With two kids aged 2 and 4 years, I don’t have a lot of time to wash my car. My little one is horrified by conveyor-style commercial car washes, and my older one is a hose-happy water waster. Washing my car in the driveway is, by all accounts, one of the most “un-green” household chores, but pulling up to a playdate in a crud-encrusted VW is not so nice either.
The debate: Which is greener—commercial car washes or doing it yourself at home? Commercial car washes use power, land, and harsh detergents that may leak into the environment. However, the amount of water used for washing a car at home can be anywhere from between a whopping 80 to 140 gallons of water, while commercial car washes average less than 45 gallons per car, according to International Car Wash Association.
More importantly, federal laws in both the U.S. and Canada require commercial carwash facilities to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, so it gets treated before it is discharged back into the great outdoors. (1972 Clean Water Act). By contrast, when car owners wash their vehicle in the driveways, a combination of gasoline, oil and residues from exhaust fumes, and car wash detergent goes directly into storm drains funneled toward rivers, streams, creeks and wetlands, poisoning aquatic life wreaking ecosystem havoc. (Household waste water enters sewers or septic systems and undergoes treatment before it is discharged into the environment.)
Responsible at-home car washing techniques It is important to note there are several benefits to washing your car at home: you get a decent work out, save money, receive vitamin D from the sun, and may use less water than commercial washing (see how below), and will most likely do a more thorough job than an automated car wash. Also, when using environmentally-friendly products, you can safely involve your children in the chore! The keys to creating an eco-minded home car wash are
a. use less than 45 gallons of water (piece of cake!) and,
b. to decrease harmful run-off.
Here’s how. Choose a biodegradable soap specifically formulated for automotive parts, such as Ecover’s Carwash and Wax. or Simple Green’s Car Wash. I like Ecover because its two-in-one wash/wax saves on water use, time and money. Also, I’ve noticed my car stays cleaner, longer.
Or, make your own biodegradable car wash by mixing one cup of liquid dishwashing detergent and 3/4 cup of powdered laundry detergent (use ONLY chlorine- and phosphate-free and non-petroleum-based products) with three gallons of water. This concentrate can then be used sparingly with water over exterior car surfaces.
Playing Quarters. My approach is to wash the car in quarters; First, I give the entire vehicle a quick but thorough rinse down. Next, I sponge on the car wash detergent to only one quarter of the vehicle. Then, I carefully rinse just the section I washed, and immediately chamois off to avoid streaks. I do all four quarters one at a time, then concentrate on wheels/rims, then move on to glass and interior polishing. This greatly reduces the volume of water used, and ensures a streak-free finish.
I’m also toying with idea of parking on an old bed sheet to collect more product and run-off, then washing it with my soiled micro-fiber sheets from household cleaning, and simply hanging to dry. Also, try this advice from Helen Coronato, author of Eco-Friendly Families: Mix baking soda and water together to make a paste to shine hubcaps and chrome bumpers. A sprinkle of baking soda followed by vacuuming can freshen and clean floor mats and interiors. After long road trips, clean bugs and dirt from the windshield by sprinkling baking soda on a damp sponge, rubbing and rinsing. Stubborn stains on your car, often caused by tree sap or road tar can be eliminated by applying your baking soda paste to the stain for 10 minutes and then rinsing with a damp sponge.
Ecover also offers an excellent Car Glass and Interior Spray which leaves the car smelling fresh and new-car-ish, but not perfumey. (It also works beautifully on exterior chrome finishes if you really want your car to have that shiny, freshly-detailed look.) Another option is avoid water altogether using a waterless formula, such as Freedom Waterless Car Wash, applied via spray bottle and then wiped off with a cloth. This method is especially handy for spot cleaning, or while using my “quarter approach”
For more info: The International Car Wash Association offers this advice for Car Wash Fundraisers Kids and parents planning a fundraising car wash event should know that they might be violating clean water laws if run-off is not contained and disposed of properly. The temporary measurement of wastewater flows from a professional car wash is hampered by the traditional plumbing design of the sewer outfall. Non-intrusive meters such as ultrasonic meters or magnetic meters are commonly used in the water industry to measure flows with entrained materials are large amounts of particulates. These types of meters require a stretch of unbroken pipe to which the meter can be attached. Most sewer outfall pipe at car washes is buried under asphalt or concrete, under the floor of the bays or the parking lot. Future design of car washes should consider leaving a stretch of outfall pipe with access through a meter box sufficiently large enough to install temporary non-invasive metering equipment. This would ease the job of a car wash owner/operator wishing to demonstrate the water losses at their facility from evaporation and carryout.
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