Finishing Line - May 2008

Being Green: It's not Easy
By Robert Roman

During my 10 years as a public servant, the environmental issues of concern included depletion of the ozone layer, air toxins, acid rain, and smog. Not only were these issues complicated and perplexing because they were interrelated, they were often difficult for the general public to understand and the solutions were expensive.

The rallying cry of the environmental movement at that time was conservation — reduce, reuse, and recycle. This meant voluntary initiatives such as carpooling, telecommuting, using public transportation, recycling paper and cans, and cutting back on aerosol spray cans. Of course, the call to conserve also generated a cadre of snake oil vendors selling products with dubious environmental benefits such as additives and mechanical devices that claimed to drastically improve vehicle fuel economy and lower tailpipe emissions.

Today, global warming has taken center stage and the environmental movement’s rallying cry is: being green. Being “green” means being concerned about carbon footprints and the sustainability of businesses. The green movement is growing and it has actually become trendy for companies to become green. Unfortunately, this has led to many so-called green initiatives and products that are little more than marketing hype and exaggerations about either the ingredients that are included or the precise environmental benefit.

Consider the “waterless” car wash products that are the rage on get-rich-quick websites on the Internet. In the fine print behind the claims of saving billions of gallons of water and being pollution free, is the caveat: use our waterless car wash almost anywhere, anytime as long as the paint is not excessively soiled, muddy, or caked with sand. Well, isn’t this when folks normally need a car wash? Waterless might be great for cleaning a relatively “clean” vehicle but how can you efficiently remove the built-up grease and grime on a BMW that hasn’t been washed for several weeks without using water. Furthermore, the claim that waterless is pollution-free is absurd. The dirt and grease transferred from the vehicle to the wiping towels don’t vanish into thin air. If you throw the towels away, it creates a solid waste problem. If they are reused, they need to be cleaned with soap, energy, and water — and it’s necessary to dispose of the wastewater.

Other well-intentioned “green” initiatives include the use of photovoltaic (PV) systems or fuel cells as a power source for a car wash facility. Consider two car wash operators — one in California, another in Canada — who got involved with these technologies. The operator in California installed a 100KW PV system at a cost of $625,000, which included $525,000 in government rebates. The operator in Canada installed a natural-gas-fueled polymer fuel cell that produces the AC power and thermal energy for his car wash and is connected to the power grid.

The notion of using alternatives to generate electricity and heat energy may seem exciting and promising but, according to Professor Severin Borenstein, University of California, Berkeley; the Department of Energy (DOE); and the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), the current technology is not economical.

Borenstein’s conclusion is based on his study of over 26,000 PV systems. His analysis included calculating the net present value of power produced by a 10KW PV system and comparing the cost of installing and operating the system over its lifetime. His results showed a cost of $86,000 to $91,000 with a value of power ranging from $19,000 to $51,000. As for fuel cells, the DOE estimates the cost of producing power with current technology is around $225 per KW in mass production. The experts believe that this cost needs to be $30 to $50 to be economical. According to a report published by HARC, a commercially available 5KW fuel cell similar to the type used in the Canadian car wash has a capital cost of $131,000 and produces a fuel cell net savings of $1,186.

Arguably, it is going to be some time before car wash operators can depend on things like PV systems and fuel cells to reduce their carbon footprint and lower their operating expenses. In the meantime, there is a host of things that operators can do to become “green” that are not pie-in-the-sky. In other words, they provide an environmental benefit that exceeds the social cost of doing so and coincide with the operator’s profit motive. To name a few: xeriscaping (landscaping that does not require irrigation), burning waste oil, using high-energy fluorescent lights, installing and operating a reclaim system, water harvesting, substituting friction for water-gobbling high-pressure components, cutting back on the amount of chemicals used in the wash process, reducing the heat energy used to dry vehicles, and using energy saving devices like variable frequency drives and programmable logic controllers.

Robert Roman is an analyst and lead consultant for RJR Enterprises, a consulting firm based in Clearwater, FL ( You can reach Bob via e-mail at


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