By Sandy Smith
When it comes to a dry spell, car washes make an easy mark.
“It’s easy to look at a car wash and say, ‘Oh my goodness. Look at the amount of water that is being used,’” said Claire Moore, chief operating officer of the International Carwash Association. “In reality, it is using very small amount of fresh water to get that car clean. The car wash is easy to target because of the consumer view of what they see. They don’t realize those car washes use less water than taking a shower.”
Operators know it, to be sure, but they often fail to communicate with customers and regulators.
“In the last eight or 10 years, I have seen a significant uptick in operators being more conscious about their water usage,” said Gary Hirsh, president of Purclean. It is a trend that he’s seen in other high-water-usage industries too. “Most golf courses for years have been using reclaimed water. It’s very, very common. Professional laundries are now reclaiming water.”
But, like car washes, those industries sometimes stand out when a drought brings dried lawns and concerns over the availability of quality water.
For instance, when drought hit California last summer, car wash owners had a big target on their backs. Auto manufacturer Volvo launched a “drive dirty” campaign — along with its own brand of waterless car wash solution. A Los Angeles-based water conservation organization offered car magnets for those who would “Go Dirty for the Drought.” At the other end of the extreme: California Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency measures banned car washing, except at professional services firms with reclaimed water.
While these sorts of actions may create a feel-good moment during a significant crisis, they ignore the fact that professional car washes today use significantly less water than at-home washing. An added benefit: Professional car washes treat water while homeowners have no way to recapture the soapy water, allowing it to wash into streams.
Even self-serve washes — including those without water reclamation systems — out-perform bucket washing.
“A professional car wash offers water savings,” said Bryant Ruder, general manager of SoBrite Technologies. “If you’re in a self-service bay, the gun is going to give you 3-4 gallons per minute so you can wash faster than using the garden hose outside. On the conveyor-based wash, the water savings can be anywhere from 40-80 percent, if not more.”
That’s one of the reasons that ICA has developed its WaterSavers program, which rewards car wash operators for improving water quality and conservation. The WaterSavers program was introduced as a way to help educate consumers at the grassroots level by providing marketing resources to help operators communicate their message of environmental responsibility while supplementing those efforts with consumer marketing campaigns, including blogger outreach, pre-packaged press releases, digital media buys and Google AdWords efforts.
The program also created a model drought response plan for operators to use when working with water regulators to help educate them on actions to take during dry periods or droughts. Steps include banning at-home washing except on certain days (in the drought’s earliest stages) to offering a surcharge on commercial water use (with an exemption for locations using treated waste water) during the driest stages.
The States of Drought
Dr. Michael Hayes of the National Drought Mitigation Center (NMDC) would like for droughts to be seen as a “normal part of climate,” meaning that droughts are coming — if they are not currently occurring. He points to a 2000-2001 drought in Maine; the governor sought a federal disaster declaration. “If Maine can have a drought serious enough to prompt the governor to make a disaster declaration, anywhere can.”
The drought in the Southwest — particularly California — is more long-term in nature and won’t be solved with a few rain showers. In February, for instance, much of the state was still in a state of extreme drought, though January brought heavy rainfall and an above-average snowpack. The California State Water Resources Board has extended drought-related emergency regulations through at least summer. According to the federal drought monitor for February (www.drought.gov/drought), New York, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Texas also were abnormally dry. Most of California, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada were in various stages of drought.
While drought is apparent in most regions of the country, Hirsh sees plenty of reasons for operators to improve their water usage, regardless. “It is the right thing to do,” he said. “Water is a limited natural resource. For many reasons, what we’re seeing is a major focus on water conservation, specifically for that reason.”
As he works with operators across the country, he sees many municipalities requiring water reclamation systems in new car washes. “Then, there is the other green,” he said. “Water and sewer rates are going up exponentially, because of the drought, but also because of the recognition of the limits of this natural resource.”
Ruder sees the same thing, particularly in the Northeast. “They really don’t have a lot of septic in the area overall,” he said. “Most facilities have leech fields because it is so hilly that you can’t run sewer lines. In the Northeast, there is more of an environmental concern, while in the Southeast and Southwest there is more of a financial incentive to reclaim because of the costs.”
With the aging infrastructure — and the demands on ratepayers to fix it — rates aren’t headed down anytime soon, Ruder and Hirsh both say.
The Story to Tell
Regardless of what is driving the issue — a drought, environmental concerns or financial concerns — the industry has an important story to tell. Moore recommends car wash operators work with their local communities well in advance of any crisis.
“When you get into a situation like there was last year in Texas or California, it’s too late,” she said. “The regulators or the utilities have so much on their minds in cutting down the water to conserve it. They don’t have time to be educated on every single small business using water. Doing so may lead to cost savings for them if their cost of water is cheap now. It will help them immensely if they’re ever faced with any type of drought situation. Most of the world will face a drought situation in some point in the near future. It helps to educate so that when cuts do have to be made, the car wash isn’t the first place they look.”
And it helps to properly explain reclamation to offset exorbitant sewer rates since most municipalities assume that all the water going in must also go out. Not so with reclamation systems.
“It requires educating them on how your car wash works,” Moore said. “You’re taking it in from the water utility, but only a small percentage of fresh water leaves the car wash. The more education and time you can spend with the local utility when not in a state of emergency, the better.”
And take it a step further: Educate the consumers, Hirsh said. “The motoring demographic is becoming much younger,” he said. “They are extremely conscious of the environment. There are numerous studies out there that show they will drive a little further and pay a little more to patronize companies that are environmentally friendly and communicate their environmental role.”
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