Water meter.

Partnering with your municipality doesn’t end with getting permitted and final approval for occupancy of your car wash. In some areas you may be required to have your effluent discharge tested for quality. Some locales may want to limit your fresh-water usage and discharge volumes. In almost all applications you will be interfacing with them on your water and sewer billing as well. Managing the water at your car wash is an important part of your interface with your municipality.

Vehicle washers use a fair amount of water; some friction in-bay automatic systems use approximately 35 gallons per vehicle and a high-volume IBA site could average 100 cars a day — that’s 3,500 gallons a day, 105,000 gallons per month, or 1.26 million per year. Other IBAs, using the high-pressure touchless method, use 70 gallons per vehicle. The same 100-car average uses 7,000 gallons a day, 210,000 a month, or 2.52 million gallons a year. A tunnel car wash with a moderate number of high-pressure applications could use 120 gallons of water per vehicle. At a 400-cars-per-day average, that is 48,000 gallons per day, 1.44 million gallons a month, or more than 17 million gallons a year. If you own this wash and your sewer and water cost are low, say $4 per 1,000 gallons, your annual water and sewer cost is nearly $70,000. Your water and sewer service supplier will be a large part of your business. It pays to get to know them.

How do you go about partnering with your municipality/water and sewer supplier? They will likely be involved in your permitting process. Impact fees are one way the water and sewer supplier collects revenue, and influences the way they want you to run your wash. If you are building a wash on a site that previously had another business, the water and sewer service provider may want to limit your usage to the volume that the previous business used. You need to find the right person or people in your water and sewer service provider organization to answer these questions for you.


After you are through the car wash building or acquiring process, the operation of your wash with regards to water and sewer is an ongoing challenge. In most applications your water is metered. This is for billing purposes. Most often your sewer bill will also be based on your water usage meter. We often hear of locations where the sewer is a multiple of the water bill — sometimes three to five times as much. To set up a good plan to manage your water we need to review the types of water used.

Fresh Water

Tap water, for the purposes of this discussion, comes from a municipal water supply. Its quality can range from great to terrible. Two of the symptoms of poor quality tap water: high total dissolved solids (TDS) and either too high or too low of a pH reading, 7.0 to 7.4 would be neutral and the ideal. The entity supplying your water will have a water-quality report, often available online. This can be of value to assist you in deciding how and with what equipment you will improve your ability to deliver a quality wash. Water is an increasingly expensive commodity, and fresh-water use in a vehicle wash application should be carefully considered and applied so as to maximize its value.

Spot-Free Water

Water that either naturally or by processing has a TDS count below 20 parts per million (PPM). The overwhelming majority of spot-free systems in current use are reverse osmosis. RO systems have an impact on water conservation, as most equipment will require two gallons of fresh or tap water to make one gallon of product. There are ways to reuse this extra gallon of “reject” water, which we will discuss later in this article.

Reclaim Water

This is water that has been used in the wash process, then cleaned and reused. Many municipalities now require some form of reclamation or recycle system prior to permitting, and having one may assist in avoiding expensive impact fees. Some water districts have evaluated their ability to deliver water and treat the sewer effluent; they then set their rates basedon this capability. Water reclamation systems are not new in vehicle washing, and there are several different technologies in current use.

Municipal-supplied tap water is the way most car washes washed 30 years ago. It often was billed at a flat rate. These days water usage is mostly metered as we discussed earlier. The increase in demand for water, for all uses, has raised the cost to use fresh water in a one-and-done manner for washing vehicles. In areas that do so, water cost could be higher than the cost of chemistry. The number of car washes using reclamation systems has increased. Just installing a reclamation system isn’t the complete answer — see the story below that explains why managing your other water is also important.

Daily Water Use Chart


So what happens when you install a water reclamation system and there are no savings? Several years ago, a customer installed one of our reclaim systems at their site. When they received their water bill 90 days later, it showed that they had not saved any money. We verified the system was on and functioning. We established a daily water-meter check and car count comparison. It became apparent that the site was still using too much fresh water. After some back and forth, it became necessary for me to visit the site. The excerpt, below, is from my site-visit report:

Monday had been overcast and drizzly and the wash was mostly closed when I arrived about 3 p.m. The manager and wash crew had gone home. The oil change guys were running it for washing oil change customers’ cars. They showed me the daily water-use list that they had started using last week. It was current, and they were taking readings at 2 p.m. daily. Because the wash was mostly off, it was very easy for me to verify they had a leak. The meter is marked in cubic feet and by using the stop watch function on my iPhone I determined the leak was one cubic foot per 2 minutes 8 seconds, or three and a half GPM — just over 5,000 gallons a day, 450,000 gallons a quarter. Off the main line there are multiple ball valves and I could turn them off until I found the one that stopped the leak. The half-inch line that runs to the restrooms, both toilets, had leaks. The men’s restroom float would not turn completely off, and continued to dribble even after the tray was full. The women’s restroom did not have the float at all. You could manually force the arm up, which I did. The meter slowed to a crawl, the men’s room dribble. I showed the oil change boss. He said he would tell the manager in the morning.

This site is a busy flex/full-serve/express using just under 40 gallons per vehicle, 22 of which were fresh water for chemistry and rinses. Eighteen gallons per vehicle of reclaim should have reduced their water and sewer bill by nearly half. The leaks used up all the savings and more. This site’s water and sewer cost combined at this time was $8.14 per 100 cubic feet (CCF). There is 748 gallons in CCF so the 450,000 gallons that leaked in the quarter was at a cost of nearly $4,900.


See the spreadsheet, below, for an example of a daily water use chart. This is for a different site, not for the example site above, but it does show a spike in usage on November 12. It was a rainy day, and they were cleaning their tunnel and IBA using fresh water. For most of November 18 and part of November 19, their reclaim system was shut down for maintenance, so they were washing with fresh water. November 21 the reclaim tanks were pumped out and they ran November 22 and November 23 on fresh water until they refilled their holding tanks. Keeping track of your water on a daily basis will prevent the issues our first example suffered. The photograph on page 60 provides a meter example. If you do not know where your meter is, contact your water provider and find out. Some areas are metering in real time online so you can just look it up on your computer.

Leaking solenoid valves on rinse arches can also be contributors to water waste. A survey of your water system should be done periodically. Look at your meter when everything is off, is it moving? If it is, you have a leak or leaks. Find them and fix them.


The reverse osmosis process for making spot-free final rinse water is prevalent in the vehicle washing business. If you have one of these systems you know that it produces wastewater, sometimes called concentrate or reject water. This water has a higher TDS than your tap water. If your tap water is 200 TDS, this water will have that 200 TDS plus the solids you removed from the water you made spot-free. It usually comes in about 140 percent of your tap water — 200 TDS tap equals 280 TDS reject. This is still good water. It can be captured in a tank and, using an appropriate pump, delivered anywhere you would use fresh water without a chemical application. For example, in a high-pressure automatic, using the RO reject blended with fresh water in the last rinse before the spot-free rinse, nets you two uses on that gallon of water. In systems without a reclaim, this alone (with the investment of a tank and pump) will result in a significant savings on your water bill.

Education is the key. We in the car wash industry need to work with local municipalities to educate them on the benefits of an environmentally friendly car wash. It not only benefits the car wash, it also benefits the municipality. This year’s Car Wash Show in Las Vegas will offer an educational seminar on working with your municipality to maximize your savings and benefits.

Charles Borchard is the vice president of operations and also the vice president of technical sales for New Wave Industries, the parent company of both the PurClean brand of reverse osmosis final rinse equipment, and PurWater brand of water reclamation equipment. He has nearly 26 years of experience in the water treatment business. You can contact Charles at cborchard@purclean.com.