A broad view of environmental responsibility is that a good business can simultaneously make a profit and steward the environment.

In the car wash industry, this is done primarily by capturing wastewater generated from the cleaning process. Wastewater is pre-treated and then discharged to a sanitary sewer.

Wastewater contains dirt removed from vehicles and chemical used during the cleaning process. The dirt that commercial car wash facilities encounter can be classified as atmospheric deposition, vehicular, and application.

Dry and wet deposition is deposited on land surfaces from the air from primarily industrial sources. It may contain pollutants such as particulates, PAHs (hydrocarbons), and heavy metals.

Vehicle pollution originates mostly from exhaust, tire and brake pad wear, and lubricants and includes metals (copper and zinc), hydrocarbons, and lead (wheel-balance weights).

Application sources of highway dirt are fertilizer and pesticide, road maintenance (deicing, road repairs), and animal wastes (droppings, road kill, livestock waste).

The quantity and type of dirt a commercial car wash must contend with vary considerably. The reason is the dirt that gets on vehicles is affected by the amount and type of highway traffic, road conditions (unpaved, asphalt, concrete), highway maintenance, land use (urban, suburban, or rural), and precipitation.

Nevertheless, vehicles that come to a commercial car wash usually have an accumulation of this dirt and grime. The car wash removes dirt by cleaning exterior surfaces and underbody with some combination of water, chemical, and process.

Here, the car wash operator’s environmental responsibility is to remove heavy grease, oil, and sludge from the wastewater. The accumulated sludge from car wash pits and underground tanks is usually pumped out by a commercial service and disposed of. Where permitted, sludge can be dewatered and then transferred to a landfill, or processed by a licensed disposal facility.

The car wash operator’s other responsibility is to ensure that what waste is disposed of does not contain substances of a type and amount that qualify as hazardous waste. With commercial lift services, a manifest is used where the car wash operator states the waste does not contain hazards, and the hauler states the waste will be properly disposed of.

However, stating that sludge does not contain hazards doesn’t make it so. Experience has shown most car wash waste contains non-hazardous material, but has the potential to be hazardous depending on conditions and type of vehicles the car wash is servicing.

For example, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Florida Department of EnvironmentalProtection, and many other state agencies have seen car wash sump waste analyses that indicate the waste is a hazardous waste.

The only way to quantify pollutants in sludge or effluent is to perform tests, which cost between $200 and $300. Unfortunately, the requirement to test or not, test frequency, etc. is a grey area because environmental compliance often consists of self-implementing rules. This means it’s the business owner’s responsibility to understand what is required and comply.

Wastewater discharged to municipal wastewater treatment plants (sanitary sewer system) is regulated by the local sewer authority, which determines if waste will be accepted by the facility.

In some cases, pre-treatment may be required before discharging waste-water (e.g., oil/water separation, remove solids, chemicals). The sewer authority also determines monitoring, record keeping, and/or sampling requirements.

Many municipal systems also accept some non-sanitary wastewater with prior approval. Generally, this requires an application detailing wastes to be discharged.

The cost of waste disposal varies significantly. For example, depending on the scarcity of water and the capacity of the municipal waste treatment plant, water/sewer rates range between $3 and $9 or more per 1,000 gallons. The fee to process sludge varies between $15 and $75 per 1,000 pounds.

Consequently, waste disposal may cost a busy self-serve wash upwards of $10,000 a year and a busy conveyor tens of thousands of dollars, whereas environmental penalties are thousands of dollars per day.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com). You can reach Bob via e-mail at bob@carwashplan.com.