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Water Recycling - A Matter of When - Not if

Water restrictions are popping up all over the nation.


The decision to buy a recycling system is based upon a combination of many factors. It is only after you thoroughly evaluate all of the specific factors that affect your car wash, that you can realistically determine whether or not recycling is beneficial or necessary for your operation. Even if you’re not contemplating recycling right now, the time will come when the issues of where you get your water from and what is done with that water once you’re done with it will become increasingly important to you and also to those around you.

Water recycling systems have been around for many years, but recently the car wash industry has become a growing market for such equipment. The need for recycling in car washes can be based upon anything from environmental concerns to economic issues.


If you own an existing car wash and aren’t recycling, you may never need to begin. However, many circumstances outside of your control will probably cause you to reevaluate such a decision in the future. Certainly, if you are building a new wash or planning to expand a current facility, you will find a rapidly changing scenario regarding the water you use.

Some of the factors that will influence your water consumption options include:

1. The Cost of Water

Water costs range from under $2/1,000 gallons to well over $8/1,000 gallons in some areas of the country. This cost of doing business will only increase over time as population and consumption growth place increasing demands on municipal water treatment facilities.

2. Sanitary Sewers Costs and Availability

As sanitary sewer treatment plants struggle to remain in compliance with their federally-mandated treatment quality standards, you can be assured that they will become more and more concerned with the quantity and quality of the water that they receive from your car wash. This means higher costs to discharge and more scrutiny of what’s in your water. If you are discharging or are contemplating discharging, to a septic tank, storm sewer, or other “ground water” location, you’ll find the rules are changing quickly to eventually discourage this practice.

3. Water and Sewer Impact Fees

More municipalities are opting to charge impact fees for the privilege of consuming water in a new facility or discharging water from it. Depending upon the volume of water you estimate you’ll be using, you may find a significant fee attached to your application or connect your new or expanding car wash to the water supply or sewer system.

4. Environmental Regulation and Control

Although the regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local state agencies have often been inconsistent in their enforcement of water discharge policies in the past, you can be assured that this will change. Noncompliance with the Federal Regulations for discharging water to anything but a sanitary sewer system or the detection of excessive contaminants, such as oils or low pH acids in your sanitary sewer discharge, will eventually draw unwanted attention to your facility.

5. Water Restrictions Due to Shortage

Periodic extended dry spells, low water tables, and revisions of water management practices are resulting in temporary water restrictions in more and more of the country. These restrictions are no longer just isolated problems for the dry, desert states. “Water-rich” cities across the South are seeing increasing effects of salt water intrusion, for example, which results in rationing or temporary use restrictions.


There are several factors that you should keep in mind when trying to determine which option is best for your car wash operation: Is this method cost effective? Should I plan now for future problems? Will I be affected by environmental compliance issues? What are my choices?

There are several options available to car washes for handling water discharge. These include:

1.  Discharge directly to a POTW (Publicly Owned Treatment Works) sanitary sewer;

2.  Treat and then discharge to storm drains, septic tank, or surface waters;

3.  No discharge, store, then haul to treatment facility;

4.  Partial recycle and partial discharge;

5.  Complete recycle or “closed loop.”

Let’s begin with the most commonly used method: discharging to a sanitary sewer. If you have access to a sanitary sewer and can meet the discharge standards, then this may be a good option for you. Some of the factors to consider are: the initial Impact Fees set by the POTW; future regulatory problems; the cost of discharging; and unexpected fines resulting from contaminant monitoring or non-compliance.

The environmental authorities strongly discourage non-domestic applications discharging to surface water of any type. Anyone who has tried to receive approval for this discharge method knows how difficult, if not impossible, it can be. If this method is used for discharging water, without prior approval, the fines can be astronomical. Capturing and hauling wash water will allow the car wash to comply with environmental regulations but, long term, it isn’t a very cost effective method.

By using a partial recycling system, car washes can improve the quality of water being discharged to sewer while dramatically reducing the amount of water being used and discharged. Wash water represents approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of the water consumed by a car wash, with the remainder being used in the rinse process. On average, 15 percent to 30 percent of the water used is lost through evaporation and carry-out, depending on the climate. This loss allows operators to rinse with fresh water or spot-free water while recycling and reusing all of their wash water. Any excess water from rinsing will be discharged, after being treated, into the sanitary sewer. This method drastically reduces the amount of city water being used and the amount of water being discharged to the sewer, which in turn means less expense for the car wash owner.

The last option is a closed-loop, zero-discharge recycling system. This option is necessary when sanitary sewer is not available or you are no longer able to discharge your wash water. True, “closed-loop” systems that offer no discharging currently work on the principle of treating your water for continuous re-use until the quality of the water becomes unacceptable. At that point, the water is hauled off-site or evaporated to start the process all over again with fresh water. As water treatment technologies continue to improve, this type of system will become less maintenance-intensive and much more common in the car wash industry.


The car wash industry has several different types of operations, each with its own unique needs and characteristics. These operations differ with regard to the amount of water they use, the amount and types of contaminants found, and the chemicals used in their cleaning processes. For instance, a self-serve operator will use less water and have higher evaporation and carry-out losses than, say, a tunnel wash, but the contaminants found in a self-serve operation’s water will be more cumbersome. It is for this reason that “one size does not fit all” and each system should be engineered on a site-specific basis, meeting the needs of each individual user.

Self Serves

On the average, a self-serve facility uses 20 gallons of water per vehicle with a 5 to 10 gallon loss through evaporation and carry-out. Although the number of cars per day might be relatively low, you can expect to find almost anything in the waste water. The operator who see farm equipment, off-road vehicles, boats on trailers, and other vehicles coming into his bays will see heavily contaminated water that will require some form of treatment regardless of where it is discharged.

In-Bay Automatics

Automatic car washes, today, often use friction and/or pressure along with chemicals to achieve a good quality wash. When comparing a friction-based operation to one that is pressure based you must keep in mind that, even though they are both in-bay automatics, they are completely different from a recycling standpoint. With their lower usage of chemicals, the brush-type automatics have the easiest water to handle. With a water usage of between 30 and 45 gallons per car, this water is often reused successfully with minimal treatment. The touch0free automatics consume a comparable amount of water per car, but the increased use of cleaning chemicals makes additional water treatment necessary before either reusing or discharging it.

Conveyor Operations

Full service car washes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and similar to the in-bay automatics, may use a variety of chemicals. Regardless of these differences, the one consistent factor in all tunnel wash facilities is the large amount of water needed to operate them. Tunnels can wash from 100 to 1000 cars a day using an average of 80 gallons per car. This high water volume lends itself well to water recycling since the water collection can be segregated in the trenches to permit separate treatment and reuse of wash and rinse water.

As you can see, water usage and waste-water characteristics in this industry are highly variable, depending not only on the type of car wash, but also on geographic location and time of year. For example, car washes in north climates have high loads of ice, salt, and grit in the winter and spring months. All of these factors should be considered when choosing a recycling system.


Water recycling has many attractive benefits. The most beneficial is the substantial reduction in water consumption and sewer discharge costs. For example, a car wash owner in South Florida who is currently using a partial recycling system is saving up to 80 percent on both his sewer and water bills. Prior to recycling, his utility expenses were averaging around $750 a month and are now less than $200.

The length of time before you can expect to see a payback on the installation of a recycling system depends on your local sewer and water rates and the purchase price of the equipment. Some car wash owners are able to get a payback after just a couple of months, while others may take up to two years. New car washes that make the decision to recycle can see an immediate payback on the reduction of impact fees alone.

Water restrictions are popping up all over the nation – even in some unimaginable areas. In the past, several businesses in Jacksonville, Florida were forced to close due to a lack of city water. In this scenario, not only does recycling and reusing save water, but it also gives you a sense of security that you can continue doing business as normal even under these restrictions.

Environmental problems and water shortages nationwide have public awareness at an all-time high. In response to this awareness, some car washes are actually using recycling as a marketing tool. They are offering the concerned consumers a way to help “save the environment” without having to give up the luxury of a clean car.


Recycling systems can be divided into three categories: limited recycling, multi-stage filtration systems, and closed-loop recycling.

Limited recycling will typically provide minimal filtration of water, offering the car wash approximately 50 percent to 80 percent wash water reuse, depending on the technologies utilized. These systems are designed to remove the heavy solids and give the operator recycled wash-quality water for reuse. In some situations, oxidation will be necessary to control the odors and bacteria growth. This is usually achieved either by the addition of an ozone system or by adding chlorine.

Multi-state filtration systems can provide the car wash owner with 80 percent to 95 percent water reuse by incorporating the use of several water treatment technologies (See box on this page). The initial stage is designed to settle out heavy solids while separating oils from the wash water. Once the water has completed this process, it enters stage two where most of the filtration takes place. This stage typically incorporates aeration, filtration, and ozonation to insure the removal of dirt, oils, and waxes while eliminating odors and organic buildup. The final stage consists of several methods which filter, polish, and repressurize the water just prior to feeding the car wash equipment.

Closed-loop recycling makes possible “total reuse” to avoid any discharges. This can be accomplished by several methods, which all have advantages and disadvantages. Historically, the early “closed-loop” systems filtered the water until it became too heavily contaminated with dissolved solids (TDS), soaps, or other contaminants. At that time, it was hauled off site and the process started all over. More recent recycling systems incorporated the use of a small evaporator to burn off excess water regularly to permit the constant addition of fresh water. Some recycling systems attempt to close the loop by creating rinse-quality water, which would in turn eliminate the need for any new fresh water except to compensate for drive-off and evaporation. The important factor to consider in all closed-loop systems is the increased amount of maintenance and attention that will be needed to keep the system in balance.


The decision to buy a recycling system is based upon a combination of many factors. It is only after you thoroughly evaluate all of the specific factors that affect your car wash, that you can realistically determine whether or not recycling is beneficial or necessary for your operation. Even if you’re not contemplating recycling right now, the time will come when the issues of where you get your water from and what is done with that water once you’re done with it will become increasingly important to you and also to those around you.

Some of these determining factors are:

  1.  Water Costs

  2.  Sewer costs and availability

  3.  Water and sewer impact fees

  4.  Environment regulation and control

  5.  Water restrictions due to shortages and droughts