The ultimate goal of a carwash owner is to provide the best possible wash performance and experience at a reasonable price. Master these seemingly simple tasks and you will ensure your customers keep coming back. In fact, you will probably expand your business with all the free advertising these customers will provide. There is just one problem, it is not that easy. If it were, the industry would never experience any turnover and we would all own a wash.
The problem is we forget about the intangible items. Items such as the brand of chemical you use, the type of equipment you have or even the flashy banners and signs displayed outside your wash help lure new customer to the wash, but they do not maintain your wash. Rather the behind the scene items like wash staff, maintenance and even environmental run-off and compliance all play key roles in maintaining a successful carwash business. Of these couple of items, environmental run-off can often be misunderstood and go overlooked.
To be equipped to properly handle the regulatory and compliance aspect of this topic, it is important to know that environmental run-off is part of a greater type of waste, that of Wastewater Management and Compliance. Wastewater is a broad term that we will use to encompass liquid waste that is both discharged down the sanitary sewer and environmental run-off from illegal dumping. Both types of wastewater can be monitored and controlled with minimal effort and great reward.
To properly understand environmental run-off we must first explain and understand how a majority of the sanitary sewer systems work. Most, but not all carwashes discharge their wastewater through public sanitary systems. These are the same systems that carry sewage away from our homes and businesses. This waste is carried through miles of piping where it will end up at a treatment facility, often called Publicly Owned Treatment Works or P.O.T.W. for short. Here the sewage will be processed through a series of treatment stages.
Initially harmful solids such as rags, sticks and other debris will be removed to prevent damage to the system. Biological solids will be broken down and often times converted to fertilizer to be used in the agricultural industry. The remaining liquid material is further treated and put back into local waterways. As alarming as this sounds the effluent leaving the POTW is often cleaner than the water it is joining in rivers and lakes. In some cases the water is actually cleaner than the drinking water entering our homes. (To further understand any of these processes, contact your local wastewater treatment facility or POTW.)
In the United States there is a department of the EPA dedicated to monitoring this process, the agency is known as the Office of Wastewater Management (OWM). Collectively, through the assistance of state and local government, they oversee nearly 16,000 wastewater treatment facilities that collect and treat nearly 75% of the population’s wastewater. These facilities are held to lawful standards and must meet or exceed secondary stages of treatment. Some facilities implement additional treatment stages to further ensure the purification of the processed water.
To further heighten the safety of the treatment process federal regulations prevent the dumping of highly dangerous chemicals into waterways and sanitary systems. (A listing of these items can be found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations.) These chemicals can cause harm to wastewater treatment operators as well as the wastewater treatment facility. The good news is many of these chemicals should never be found inside a carwash bay. However, there has been growing concern over suspect chemicals that contain amounts of phosphorous, ammonia, APE/NPE and petroleum distillates. Green products often address many of the concerns or restrictions mandated by local POTW. Often times these products are void of phosphorous, APE/NPE and various petroleum distillates. (For more information regarding these types of products consult your chemical distributor.)
The process for filtering, cleaning and sanitizing sewage is in depth and requires time and effort. The ultimate goal of this process is to produce discharge water that is cleaned in a timely manner. These facts are not to show that treatment facilities can handle anything that floats their way, rather it is to illustrate the importance of using sanitary systems to manage and treat carwash effluent.
As previously mentioned, not all carwashes drain their effluent down the sanitary sewer. Some have been granted permission to drain into a holding pond, septic tank and even in some cases a leech field. Most of these provisions are allowed because of geographic location and an inability to connect to a sewer main. Additionally, there are some washes that were improperly connected at initial construction and drain into the storm sewer instead of the sanitary sewer.
Such an event happened to a colleague of mine. When he purchased a carwash he had no reason to suspect any sort of legal concerns regarding the wastewater disposal from his wash. In fact, it took nearly 10 years before he found out something was wrong. Local construction had redirected the storm sewer outside of his carwash to a nearby holding pond. It was not more than a couple weeks after construction concluded that excessive amounts of foam began to appear in the pond as well as trace amounts of dye. Something highly uncharacteristic considering it had been a dry summer. City officials used dye packets to trace it back to his wash. The sewer pipe coming from the wash had been connected to the storm sewer and was draining into this holding pond. Lucky for him there were no fees or jail time associated with this incident. He simply had to pay for the carwash sewer to be excavated and connected to the sanitary sewer main.
Infractions like this are not done with the intent to bypass the sanitary sewer system, rather they are done by accident and can be rightfully corrected. The major concern is those owner/operators who knowingly bypass the sanitary sewer system and discharge their effluent into waterways, storm sewers and soils beds. These types of violations are punishable by federal law. Just this past April a carwash owner was caught by the local wetland authorities for allegedly dumping wastewater into wetlands and watercourses as reported by The News-Times.
So what is the big deal with where these people are discharging effluent? After all it is just water.
It is a big deal for a couple of reasons. It might just be water, but unfortunately it is contaminated with a variety of soils, surfactants and even oils that can be detrimental to the environment without further treatment. This is the pivotal role that wastewater treatment facilities play. Second, carwash operations produce a large amount of wastewater for their size. As dilute as some of this contaminated wastewater might be it is still non-potable and requires treatment.
In fact if you take a look at the amount of water that is consumed by the average carwash you will see that it is substantial. Lets say the average touchless automatic wash uses 35 gallons of water per car. On an annual basis this machine washes 20,000 cars, an average of 50+ cars per day. Barring any leaks, spills or other mishaps this wash will consume roughly 700,000 gallons of water in a year. Assuming this location has a reclaim system capable of reducing water consumption by 50%, the consumption for this one machine is still at 350,000 gallons per year.
Now if we take this average consumption and multiply it by all of the carwashes across the country we are starting to talk about billions, if not trillions of gallons of water. That is a lot of water! Even though most of the contaminants are in low levels, they are still present thus making the water unsafe for a lot of applications, especially drinking. By choosing to dump this much water into the environment untreated, we run the risk of contaminating other sources of fresh water.
Realistically, no chemicals should be discharged freely into the sanitary sewer or environment. But there are some chemicals that definitely pose a higher risk. Due to regional variability it is difficult to put exact numbers on thresholds and chemical limits. If you have concerns about chemical restrictions in your area, contact your wastewater treatment facility and local pollution control agent.
Regardless of region, three main environmental culprits standout to the carwash industry (1) phosphorous, (2) alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs) and (3) petroleum distillates. Phosphorous provides nutrients for excessive growth of algae in lakes, rivers, wetlands and other waterways. Algae grows quickly and inundates the area choking out other important native species. APEs degrade extremely slowly and can create defects in fish and other marine life. This eventually creates a trickledown effect for the rest of the environment. Finally, we have all seen firsthand just what kinds of havoc a petroleum spill or leak can have.
The Take Home
The major point we are making is this: chemical handling and discharge requires responsibility, care and a little common sense. The local creek is no place to dump wastewater from your wash. This is why wastewater treatment facilities were designed. They greatly improve the stress load on the environment and the time required to clean and purify water. What normally could take Mother Nature several years to purify can take a treatment facility a matter of hours. Most carwashes currently connected to city water are already being charged for sewage disposal. For those washes running on well water it is in your best interest to properly dispose of your wastewater. Proper disposal will reduce contamination, prevent the payment of excessive fees and ultimately ensure a continued water supply.
In the long run we all benefit from chemical responsibility. Water gets recycled at a quicker and more efficient rate, eco-systems are not harmed and the carwash industry lives on to wash another day.