful increase.

Damian Fox, owner of Willimantic Car Wash in Willimantic, CT, can attest to the fact that water rate increases can and will sneak up on a carwash operator.

Not only did his town decide to increase water rates over the next three years, but it also did away with the usage rate discount given to businesses that use large quantities of water.

Fox said that the city initially planned to institute a gradual increase, much like Wilson's, and he was prepared for the seven percent a year increase for two consecutive years and six percent the third year.

However, once the usage discount rate was eliminated, his bill went up by 50 percent immediately.

How do you offset the water cost?

This is not the first time that Fox has faced an increase, although the last one was insignificant compared to this recent one.

Last year Fox raised his prices to offset the higher cost of water and other utilities he incurred.

Fox said that customers understood the price increase he instituted last year, but he doesn't think many customers will be so accepting of another price hike in such a short amount of time.

The incremental increase Fox's town instituted was announced, discussed and eventually understood and accepted by the local businesses.

But, according to Fox, the usage discount rate removal was neither ann-ounced nor open for discussion prior to its elimination; it caught Fox completely off-guard.

The funds being raised by the increase and elimination of the discount rate will be used by the town to build a new water treatment plant, Fox said. He was told that the town plans to pay for it all in one year.

Who has a choice?

Fox feels that the increase is particularly unfair because it leaves him with no other water options.

Businesses such as his don't have an option not to buy water from the town, but Fox's customers have the option not to use his carwash because of his escalating prices.

For the time being, Fox is fighting the town about the elimination of the discount usage rate and trying to get the City Council to reclassify carwashes to receive a discounted rate again.

Fox is working to conserve water in all the possible ways by tweaking his practices and staying on top of maintenance issues.

He considered installing a reclaim system, but his wash is over 30-years-old and making that transition would be costly.

Ohio operator adds reclaim, hopes public sees benefit

Much like Fox's situation, Jeff Bankey, owner of Blue Streak Wash N Fill and Russ' Auto Wash in Ohio and one Blue Streak Wash N' Fill in Michigan, has to decide how much to raise prices in order to deal with the sudden increase in his water bill. He also had to consider how his customers will react.

According to Bankey, water and sewer rates in Ohio have always been high, but of his three locations, his wash in Marion, OH, has been the worst.

Bankey is grappling with several dilemmas concerning the impending water problems; he doesn't want to have to raise prices because he fears he'll lose business, and he's afraid that his customers aren't educated enough about reclaim and might choose his competitors that don't use reclaim over his site if he does.

Reconsidering reclaim

Currently, Bankey doesn't use reclaim at any of his sites, however he plans to renovate two locations and is looking into adding reclaim.

He wants the public to become more aware about the harmlessness of reused water, but feels that many people might not change their perspective on it.

Bankey confessed that he thinks mandating reclaim systems is something carwashes may be faced with in the future and that possibility is weighing in heavily on his forthcoming decision.

Certification and conservation ease tough times in TX

Bill Sartor, owner of five Wash Em self-serve carwash sites in San Antonio, and past president of both the ICA and the Southwest Car Wash Association (SCWA), is dealing with the water rate hikes in his city calmly and rationally.

Sartor said that in San Antonio there will be a 10 percent increase in water costs for the next three years to help finance the new water infrastructure and water resources.

San Antonio is solely dependent on an underground aquifer, and the city is attempting to acquire additional re-sources by buying water rights and purchasing water to be pumped into the area for use.

Conservation considerations

Along with the new fees and in response to previous drought issues, the city created the Carwash Conservation Certification program.

According to Sartor, in order to become certified a carwash must adhere to standards by doing things such as:

  • Performing an-nual nozzle replacements;
  • Achieving a certain percentage of recycling; and
  • Speeding up in-bay cycles to meet consumption requirements.

Most importantly, to become conservation certified, new carwashes must use water reclamation methods at their site.

If these criteria are met, the wash will receive certification and peace of mind, knowing that should a drought occur, according to Sartor, the certified washes will be able to stay open longer than sites lacking certification.

According to Chuck Space, executive director of the SCWA, another incentive to becoming conservation certified is that carwash owners who receive certification and have a reclaim system receive a rebate from the city.

San Antonio has seen some rough times in the past and Sartor even admitted that his wash came close to being shut down about 10 years prior, when carwashes were the target of regulators' attacks.

However, that prompted Sartor to become involved with the water issues to educate officials about the fact that carwashes typically use less than one percent of water used in a large or medium size municipality.

Tackling it head on

Today, Sartor said his city is much more educated about water usage at wash sites and understands that carwashes are not the problem.

Although the water issues right now aren't as critical as they seemed just a few years ago when carwashes were being banned and shut down around the country due to drought, new facets of the water problem have developed and San Antonio has been one of the first cities to address it head on.

Sartor said that the best thing for carwash operators to do, even before a water issue develops, is to become involved in their community to educate officials and stay on top of crucial infrastructure changes.

According to Sartor, it's just a matter of time before water surcharge proposals sprout up in other cities around the US, creating serious predicaments for unprepared operators.

Is reclaim the only answer?

The time to recycle is here and has been for awhile. However, according to Jan Verwater, senior vice president of research and development at VERwater Environmental, LLC, Saline, KS, the time is fast approaching when states and possibly even the federal government will become actively involved in mandating reclaim systems at all carwashes.

Verwater has an extensive background in providing reclaim and bio-recycling systems to carwashes throughout Europe. His experience has taught him that even if there aren't any regulations, it's in a wash owner's best interest to invest in a recycling system now to save him money and headaches later.

Verwater estimates that many states will begin to mandate and regulate water usage and reclaim at carwashes in 15 years.

Thorsby has consistently given out the same advice to carwash owners for a decade now: if you're building a new wash, design and build it with reclaim in mind. Ten years ago it didn't make financial sense, Thorsby said, but today it does.

Thorsby agrees with Verwater's opinion that if the carwash community doesn't impose reclaim requirements on itself, it will be imposed on the industry through government intervention.

Echoes of Thorsby and Verwater's opinions are evident in Space's feeling on the topic of mandated reclaim systems. He said that based on what he's seen going on in the Southwest, state regulation is not too far down the road.

He sees it happening on the local level first, followed by statewide ordinances. Space said that having incentive programs, such as the one in San Antonio, that provides a tax rebate to owners with reclaim systems, is a feature that will help push new systems through.

PC&D's Benchmarking Survey indicated that many carwash owners are already realizing the benefits of using reclaim at their sites.

Carwash veterans, experts and association members hope that this trend will gain in popularity with time and as more educational information about reclaim becomes available.

Association help

Reclaim is just one of the many ways carwash owners can help decrease their water costs, but by no means the only way.

As mentioned by Sartor, various carwash associations and groups are putting forth a strong effort to help owners and operators reduce their consumption, educate consumers and work with municipalities to reach acceptable water rate compromises.

For instance, the SCWA has worked extensively with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) to inform the public about the benefits of using a professional carwash instead of washing at home.

The two groups collaborated to create a list of professional carwash operations that are certified in the SAWS Vehicle Wash Conservation program and have agreed to host at least three charity washes at their location a year.

According to Space, this program has helped inform the public that professional carwashes don't use anywhere near the degree of water people assume they do.

Space said that the program has also been particularly effective with lawmakers.

Thorsby explained that the ICA has tried to assist with research and helping to quantify the amount of water carwashes actually use.

In late May the ICA began offering an online presentation discussing total water management. During the brief seminar, the ICA confirmed that water rates will only continue to rise and consequently, so will water restrictions and discharge criteria.

The presentation focused on effective water management and the benefits reclaim systems and other water treatment processes can have to help reduce consumption and total cost.

Through the association's website, people also have access to water reports, conservation tips and other valuable research.

You can lead a horse to water

All the information a proactive, concerned operator needs to make definitive water decisions is available to him or her through many resources.

However, Sartor, past ICA president explained that ironically, you can only lead a horse to water, you can't make him drink; meaning associations and groups can provide infinite amounts of information, but if carwash owners don't make the decision to use it, it's useless.

Water is not an unlimited resource and as cities, states and the federal government look for ways to conserve and better deliver this vital resource the cost of water will inevitably rise.

Carwash owners can choose to face this reality and take action before it becomes a problem or wait for the water issues to hit their area and then battle it unprepared, possibly endangering their livelihood. You decide.

Chris Reach, News Editor for PC&D and Managing Editor Stephanie Russo assisted with this article.