Often, the most overlooked aspect of any industrial innovation is the core element itself. If the base product works, why would you want to mess with a time-tested product? Instead, most industries will work on adding to the peripheral aspects while keeping the core product the same. The car wash industry is no different. Over the years, tunnels have become bigger, brighter, family-friendly affairs with a soap show to rival the best fireworks Disney World has to offer. Chemicals, waxes, drying agents, foam, spinners, colored LEDs, music — all have come a long way since the car wash industry’s humble beginnings. Yet, at its very core, what are we all using that far too often gets overlooked by vast swathes of our industry? Water.

            Every car wash across the globe utilizes water. However, water is not created equal in all parts of the world, let alone across the United States. From exceptionally hard water to sources that require no softening to Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) levels that exceed 500 and varying pH levels, the quality of water across the nation is as varied as the clients we serve. Running the exact same equipment and chemicals, two washes utilizing two separate water sources will yield dramatically different results. Why is this? As mentioned above, the varying amounts of dissolved and suspended solids, pH levels, and hardness can all contribute to a vastly different quality wash result.

            Water treatment systems can consist of a few individual units, such as a water softener, a reverse osmosis (RO) system, or a standalone reclaim system. On the other hand, a water treatment system can include all of these paired with storage tanks, repressure pumps, and any other specialized equipment you may want. A water treatment system is completely customizable to your specific needs. A customized system will help ensure the best possible end product for your customers, keeping them coming back again and again.

            For the purposes of this article, we will be viewing water treatment through the eyes of tunnel operators. The information provided does apply to those in the world of in-bay automatics, with some slight variations. I would encourage readers to contact their water treatment system provider for more details and information. We will discuss the various aspects of a water treatment system and how they can benefit you and your wash.


            All washes require an initial water source, whether it be a well or provided by the municipality. The incoming water source must be ascertained and thoroughly tested. Things to be determined include:


            How much does my water cost? Some areas of the country have a set price per X amount of a measured unit, while others charge per individual measured unit. Another aspect to be aware of is how the municipality charges for water. Do they charge per gallon or per cubic foot? One hundred cubic feet of water equates to 748 gallons; it is critical to know the difference when estimating your future water costs. Make sure you have accurate measurements and costs broken down when assessing your need for a water treatment system that includes reclaim.

City booster, water softeners, RO system with storage tanks.

Water Pressure

            What is my incoming water pressure and the size of my city feed line? Are both large enough to supply the wash on their own? A city feed line of 3” in diameter with an incoming flow of 50+ psi will be sufficient for a wash to meet its own needs without the added purchase of a re-pressure pump. Any lower psi or a smaller feed line will likely require a re-pressure pump to allow adequate flow of water to your wash equipment. Running off a 2” line without a re-pressure pump could result in inadequate flow rates to keep pumps operating smoothly and could result in pump seal failures. 

Source Sharing

            What else is being built or is already built around me and will pull off the same water main? Even the best laid plans can fail to see the future. Future development surrounding your wash is something that is frequently overlooked. What can go up around you that will drain your current sufficient water supply? Will it be easier and/or cheaper to have that re-pressure pump already in place? Many locations can begin with an incoming water pressure in the 100-120 psi range, but once the area surrounding them begins to develop and other businesses or residences move in, it can drop to as low as 20 psi, thus requiring a re-pressure pump.

Hard Water

            How hard is my water? Generally, a water softener is a good idea for any wash; however, there are areas where the incoming water hardness is almost as good as treated water. Why would I need to spend the money on softener systems? If this is the case for your location, a softener is still recommended to remove the other impurities in the water that could have an adverse effect on your equipment or chemical application.

TDS Levels

            What are my TDS levels? A reverse osmosis system is universally accepted as a required piece of equipment for the majority of wash owners. A spot-free final rinse has become the standard throughout the industry. Regardless of your TDS levels, eliminating any trace solids is essential to getting that perfect spot-free final rinse. 

RO Reject Water

            Do I use or dump my RO reject water? This is a point of contention amongst many within the industry and basically boils down to space and finances. If you have the backroom space and financial ability to accommodate a reject storage tank and re-pressure pump, the reject water can be sent to the tunnel and used in lieu of freshwater for several applications. The reject is already softened, and best of all, it’s already paid for. Rather than dumping it down the drain, use it and reduce the total number of gallons coming into your wash site. 

Reclaim repressure pumps.


            When planning for a new site, one of the biggest questions a new owner can face is whether or not to install a reclaim system. This will come down to many factors, but ultimately, it will be determined by the return on investment (ROI). Reclaim systems can be one of the more costly and daunting aspects of a new build, which can deter new owners. Reclaim systems alone can incur a six-figure initial investment when calculating the cost of underground tanks, plumbing, and the reclaim system/equipment. When estimating your water costs, knowing what you will spend on operating a wash with exclusively fresh water is paramount.

            Let’s start with a monthly water cost of $15,000 a month (or more). Your actual costs may be more or less, but we need a nice round number to work with. Installing a reclaim system can reduce your water costs by up to two-thirds, which equals $10,000 a month in savings. The initial, daunting six-figure cost of installing a reclaim system can pay for itself within a year and continue to operate and reduce costs with very little continuing maintenance. Something else to note is that many municipalities are beginning to impose taxes on sewer rates to fund state-run Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA). Taking things even further, some municipalities are testing the sewer discharge waters and adding additional fees and surcharges on top of your monthly bill and taxes. These are easily adopted in areas seeking more and more revenue streams to fund state and municipal resources. 

            Aside from cost, other things to consider when choosing a reclaim system are:

            Do I have the space? If this is a new build, factoring in the space in your equipment room is easy, along with the placement of your underground tanks and routing the plumbing to the appropriate locations. If you are acquiring a site that does not currently have a reclaim system, is it possible to put one in with the current equipment room layout? Are there already underground tanks in place? Will the tank plumbing be compatible with my reclaim system of choice? If no tanks are present, can you use above ground tanks instead to reduce costs? Does my geographical location even allow this as a possibility? How often will I have to pump my tanks? Reclaim separates solids from your water, and the settlement process requires pumping of the tanks to allow them to operate normally. The more cars you wash, the more frequently your tanks will need to be pumped. There is no hard and fast rule on how often to pump, so be sure to monitor the solid deposits in your tanks to determine an appropriate pumping schedule. These are all things to be considered when shopping for a reclaim system, which are best answered by a reclaim professional. 


            There are two things in life that are certain: death and taxes. I would like to add another item to that list: the rising cost of water and sewer. This is especially noticeable in western states subject to drought conditions and continually stricter regulations. Regardless of your feelings about reclaim, it is a wise choice to plan for the future and have the underground tanks placed and plumbed, as you never know what the future may bring. Water costs will inevitably rise, municipal ordinances can be enacted, and you can be ahead of the game by having your wash ready to go with the purchase of a reclaim system.

            A water reclaim system is beneficial to your bottom line and eases the burden on your community by reducing the amount of fresh water consumed while still being able to provide an in-demand service. While there are hundreds of questions you may have about reclaim, they are best answered by reclaim professionals. New construction, retrofits, underground or above ground tanks, water usage analysis, and all other questions can be answered by your water treatment systems provider.

Karl Hermann is a sales associate with Eureka, IL-based SoBrite Technologies, a leader in water treatment solutions for more than 30 years. He has been with SoBrite since May of 2022, after having spent the last 21 years in Alaska working in a variety of industries that includes sales, corrections, and, most recently, law enforcement. You can contact Karl via e-mail at karl.hermann@sobrite.com or call (309). 467-2335.