If you’ve ever built anything that required getting a permit from a government entity, you have been exposed to a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory and always confusing regulations. These regulations control everything from how the exterior of your building will look, to how your restrooms will be configured, to how many lights you need in your parking lot, to how those lights are capped to prevent “light pollution” in the night sky. Car washes are no different. Since this article is about water regulations we will stick to the swamp that is the sticky morass of rules concerning water and wastewater.

Ground Water Discharge Standards,
Bohemia, Long Island, NY


Water is the lifeblood of the planet, without it, life would cease to exist. That being said, one of the most glaring problems facing the world today is access to fresh water. Water is considered a “renewable” resource; it makes it back into the hydrologic cycle so it can be used again and again. However, pressure on the resource is growing. Between 1972 and 1996, Canada’s water usage increased by 90 percent while the population increased only 33 percent. Pollution of surface and groundwater further reduces the supply.

The problem is compounded when we take a look at Canada’s aging infrastructure. Environment Canada states that The Canadian Infrastructure Report Card 2012 suggests a possible need for as much as $80 billion to replace aging water, waste-water, and storm water infrastructure that is already appraised as being in “fair” to “very poor” condition. It has been estimated that Canadian municipalities currently face some $31 billion to repair and maintain the existing capital stock, and an additional $56.6 billion for new infrastructure.

According to the 2011 Municipal Water Pricing Report produced by Environment Canada, water and sewer rates have risen 25 percent on average since 2006 and will continue to climb. Not only are rates going up, but municipalities are switching over to volumetric charges vs. flat-rate charges which means customers will be charged for every liter of water used and sent down the drain. What does this mean to car wash operators? Water and sewer bills will continue to skyrocket. The use of water reclamation can save an operator anywhere from $8,000 to over $20,000 a year in water and sewer costs.


Back in the day when municipalities and water and sewer districts were starting to get concerned about their ability to deliver water and process wastewater for their customers, they developed a means to collect revenue to help offset needed improvements. These were called impact fees. These fees were calculated to charge the user that would have the most need for water and sewer services the most money. Often car washes were targeted. Water reclamation systems were developed to counter these fees. Water and sewer districts would often set aside most or sometimes all the impact fees based on the car wash having a water reclamation system. These systems were often never used.

Nowadays, while there are still impact fees, the water and sewer authorities are also charging by the volume of water you take in and calculating from that your sewer discharge. These rates are skyrocketing. So while any “reclaim system” may get you by the impact fees, you are going to want one that works consistently and provides a high quality wash to keep your operating costs down.

An easy solution to this problem is water conservation; do more with less. In the car wash industry this means ensuring there are no leaks in the equipment room or wash bay, using zero-degree nozzles, using high-efficiency reverse-osmosis (RO) systems in conjunction with RO reject recovery, and eliminating the use of water softeners (they typically dump 200 gallons of brine water per regeneration). All of these efforts will save water usage, but implementing a properly designed water reclamation system can save 80 percent to 85 percent on water and sewer bills, and can qualify for rebates from local municipalities.

Look for an educational seminar on working with your municipality
at The Car
Wash Show in Chicago.


In 2012 a bill to require new-built car washes to recycle their wash water was introduced in California. This ultimately became a law that requires car washes to reuse 50 percent of their water. The lawmaker who sponsored this bill reached out to the Western Carwash Association, who helped him understand that simple is good and that they could support it if it was not punitive or business-crippling, but achievable and helpful. As a business based in California, we can tell you a law that is not punitive or business-crippling but achievable and actually helpful comes around so rarely that it is noteworthy.

As stated, this was a very simple law; it certainly could have been worse. For example, they could have put water-quality restrictions on this reuse water like the state of Wisconsin does. Or they could have required the water reclamation equipment to be state approved, which includes a renewal every three years — again, as required in Wisconsin. At the WCA’s request, Charles Borchard spoke with California Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s legislative aide about this bill. During the discussion, he cited the Wisconsin examples as what not to do when trying to write a good law.


Some Canadian municipalities are realizing that water conservation can be the key to sustainability as well. According to Renee Chu, a water consultant for Toronto Water, water conservation lessens the burden on water and wastewater treatment plants, saves on electrical usage, and saves both utilities short- and long-term costs. It is for this reason that Toronto Water has created the Water Capacity Buyback Program. The program is for commercial and institutional organizations that significantly reduce their water usage by implementing water saving equipment such as water reclaim systems.

The process is fairly straightforward: a water audit is performed by Toronto Water, they determine what processes are eligible and provide an estimate of water savings; you implement the water saving processes, and they verify the implementation and then present your organization with a check for up to $1.13 per gallon of water saved per average day. These rebates can range anywhere from $2,000 to over $15,000 and, depending on car wash volumes and water saved, they can help defray the capital cost of equipment.


What if your site can’t discharge your overflow to a sewer — either because there is not a sewer available, or because you could discharge the overflow from the car wash to the ground via the storm drain if the water quality was high enough? So you would need to have higher-quality water than just letting it run out of your last separator tank. This requires the reclaim system to not only filter the water for reuse, but also filter and control the volume of water being discharged. In parts of the Northeast where septic systems are common and you are limited by the size of your leach field as to how much water you can discharge, car washes are constantly struggling to meet both discharge-volume and quality standards. Table 1 on page 52 is an example of these quality standards for an area of Long Island.

I will point out that there are a multitude of these areas and the standards for each are different based on the area’s soil absorption capabilities and the watershed, area stream, river, or ocean where the water eventually ends up.

It is common sense that when you use recycled water in a car wash, you put in a means to prevent the reclaimed water from contaminating the fresh water at the points where the reclaimed water and the site’s fresh water intersect.


The good news is there are many programs similar to Toronto Water’s in the greater Toronto area; the bad news is other Canadian provinces are not nearly as progressive. While some parts of Canada mandate the use of reclaim in car washes (Quebec City comes to mind), other parts actually prohibit it. Alberta’s plumbing code prohibits the use of reclaimed water and requires that car washes operate with potable water and drainage to sanitary sewer. They fear contamination of water could be a health-risk factor as they compare car wash reclaim water to toilet bowl flushing. In realty, car wash reclaim water is not wastewater as it does not contain discharge water from toilets, urinals, etc. In fact, with a properly designed reclaim system, the treatment of car wash reclaim water greatly improves the quality of the water, making it safe for human exposure and discharge to the environment.

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. At this year’s The Car Wash Show in Chicago, look for an educational seminar on working with your municipality with regard to water treatment to maximize your savings and benefits.

This article is a collaboration between Charles Borchard and Denise Wight, respectively the vice president of operations and director of corporate accounts for New Wave Industries PurClean/PurWater. Between them they have 50 years experience in the car wash business and 35 years in water treatment for car washes.