In today’s technologically-advanced carwashes, water reclaim systems have become an operational norm. Carwash chains and businesses that may have balked at the idea of reclaim in years past now include the systems in their tunnels and bays as standard equipment. Improved technology, increased efficiencies and rising water and sewer costs have all contributed to the industry’s widespread adoption of this water treatment and filtration technology.

Widely accepted and generally expected, water reclaim helps carwashes around the world responsibly and successfully clean vehicles using just a fraction of the water older washes required. Water-efficient carwashes align with municipality missions to lessen stress on utility infrastructure. Also, water-smart car care businesses further expose the wasteful water profile of at-home or driveway washing. Fortunately, the industry’s expanding knowledge of chemistry and equipment functionality means reclaimed water can regularly be called on for multiple tasks in the typical carwash tunnel or bay.

Economics and infrastructure

“The reason more operators have begun to incorporate water reclaim into their washes is a combination of economics, municipal requirements and heightened awareness of environmental stewardship,” according to Gary Hirsh, president of New Wave Industries, Ltd., PurClean & PurWater. “I’d certainly say that the economics as it relates to the cost of water and sewer rates, which have increased exponentially, are a major driver for sure.”

Hirsh explains that continued growth and construction in residential and commercial sectors means many water utility systems are currently over leveraged. Even before new construction projects, water utilities already call on a dramatically undersized and antiquated nationwide infrastructure. This reality, in conjunction with changing weather patterns resulting in drought conditions, has created an extraordinarily high demand for water. As a result, municipalities have raised water rates in an attempt to increase awareness and control usage.

“If I’m an operator, and I’m paying attention to … my utility costs — specifically water and sewer rates — I’m going to see that they’ve really spiked over the last several years,” Hirsh continues. “Even if I continue washing the same volume of vehicles, by incorporating a current-technology reclaim system, I can effectively cut my water and sewer costs by 85 percent without negatively affecting wash quality. That savings will immediately, positively impact my bottom line without washing one more car.”

Stan Royal, president of Con-Serv Manufacturing, says these savings have made water reclaim more of a necessity rather than simply a tool for savvy owners to save on operating costs. Reclaiming water reduces the amount of water purchased and the amount of water sent to the sewer daily. Owners have realized that, as long as a fresh water rinse is applied at the end of the wash process, reclaimed water can play an integral part in their daily operations.

“Also, as more people connect to the municipal water systems, water pressure is sometimes compromised. This causes some of the equipment that depends on a consistent pressure to not operate correctly,” Royal states. This burden can be eased by using reclaim water in many wash functions that previously operated on fresh water. The change allows the equipment — chemical dispensing units, reverse osmosis systems, etc. — to operate correctly and prevent damage to these systems.

Royal agrees that the climbing price of water is one of the biggest challenges for carwash owners and operators. “We, as a whole, are realizing that our water is not an infinite source for us to use as we wish. Carwash owners and other industries are beginning to understand the reuse of water is going to be mandated in the future.”

System improvements

There have been many significant improvements in water reclaim technology, Hirsh notes. In fact, major advances have been made in the actual filtration process that help produce a far higher water quality. This filtration improvement means operators can use a higher percentage of reclaim water in a wash while subsequently offering a superior wash quality.

Hirsh says other water reclaim improvements involve increased efficiencies as well.

They include:

  • The use of variable frequency drives (VFDs) to reduce a system’s electrical cost and cost of ownership
  • Utilizing ozone to oxidize colors from triple foams and other chemistry
  • Precluding anaerobic bacterial growth that can cause odors typically associated with water recovery
  • Improvements to the systems’ interface technology.

“Today’s reclaim systems are smart systems, incorporating human machine interface technology, which results in today’s systems being far more user-friendly,” Hirsh states. The interface takes much of the mystery out of water reclaim operation and provides numerous automatic features that clean and flush the filters. This eliminates the need for excess man hours previously spent on system maintenance.

Dealing with droughts

Droughts are a common concern across the country and around the world, and not just for carwash operators. Local and state governments faced with potential water shortages frequently pass down rules and legislation that can hinder carwash operation and profitability. In drought-stricken areas, Royal says carwash owners can find ways to install a recovery system without reinventing the whole wash site. This can be achieved using above-ground storage tanks so that minimal ground work will be required for the system.

“We can also offer suggestions on how to use other sources of water for the wash; such as saving the RO reject water, if the quality is there,” Royal explains. “Using that source instead of sending it to the drain — this idea can save a lot more water than most owners realize.”

Hirsh says he has definitely seen heightened interest from owners and operators located in areas that are “known to be affected by the droughts.” For instance, California has mandated water recovery for automatic and tunnel washes. On all new-construction carwash locations, sites must reclaim at least 50 percent of water used. Other municipalities, as a result of drought, have initiated water limitations. These can dictate how many days of the week a wash can operate.

“I think that as a result of those types of restrictions, operators have taken a more serious look at incorporating reclaim into their wash models,” Hirsh says.

That said, Hirsh has noticed a “groundswell” of municipalities offering incentives for operators who incorporate reclaim systems. Many local governments noticed that water reclaim has helped minimize their supply burden in two ways. First, the demand for fresh water has gone down due to carwashes that have incorporated reclaim. Next, the effluent that carwashes send back to a municipality is a superior quality now than it once was because of the technology.

“I think the municipalities are really very aware of what’s going on in the areas where the perception is that carwash operators are abusers of water. So I think that they’re focused in on some of those various sectors,” Hirsh states. “They’ve seen multiple systems come into their municipality.”

Some municipalities have become extremely knowledgeable in water recovery, according to Hirsh. Local agencies have even run studies on wash sites that use reclaim and have determined what the makeup of the effluent discharge is. In one instance, a municipality even put together reclaim-based rebate packages for carwash owners and operators, and so far, the program has proven effective.

Promotion potential

Today, most operators who have incorporated water reclaim systems into their models are promoting their commitments to environmental stewardship in their communities. Hirsh notes that the International Carwash Association’s (ICA) WaterSavers program has been extremely successful in assisting operators with a turnkey program for promoting their washes through social media and print advertising.

Another important marketing consideration is the average age of the motoring public. Now the average driver is much younger than just 10 years ago. Today’s young drivers are extremely conscious of preserving the environment and will go out of their way to patronize environmentally-friendly businesses, Hirsh says.

Royal is familiar with certain operators who advertise that reclaim water is used at their locations. These washes firmly believe that reclaim brings them more business due to the fact that they are good stewards of the environment and they are not wasting resources. Even so, Royal thinks the public is not fully aware of the technology and the work that goes into providing the wash results they desire. But, with water reclaim, what many are aware of is the quality of the water in the wash as well as the appearance and odor in the wash.

Looking to the future, Royal sees water reclaim driving sustainable carwashing practices. “I think the next breakthrough will be the realization that water conservation and reuse is the cornerstone of sustainability in the carwash process. If you do not participate, you will be left behind by owners who had the foresight to prepare for the day when water use will be strictly regulated by municipal and federal regulations.”