How to Handle Car Wash Wastewater

A clean car wash attracts more customers. You can make your car wash cleaner and more environmentally friendly by finding efficient ways to reduce and dispose of waste. Depending on your location, your car wash most likely has to follow a specific set of local and federal guidelines for dealing with wastewater properly.

As a result of all the cars that come through your car wash pit every day, your facility probably has wastewater and sludge that affects the surrounding environment besides your property’s appearance. This guide can help you learn how to run a successful car wash so¬†your loyal customers¬†can save water when they get their cars cleaned professionally.

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Wastewater vs. Sludge

Your car wash produces a mix of wastewater and sludge after cleaning vehicles. Wastewater involves liquid waste that goes into your car wash septic system and gets treated at a facility. Sludge is solid waste that builds up from the debris that comes off the dirty cars going through your pit. To handle each properly, you need to know the differences between wastewater and sludge.

What Is Wastewater?

Car wash wastewater is the water that drains off the vehicles that go through your car wash after your facility cleans them. Since this waste could contain harmful contaminants, you’ll need to have a car wash water drainage system that directs it to a water treatment facility. This location complies with local and federal sanitary guidelines to clean wastewater and put it back into the environment as soon as possible. The time-consuming, meticulous water treatment process involves sanitizing, filtering and cleaning sewage off-site.

What Is Car Wash Sludge?

Besides liquid waste, your car wash also collects solid waste. As your car wash cleans the vehicles that come through the pit, each car deposits dirt and other debris. Even though sludge can be dangerous, in general, car wash sludge is safe to handle and dispose of on your own. However, any material that clogs up your sewage system or reduces your car wash’s aesthetic appeal needs to be removed. As a result, you’ll need to clean your car wash pits so water appropriately drains.

How Much Water Does a Commercial Car Wash Use?

A commercial car wash uses an average of 9 to 15 gallons of water to clean each vehicle. It consumes less water than individuals who wash their cars themselves, which takes between 40 and 140 gallons of water. The exact number of gallons your car wash uses depends on the following factors:

  • Type of car wash:¬†Car washes are self-serve, in-bay or conveyor types. In general, a self-serve car wash uses the least amount of water, followed by a conveyor system, and an in-bay automatic car wash uses the most.
  • Location:¬†Depending on your site’s location, you’ll have to comply with specific regulations for conserving water at your facility. Consult your local environmental office to find out about water consumption restrictions for your car wash.
  • Type of vehicle:¬†Your car wash might consume more water if you have many trucks and buses stopping by to get cleaned at your location. A standard-sized car usually takes¬†almost 40 gallons (150 liters)¬†of water to wash, but a truck or bus can take about 150-160 gallons (400-600 liters).
  • Water conservation equipment:¬†As a commercial car wash owner, you may want to make an extra effort to conserve the water your site uses. When the proper water reclamation and filtration systems are in place, you can reduce your car wash’s water usage to¬†8 to 70 gallons.

How Wastewater Can Affect the Environment

When wastewater leaves your car wash, it can harm the surrounding environment. Here are some ways that contaminants from your facility can affect your local water supply and wildlife.

Chemicals in the Water

Any chemicals put directly into the environment can be harmful, but these are the most dangerous substances that tend to come from the car wash wastewater:

  • Phosphorus:¬†This chemical element encourages algae growth in waterways such as lakes, wetlands and rivers. Algae spread quickly in a body of water and choke out other prevalent native species.
  • Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs):¬†These chemicals disintegrate slowly and impair marine life in your local water sources.
  • Petroleum distillates:¬†A petroleum leak or spill can be poisonous to fish and contaminate drinking water.

Other Car Wash Water Contaminants

Car wash wastewater often contains oily substances, soils and surfactants that can harm the environment without the proper filtration. If the water doesn’t drain to a treatment facility for sanitation and filtration, the following contaminants might be in your water supply:

  • Debris:¬†Your car wash might have various types of dirt, soil and large debris that clog sewers and prevents stormwater from draining into them.
  • Oil and grease:¬†These contaminants usually contain hazardous materials that corrode and damage your property and the surrounding environment.
  • Cleaning agents:¬†An automatic car wash system often requires oils and special cleaning agents to maintain its machinery. These products could have harmful chemicals that stain your property or harm your water supply.
  • Detergents:¬†The cleaning materials you use at your car wash can poison the fish in nearby bodies of water, even if the products are biodegradable. Some detergents may also deposit foam or dye into nearby lakes and other waterways.
  • Solvents:¬†Besides using detergents, your facility might also use solvent-based solutions that contain hydrofluoric acid and ammonium bifluoride (ABF) products. These chemicals are harmful to wildlife.

Consumption of Excess Water

As you use water to clean the vehicles at your car wash, you take clean water from the surrounding environment and create non-potable wastewater. Without the proper treatment, this water is dangerous to drink and use for other applications. If you dump wastewater directly into your local waterways instead of routing it to a water treatment facility, you might contaminate the freshwater from local ponds, lakes and rivers. It helps to have equipment in place to prevent excess consumption of water at your car wash.

How Does Car Washing Affect the Environmnent?

Federal laws and car wash environmental regulations promote safe water treatment by prohibiting car washes and other businesses from dumping hazardous chemicals into sanitary systems and waterways. Besides harming the environment, these contaminants can also endanger wastewater treatment operators and the facility itself. Some cleaning chemicals and debris from dirty vehicles contain petroleum distillates, phosphorous, APE and ammonia.

Your car wash should comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA)¬†Clean Water Act, which regulates the amount of water pollution that commercial facilities produce. Professional car washes must drain wastewater to treatment facilities or state-approved drainage locations. You may also want to filter the wastewater before you drain it to a sanitary sewer. After filtering it, you’ll have to dispose of the sludge properly. Follow these tips for discarding your wastewater and sludge.

How to Dispose of Car Wash Water

Environmentally friendly car washes drain wastewater through public sanitary systems that carry the sewage away from our homes and businesses. This water ends up at a treatment facility, called a Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW), after traveling through pipes underground. The site treats the water by:

  • Removing large debris, such as rags and sticks, to prevent system damage.
  • Breaking down biological solids and converting them to fertilizer for agricultural use.
  • Treating the remaining water and sending it back into local waterways.

The Office of Wastewater Management (OWM) oversees water purification at these treatment facilities and enforces legal standards to ensure the water is clean before it goes back into the environment. Even though treatment facilities are efficient at filtering and sanitizing water, connecting your car wash to sanitary sewage systems can help these facilities provide safe, clean water in your local area.

Confirm that your car wash connects to a sanitary sewer instead of draining wastewater directly into a holding pond or septic tank. When your car wash was first built, it might have been improperly connected, draining water into the storm sewer instead of the sanitary sewer. This setup is punishable by law because it affects the local environment. It’s easy to repair the environmental run-off by connecting the sewage system correctly to the sanitary sewer instead of a local waterway.

How to Dispose of Sludge Properly

Consult your local car wash environmental regulations to determine the best way to dispose of the solid waste from your car wash. In general, you can get rid of the sludge on your property when it’s wet or dry. Dry the sludge on-site or off-site by removing it from your car wash system and letting the heat evaporate the water. Depending on your location, you might have to have a Bureau of Land Management permit if you dry it off-site.

Before disposing of the sludge from your car wash,¬†determine whether it’s special or non-special waste. Most car wash sludge is non-special, but if you want peace of mind, you can get it tested for a fee. If it’s non-special, you can throw it out with your other garbage. If it’s special waste, you’ll have to follow specific EPA regulations to remove it from your property. These regulations include having a licensed, special waste disposal facility transport and throw out your sludge at their site.

How to Run an Environmentally Friendly Car Wash

Making your car wash more environmentally friendly will help you reduce wastewater and protect the wildlife and water supply in your local area. Follow these tips for decreasing contaminants at your car wash and using water more efficiently.

Limit Water Contamination at Your Car Wash

Your car wash creates wastewater with various chemicals, detergents and debris. These steps should help you reduce the number of contaminants in your car wash’s wastewater:

  • Soften and filter your water:¬†Using water softener and filtration systems can lower the number of solids in the water and decrease spotting on the cars that come to your car wash. If vehicles have fewer spots on them, you won’t need to use as much detergent to clean them.
  • Use eco-friendly cleaning materials:¬†Instead of using solvent-based detergents that often contain harmful chemicals, try to clean your cars with biodegradable soaps and chemicals. Green, eco-friendly products usually comply with local POTW regulations and requirements because they don’t have harmful chemicals.
  • Use proper detergent amount:¬†When you reduce the amount of soap you use for each car, your facility produces fewer suds, decreasing the discharge in your sewage system.¬†Concentrated detergents¬†tend to have a lower environmental impact because they use fewer packing materials and produce less waste.¬†Talk to a JBS representative to determine the optimal detergent dosage per vehicle to ensure the best clean without any excess waste.

Use Water More Efficiently at Your Car Wash

Besides controlling the contaminants in your water supply, you can also follow these tips to consume less water at your car wash:

  • Check for water leaks:¬†Inspect your nozzles, pipes and other system components for signs of unnecessary water loss.
  • Adjust your nozzles:¬†Invest in lower flow nozzles and use them at a low pressure to save water with each wash. Modify your car wash’s nozzles, sprays and water supplies to lower pressure and outflow settings to comply with minimum quality guidelines.
  • Take care of your cleaning devices:¬†Cleaning and repairing your water appliances helps conserve resources by preventing leaks and maintaining your water supply. Replace old, worn-out equipment with water-saving products.
  • Use corrosion-resistant nozzles:¬†Brass or plastic nozzles tend to corrode quickly, which can contaminate your water supply and make drinking water unsafe. Instead, replace any outdated nozzles with stainless steel or hard ceramic ones.
  • Check for clogs:¬†Inspect your nozzles to make sure that they’re appropriately aligned. You may also want to clean out any clogs that could put unnecessary pressure on your hoses and other water lines.
  • Use positive shut-off valves:¬†A positive shut-off valve stops water flow within a piping system and helps conserve water. Install positive shut-off valves on your hoses and in extractor sinks.
  • Stop water flow when not in use:¬†Solenoid valves can prevent water flow after the system uses enough water. After you’ve finished washing a car, turn off the water supply.
  • Wash your towels and rags efficiently:¬†Use energy-efficient, front-loading washing machines to clean your rags and towels. You may also want to do fuller loads to reduce the number of wash cycles you complete each day.
  • Reuse your resources:¬†Try to brainstorm ways you can reuse wastewater at your car wash.

Consider what type of car wash you have to find out the best ways to preserve water at your location. Conserve the water in your conveyor system by decreasing conveyor time. Adjust your nozzles so they turn on when the vehicle enters the cleaning area and shut off when it moves out of range. You can also preserve water in your automatic car wash by realigning the nozzles and adjusting the flow rates and timing.

Contact JBS Industries for Car Wash Supplies

JBS Industries provides high-quality car wash products and supplies to help make your business more environmentally friendly. Contact us online or call 888-745-0720 for more information about how we can help you run a successful car wash.


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