Retrofitting equipment in an existing car wash is a common occurrence in today’s environment. Whether the owner is upgrading to newer technology; replacing worn out equipment; or adding key components to help the wash become more efficient, there are key factors to take into consideration. The most important, and yet sometimes least considered part of the car wash industry, is good old water. There are no flashing lights, moving parts, or glamorous features to the water treatment equipment, and as such is sometimes the last thing considered when developing a good design. Most reclaim manufacturers have dedicated their many years of experience to this under-appreciated element and how it can best be utilized in a professional car wash.

Typical tank layout
Above ground tank system

There are several items to consider when developing a good design for the treatment and recovery of water. The following list is just some of the things to consider when designing the total water treatment options for the car wash:

1. Flows and pressures
2. Impact fees
3. Water cost
4. Water usage
5. Sewer costs
6. Equipment feed water requirements
7. Maintenance
8. Quality components
9. Fresh water make up
10. Personal preference
11. Local competition
12. Community perception
13. Equipment costs

First, let’s look at the importance of adding or upgrading your reclaim system and what it can mean to the whole process.

A reclaim unit can be a key factor in the whole process of the retrofit, especially if new equipment is tobe added to the existing wash. Although most washes have some sort of water reuse system, there are many that don’t. Those that don’t, or have an inadequate system, can quickly find out that they can run out of water speedily with the addition of new washing equipment. The reclaim unit becomes a vehicle for relieving a lot of this headache. A properly installed and reliable reclaim unit can easily allow you to reuse 50 percent of your water. Some units can even allow you to reuse as much as 80 percent. It is all about using the resources that are available to you, making sure that they are installed correctly, and maximizing the efficiency of the car wash’s most precious resource.


Let’s start with the number one problem that gives all reclaim units a black eye. Plumbing! If your plumbing is inadequate, or does not meet the specs of the manufacturer, then the reclaim will not have a chance. Careful planning is essential when installing, or changing reclaim systems. You must have settling tanks. If the specified settling tanks are not available, you will have to install them. If there is not room on the property for below-ground tanks, above ground systems can be utilized. A self-cleaning filter unit can drastically cut down on the amount of settling that you need, so there are many options to help you plan wisely.

Correct suction line
Incorrect suction line

Suction lines, or reclaim feed lines, must be installed properly. These are the lifeline to the reclaim unit. If the unit has difficulty getting water it will not work. Suction lines must be the correct size and plumbed as direct and short as possible to the unit. Use schedule 80 PVC with as few elbows as possible. Never use any plumbing fittings that are not suction rated. We find that the use of drain type fittings, inadequate unions (no O-rings or seals), and improper pipe joining are the main culprits in a reclaim losing prime.

Due to existing plumbing that is too small, one may have to be creative. A hybrid set up of both underground and aboveground tanking may be an option. This way the reclaim unit can be gravity fed with proper sized lines in order to keep it running and supplying the water that you need. Never plumb a suction line with dips or rises in the run, it must be as straight as possible. These dips and rises cause air pockets in the line and you will surely lose prime. Also, never plumb a suction line to go higher than the inlet to the pump and then return to the pump’s inlet level. This forces the pump to try and pull above itself causing many issues such as air pockets and cavitation. As you can see, there are many remedies for existing plumbing in order to get the right size suction line for your retrofit. It may take a little extra doing, but keeping that suction line full and the correct size is a big part of the battle.

As far as outlet plumbing goes, similar rules apply. Do not just plumb to what you have. Make sure the outlet lines and drain lines are of the proper size and flow in the proper direction. Filtered-water outlet lines can be plumbed to a higher level than the reclaim unit, but you must keep in mind every foot and addition of an elbow will affect the output of the unit. To help with this, run the same size plumbing as the outlet of the unit for as far as you can to reduce friction. When feeding multiple outputs, use a same-size trunk line and reduce to equipment as close to the point of use as possible. Drain lines or backwash return lines must always slant down and be of the size specified by the reclaim manufacturer. When in doubt, go bigger with as few twists and turns as possible.

Lastly, but just as important, size your machine properly for your needs and make sure you have the electrical service to run the unit. Many people run into issues when retrofitting their car wash by attempting to use the existing power service to run multiple new items, plus what they have already. This can wreak havoc on all of your equipment. It is imperative that your electrical service is capable of running all of your equipment safely.


In keeping all of the above in mind, there are many other processes that you can add to your wash to help with efficiency and savings.

1. Ozone

Ozone has been successfully used in the car wash Industry for several years. Its outstanding color and odor removal characteristics offer solutions for water with high concentrates of dyes and odors caused by hydrogen sulfide buildup. Incorporating ozone into reclaim destroys all bacteria cultures, both good and bad. In addition, ozone quickly separates emulsified oils, greases, and wax, which congeal and float to the surface of the holding tanks as organic sludge matter. The challenge now is to incorporate bacteria to degrade the organic matter without the ozone killing the beneficial organisms. Ozone made with an oxygen concentrator will aide with this process.

2. Biological Treatment

The primary design of bacteria is to degrade various types of organic matter in a multiplicity of environments. It is estimated that less than 5 percent of all forms of bacteria are pathogens (disease-causing) and that the other 95 percent are beneficial organisms. For our purposes, we will be discussing environmental bacterial applications that target waste components most readily found in commercial and industrial vehicle wash water.

The microbiology of a wash system is simple. Dirty water has bacterial loads that come with the territory.

Certain bacteria are the cause of hydrogen sulfide odor; that’s why ozone is a popular alternative. The critical component here is that indigenous bacteria (that’s bacteria that end up in a wash-water stream by default coming in with the dirt) is a hodgepodge of various types of colonies that almost always fail to provide any significant advantage. In fact, the result of the incomplete degradation of petroleum, dirt, surfactants, and other water contaminates is what causes the hydrogen sulfide odor in the first place. That’s why operators use ozone to kill bacteria and get rid of the hydrogen sulfide odor. But as most operators know, killing all bacteria in a wash system isn’t such a good idea either, because there’s no biological activity going on and therefore no cleaning of the water. A properly designed pit treatment system therefore utilizes both technologies to provide an optimum solution to pit performance and maintenance.

3. Recirculation

The recirculation of the water in the pits during slow days or during periods the car wash is closed minimizes odor and other problems associated with the contaminants as the system idles. These systems can be set up to run intermittently or continuously depending on need.

4. Mechanical Filtration

After the settling and pretreatment process from the pit, a mechanical filtration process is utilized to reduce the residual sediment down to a manageable size to prevent damage to the car or car wash equipment. Self-cleaning filter technology is ideal for busy or unattended locations, or for those who want less maintenance and better results from their recovery system. Using the stainless-steel filter ensures that all particles larger than a single white blood cell will be removed from the reclaim stream. Since the filter cleans itself, there is no need for expensive downtime to change filters.

5. Ultra-Filtration

Ultra-filtration is relatively new to the vehicle washing industry. This system is ideal for low-flow sites where a nominal amount of water needs to be recovered daily, or to help close the loop in larger applications. The new technology will provide good, clear pre-rinse or clean, high-quality wash water. Even though the water produced is equivalent to the pore size of .02 microns, the TDS still remains high and cannot be used for final rinse or chemical mixing. However, in some cases it can be blended with city water and be utilized where straight city water is typically used. Capital cost, type of car wash, size of equipment room, and other factors will determine the best option for each wash.

6. Carbon Filter

No matter what equipment is installed in the car wash, the truth is fresh water supply is always required due to evaporation and carry off of the water in the process. The amount of a fresh water supply is dependent on the car wash equipment. Typical estimates are about 6 gallons per car. The carbon filter is used as a filter to eliminate chlorine from city water supply. If the site has a well for freshwater make up or if the city water has a high hardness content, a water softener or anti scalent injection might be required to protect the spot-free rinse membranes.

7. Spot-Free Rinse System

The Spot-Free Rinse system or Reverse Osmosis System is used to provide a final rinse with mineral-free water, the source of spotting on cars as the car dries. The RO water can also be used for chemical mixing, while the RO reject water can usually be used for facility wash down or even irrigation for the site.

8. Rinse-Quality Water Storage Tank and Re-Pressurization

Set up similar to the spot-free rinse system feed tank, it is utilized for cleaner water supply to the car wash. It is important to note at this time that depending on the car wash and water conditions, water from various processes in the water treatment path can be blended to increase efficiency.

As mentioned earlier not all car washes are the same when it comes to the water and equipment used for a successful car wash business. Not all this equipment may be necessary, depending on many factors. When planning your car wash you should consider a company with the experience and product offering to take advantage of the limitless choices for configuring your water-treatment needs.

Dwight Royal is CEO/co-owner of Lakeland, FL-based Con-Serv Manufacturing. You can visit the company on the web at