Surprise breakdowns can wreak havoc on your business. It is Saturday during pollen season and all of a sudden you have no spot-free rinse water. You recently noticed your RO production has been down, but you figure that your RO unit has been working “good enough” and you’ll get to it later. Later is too late. I don’t mean to be judgmental; we all do this. It is human nature. Maintaining your equipment can save you a lot of money and headaches. With this article I hope to stress the importance of maintaining your water treatment system. It will save you a lot of time, money, and frustration in the future.

Let’s begin with the reclaim system. The first key to maintaining anything mechanical in nature is to be familiar with it. Read your manuals. It is not necessary for you to be a rocket scientist to learn the basics of your equipment. Learn the basic flow of your system and where the water comes from and ends up. Read and learn about your pit treatments such as ozone and biological injection. It is imperative that these systems are not only installed correctly, but function properly for optimum pit treatment. You also want to know how to change over to a different source of water if need be. Some reclaim units do this automatically when there is trouble with the system, whether prime loss or pump failure. By familiarizing yourself with the unit, you will be able to understand and follow a technician or manufacturer’s advice during a technical ca

From left to right: pre-filter housing, dirty pre-filter
due for a change, and new pre-filter.

Now that you have a basic understanding of your reclaim system, you can organize a preventative maintenance schedule for your unit. Neglecting the maintenance on your reclaim system can turn small issues into costly ones. Most reclaim systems have many of the same maintenance procedures that should be followed. These are usually simple checks to ensure that the equipment is operating according to the manufacturer’s standards.


The inlet strainer basket should be cleared of debris on a daily basis. This strainer protects the pumps on the reclaim system by catching the larger debris that the pump draws up the inlet suction line. When the basket becomes filled with debris it will not allow the volume of water needed for the system to operate correctly and stresses the pumps on the reclaim system. This could lead to seal failure in the pumps as well. This task will take less than five minutes to accomplish.

After cleaning the inlet strainer basket, check the gauge array on the reclaim system. It will give you an idea if the pumps are operating at peak efficiency. This task can be done when the system is restarted and requires less than one minute. This is especially important if your reclaim system utilizes hydro cyclones (particle separators) as a means of removing debris from the water. If the pressure and flow are not correct with these systems, the cyclones will not work efficiently as they depend on flow and pressure to do their job. If the reclaim system has no safety features to shut the pumps off if low pressure is detected, checking the gauges is the only way to determine if the pumps have water to operate. Pumps that are run dry is a leading cause of failure.


Make sure that the reclaim reservoir is not filled with sediment. When the pits fill with debris, less water will be available for the system to operate. If neglected the tank plumbing can become filled with debris. This will leave the water no place to go but to back up in the wash. Underground tank maintenance is something that many new owners do not consider and will lead them to believe that their equipment is not working properly. If installed correctly, tanks are cleaned out two to three time per year depending on the site. Not plumbing the tanks to manufacturer specs in the beginning can lead to the tanks filling with debris quickly and very costly corrections in the futu

A 16-year-old, properly cared for reclaim unit.

Usually the inlet suction line will have a check valve in place to expedite priming of the pumps on the reclaim system. It is advisable to make sure they are in good working order at least once a month. This can be done after cleaning the inlet strainer basket. Simply fill the inlet suction line with water and wait about 10 minutes. When you check the water level, it should be at the same spot as it was before. If it appears that the water level has gone down, it is a sign that the check valve has failed or there is an issue with the plumbing leading from the reclaim tanks.

Checking the incoming power supply to ensure it is not sagging or spiking is also important. Equipment is made to operate at certain voltages and phases. If the incoming power is coming in above or below what is intended, it can damage pumps, PLCs, VFDs, and other parts of the system such as contactors and overloads, fuses, etc. Since most reclaim systems use smaller horsepower motors than the other wash equipment, they are more susceptible to electrical anomalies than the larger motors used in vehicle washing. Any electrical issues should be fixed by a qualified electrician. Reclaim pumps typically run off three-phase power and these voltages are lethal. Heed all electrical warnings from even low-voltage single-phase equipment.

Anytime you see something out of the ordinary, question it and fix it. Many small repairs done in a timely manner can prevent a snowball effect on your system. All parts of the machine work together. If things are let go to the point that your machine is not functioning at all, it can be quite a task to troubleshoot the issue. Preventative maintenance is key. Over the past 30 years, we have found that we hear much less from those who keep their machines in topnotch condition. And, if we do hear from them, troubleshooting is much easier. There are many reclaim systems with original parts that are 15 to 20 years old. By keeping your unit clean and in good working order, major repairs will be few and far between. (See the photo above of a 16-year-old reclaim unit that has been properly cared for.)

We’ve talked about the reclaim, but several other categories are part of the water system in the car wash. These include: municipal water supply, reverse osmosis (RO) or spot-free water, and, in some cases, well water. There are subcategories of pre-treatment, pumping stations, and holdings tanks for these as well. As with the reclaim, it is imperative to understand the flow in each of these systems. Read your manuals and understand the basics. The sooner you do this, the better prepared you will be for an emergency. Most installers provide back-up water supplies for all of these systems. Know how they work and what triggers them.


Municipal Water

Many think that their municipal water feed is of no concern when planning a wash. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially if you plan on using an RO system. Municipal feeds can have a wide range of pH, flocculants, and disinfectants in them and still pass the drinking water standards. Higher pH can hinder the effectiveness of chemicals; flocculants can pass through pre-filters and prematurely foul RO membranes; and disinfectants like chloramines can require special pre-treatment in order to feed an RO.

Get an extensive water quality report each year from your municipality.

This way you can stay on top of any changes that may take place in your feed water. With this report in hand, you can call your equipment provider and make sure that you have the proper pre-treatment for the use of this water in your wash.

Well Water

It is even more crucial to test your well water upfront, and periodically. Wells can change quickly. You typically don’t have to worry about chlorine in your well, but things like iron, manganese, hydrogen sulfide, silica, and pH can be big trouble. Many make the mistake of pre-treating this water just for the RO, but use the well water in other places. Remember, what goes in is what comes out, especially if you are using a reclaim. If you pump a bunch of well water with a high pH, hydrogen sulfide, and iron to your wash, you will have orange walls, a smelly tunnel, and chemical problems. This will then go into the reclaim pits and concentrate. The reclaim system can help with treatments like ozone, but only in small doses. If these issues are dealt with upfront with the proper pre-treatment, you will not compromise your equipment or your reclaim.


Maintaining your pre-treatment for fresh water is just as crucial as maintaining your other equipment. Once again, read your manuals on your softeners, carbon tanks, and ROs. Familiarize yourself with the basics.


Softeners are used to remove hardness from the water. Make sure that your softener’s brine tank is maintained and kept full of salt. Manually regenerate your softener occasionally. Watch to make sure the brine is being drawn from the brine tank and the unit backwashes to drain properly. Make sure that the drain line is never plugged and that the water flows freely from the line. It is a good rule of thumb to replace softener resin every eight to 10 years, sooner if the softener is slightly undersized or heavily used.

Carbon Tanks

Carbon tanks are typically used for chlorine/chloramine removal, but they filter as well. Make sure the unit is backwashing properly and the drain line flows freely to drain with no obstructions. You should test the water from the carbon tank with a low-level chlorine strip at least every year. There should be no chlorine detected if the unit is sized and working properly. The carbon bed typically has a life of about four to six years and should be replaced at that time.

Reverse Osmosis

ROs are fairly simple. Familiarize yourself with what the gauges are telling you. Mark the pressure and flow gauges on start up and utilize the information to trouble shoot. Notice that the pressures and flows should be linear when adjusting your valves. If there is a change, act right away. The longer you wait, the more susceptible you are to damaging your pump and/or membranes. RO pre-filters should be changed regularly. Most manufacturers have gauges on their units that you can use to help with this. If not, a good rule of thumb is to change your RO pre-filter every month. Pre-filters cost a lot less than pumps and membranes.

There it is in a nutshell. Read your manuals, familiarize yourself with the equipment, and do preventative maintenance. Water management is a key factor in the car wash. Maintaining and familiarizing yourself with your water treatment systems will save you a lot of time, money, and frustration. Above all it will help train you and give you confidence during emergencies so you can keep washing cars while getting the results that you want.

Dwight Royal is CEO, vice president of operations at Con-Serv Manufacturing. You can visit the company on the web at