Finishing Line - July 2010

Us and Them — Alternative Approach
to Driveway Washers
By Robert Roman

One of the uncomfortable truths about “green” and political correctness is that it often creates or leads to an “us and them” mentality.

Political correctness suggests that car wash operators should consider hoisting a green flag. Otherwise, there is the risk of a company being branded or perceived by the public as one which forsakes conservation.

Today, it is possible for car wash operators to fly a green flag by having their facility certified as environmentally friendly, joining a program that requires the use of reclaim and/or using chemicals that are more environmentally benign.

On the demand side, it appears that more has happened to make charity and driveway washers out to be the bad guys — or “them.” One well publicized charge claims that wastewater from charity and driveway washing kills fish and other marine life in a stream bed.

This study was based on “practical” fish toxicity testing. This means runoff solutions were collected and prepared to represent “actual” conditions. The study was based on two general assumptions: all of the wastewater makes it to the storm sewer (and tributary) and everyone washing uses a commonly available car wash detergent.

This study may provide “proof” positive to support the assertion that wastewater from charity and driveway washers leads to fish kills in the Puget Sound region. However, it would probably be a mistake for car wash operators to take these results beyond this region for the purpose of making a case locally against charity and driveway washing.

First, it is possible for any charity or driveway washer to use a mat, temporary berm, or other simple method to prevent the discharge of waste water into a storm sewer drain. Moreover, charity and driveway washers can obtain benign car wash chemicals from the shelves of any major auto parts or discount store.

Second, there are other studies of fish and wildlife kills to consider. One such study conducted by Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) investigated over 4,500 incidents over a 30-year period.

According to this study, the leading cause of fish and wildlife kills was low dissolved oxygen (LDO). The main activity causing these types of kills is the stagnation of water due to the construction of dead-end canals in industrial or residential developments along the coast. Other human factors leading to LDO kills are large dumps and spills, which release pollutants into the water and dams that reduce or stop flow in a stream.

TPW found that only about 6 percent of the total numbers of fish and wildlife killed are due to the direct toxicity of a contaminant. Contaminants were found to reach the environment mainly through dumping, accidental spills, legally permitted discharges, and rainfall runoff from facilities. The most common contaminants causing kills included ammonia, gasoline, pesticides, and sewage.

Natural causes of low dissolved oxygen include storms and drought. After dissolved oxygen, the most common causes of fish and wildlife mortality included cold fronts or freezes and algal blooms. In Florida, the most recent and extensive fish kill occurred this winter and was due to abnormally long periods of freezing temperatures, not pollution.

Clearly, there are many activities and events that can lead to fish and wildlife kills besides the wastewater discharge from charity and driveway washers. Consequently, I wonder if there isn’t a better way to convince consumers to use a professional car wash besides trying to infer that anyone who chooses to wash in the driveway or visit a charity wash is necessarily a fish and wildlife killer.

Common experience has shown that you can catch more bees with honey than vinegar. So, perhaps an alternative way to bring consumers out of the driveway is to focus on the things that will resonate most with them.

For example, it is easy to demonstrate that using a professional car wash can save consumers both money and time. It is also easy to show that a professional wash uses much less fresh water to clean a car as compared to charity or driveway washing and that the wastewater is treated before it is discharged to a sanitary sewer. If the car wash has a reclaim system instead of grey water recycling so much the better.

I like this approach because it seems less likely to alienate people or insult their intelligence. After all, there is more than anecdotal evidence to suggest that what may happen in the Puget Sound region doesn’t necessary comport to the rest of the country.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises — Consulting Services ( You can reach Bob via e-mail at

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