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 its way back into the hydrologic cycle so it can be used again and again. However, there is pressure on the resource and it is growing. Pollution of surface and groundwater further reduces the supply. The availability of and access to fresh water supplies have been highlighted as among the most critical natural resource issues facing the world. Thirty-one countries are facing severe water stress; over a billion people have no access to clean water. By 2025, researchers are predicting, water will be shipped around the globe like gas is today, through pipelines and tankers. In spite of all this, water use continues to increase.
IN THE UNITED STATES
Water consumption has tripled in the last 50 years. U.S. water consumption has increased six-fold since the 1900s, twice the rate of population growth. The problem is compounded when we take a look at the aging infrastructure. The infrastructure supporting water utilities across the globe are being stressed beyond their limits. It’s estimated that $335 billion is needed to fix the outdated systems in the United States alone.
The United State’s drinking-water system is so troubled, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a grade of D in its 2013 Report Card of America’s Infrastructure, that is up from 2009’s D minus! The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the biggest municipalities over 30 percent of the water pipes are 40 to 80 years old, and 10 percent of those are older than that. Our wastewater is a D as well. So not only do we have difficulty treating the fresh water that we have for human consumption, we also have a difficult time cleaning the water that we use to be released back into the environment. 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, municipalities are also switching over to volumetric charges vs. flat-rate charges, which means customers will be charged for every liter or gallon 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.
If you ever built anything that required getting a permit from a government entity, you have been exposed to the multiplicity of sometimes contradictory and always confusing regulations. These regulations will control everything from how the exterior of your building will look, to how your restrooms will be configured, to the number of lights 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.
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 facility 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 systems in conjunction with RO reject recovery, eliminating the use of water softeners (they typically dump over 200 gallons of brine water per regeneration), replacing old equipment with more environmentally friendly installations, and implementing water reclamation systems. 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.
In 2012 in California, a bill to require new built car washes to recycle their wash water was introduced.
This ultimately became a law that requires car washes to reuse 50 percent of their water. The lawmaker who carried 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 actually helpful. 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. When the WCA asked Charles Borchard to speak with Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s legislative aide about this bill, he cited the Wisconsin examples as what not to do when trying to write a good law.
Some municipalities are realizing that water conservation can be the key to their sustainability as well. In San Antonio, TX, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has one of the most progressive programs. The Commercial Large Scale Retrofit Program offers incentives, in the form of rebates, for SAWS General Class customers instituting new water-saving processes or installing new water-saving equipment. The program is easily adaptable to any proposed retrofit project, including water reclamation systems for car washes. The main goal of the Commercial Large Scale Retrofit Program is to shorten the payback period associated with large water-saving projects, thus making their implementation more feasible from an economic standpoint. It pays $550 per acre-foot saved per year for 10 years up to 100 percent of costs. Most of the rebates operators have seen have been in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.
The good news is there are many programs similar to SAWS’s rebates. The bad news is many other municipalities are not near as progressive. While some parts of the United States and Canada mandate the use of reclaim in car washes (Quebec City, most of Florida, and California come 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, 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, and putting less of a burden on the local municipality for the treatment of that wastewater.
If you want to spend a lot of time with your municipality, operate a wash site without a sewer discharge. One of our customers has a site discharging the overflow from the car wash to the ground via the storm drain. This requires the discharge water quality to be higher than if just letting it run out of your last separator tank. At this location the reclaim system was required 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. An example of these quality standards for an area of Long Island appears on page 18. There are a multitude of these areas and the standards are different for each area based on its soil absorption capabilities and the watershed — the 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 the points where the reclaimed water and the site’s fresh water intersect require a means to prevent the reclaimed from contaminating the fresh water. In most cases this is a simple check valve. In some provinces in Canada, it requires a break tank and repressurization pump. A break tank has a fill valve through which fresh water is replenished and when you need fresh water delivered within the car wash, the fresh-water repressurization pump delivers it. This is yet another example of bad regulation.
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 article is collaboration between Charles Borchard, vice president of operations, and Denise Wight, director of corporate accounts for New Wave Industries PurClean/PurWater. Between them they have more than 50 years of experience in the car wash business and more than 35 years in water treatment for car washes. If you have questions about water regulations for your local area please contact Charlie at email@example.com or Denise at firstname.lastname@example.org.