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Greener Means Cleaner Water Reclaim Saves Environment and Money
by Jim and Elaine Norland

Car wash operators throughout the country are facing increasing water and sewer costs as well as closer
environmental scrutiny. Constructively dealing with those issues, though, may deliver cleaner cars and boost profits as well.

That's been the experience of partners Andrew Ehrlich, Joe Biello and Anthony Biello at Touch of Class Car Wash in St. James, NY. Their 12-year-old full-service tunnel wash, like other washes in Suffolk County, could buy water relatively cheaply, but faced tough wastewater rules by New York state authorities who wanted to keep groundwater from becoming polluted.

By researching water reclaim and implementing a closed-loop system with no discharge, they have cut fresh water usage by 75 percent, saved on chemicals, increased the showiness of their wash, and avoided costly wastewater monitoring fees or the threat of possibly being closed down. They're saving enough to quickly repay the $60,000 cost of the system.

"Over the last two or three years, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has required all car washes to apply for a SPDES (State Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit or hold and haul their wash water," Andrew Ehrlich explains.

The permit itself isn't so costly, but the monitoring it requires can run $700 to $900 a month, and discharge water has to meet state standards.

"We found out initially we couldn't discharge with the amount of stuff in our water. We changed chemicals, cut down on the amounts, tried different soaps, and we still couldn't meet those standards," Ehrlich says.
"We can control what we put on the cars, but if a vehicle comes in with a gas spill or oil spill or even heavy brake dust, that will screw up our water," adds Joe Biello.

If one violates the discharge water standards, a fine or suspension as well as possible other legal action can follow, he notes. "With the livelihood of our own three families and those of all of our employees at stake, we couldn't face any such prospect."

In two years of studying various options and visiting washes in other states to examine their reclaim systems, the partners in Touch of Class even tried a setup proposed by a self-serve laundry expert which took out most of the heavy dirt, but not the heavy metals. They finally chose the SoBrite Filtermatic2 Reclaim System.

The reclaim system is virtually maintenance-free, the partners report. It uses glass-bead media and automatically backwashes itself every 45 minutes to an hour, using its own recycled water.

"You never have to change the media, and after every backwash, it's like having a new filter bed," Ehrlich says. The only removal or pump-out required is an annual emptying of a 1,500-gallon tank that accumulates all the heavy sludge. A local hauler, such as a waste management company, can handle that task, since the sludge isn't considered hazardous waste, he adds.

While many customers find the idea of water conservation and avoidance of groundwater contamination commendable, Touch of Class further enhances their perspective of recycled water by calling it "polished water." The show it enables the wash to put on for customers is truly impressive.

"Our triple foam is cranked way up high. You can put on more foam," Joe Biello explains. "We put in an extra arch to rinse off the foam, and the whole sequence really jazzes up the tunnel. We don't have to be concerned about the water expense because we have plenty of water from the system, and we might as well use it."

"I think we're putting out a cleaner car than we were with the fresh water, and you can put on the greatest show you've ever seen. When the blower hits the car that's been washed with polished water, it comes out with no soap or wax on it, just shine," Ehrlich adds.

Towel drying has become easier, too, Joe Biello says. "We towel the entire car, but the cars are coming out of the tunnel much drier. The tunnel has one Hanna-Sherman dryer with side and top nozzles, and cars are coming out almost totally dry."

Another pleasing result for Touch of Class is the absence of any bad smells, which have been detected in some reclaim-equipped car washes in the past. The SoBrite system eliminates these, too, according to the owners. "We looked at some washes that smelled so bad you could even smell it in your car when you drove off. This system gets rid of bacteria and odors," according to Ehrlich.

The water recycling system is one of the most dramatic improvements made in recent times at Touch of Class, but its owners/operators seem to regularly update their site and its equipment. The 120-foot tunnel, lined with white ceramic tile, is equipped with a MacNeil over/under conveyor and Sherman wash equipment. Some Hanna-Sherman updates have been incorporated over the past three to five years.
Soft-cloth washing delivers the cleaning combination at Touch of Class. A Wascomat washer handles a big load of towels, since every car through the wash gets a clean towel. Other improvements have included a DRB TunnelWatch system.

Washes are priced from $11.50 for the basic wash, which provides full exterior cleaning plus interior vacuum, window cleaning, and dashboard dust removal. Wash packages range from the Super Wash, at $14.25, and Deluxe Wash, $16.50, to the recently instituted "Works" package at $27. Each upgrade provides additional services, starting with undercarriage spray (the closed-loop reclaim system makes that more feasible) and adding waxes, tire dressing and similar extras.

"People love our Works package, which we began in August," Ehrlich tells ALN. "It's taken off better than we expected." The Works includes all of the Deluxe Wash services including cleaning of mats or rims, and the Blue Coral Express package, which adds spray wax, Black Magic dressing on the tires and RainX window service. "When you leave, it feels like your car has wax on it, and the look lasts about three weeks." Previously, the wash offered the Blue Coral Express Wax but didn't incorporate it into a wash package.

In addition to the tunnel wash, Touch of Class has four detail bays that handle a steady stream of cars for area car dealers, particularly in reconditioning their used car inventories. In addition to standard detailing services, the shop also offers window tinting and dent removal.

"We're in a unique situation, with 27 dealers within a five-mile radius. We have about 25 accounts that we really cater to," Joe Biello reports. "We have our own transporter to pickup and deliver cars. We'll do whatever they need, including new car prep and car washing, but their biggest interest with us is reconditioning those used cars."

"We can perform those services more efficiently than they can, and they don't have payroll expenses such as unemployment tax and workers compensation. And labor has been in short supply; it's been tough to find good employees."

Touch of Class also has a couple of dealers who give their customers a wash pass. Such extras are more important in an era of conservation where dealers or car owners can no longer wash their cars on the street.

About 60 percent of the detailshop volume and 10 percent of the wash volume comes from dealers. Dealer-source washing might be larger except for the difficulty of shuttling cars back and forth between Touch of Class and the dealer locations.

The owners of Touch of Class encourage regular visits by car owners, too, with a buy-four-get-one-free discount and other incentives. The company is starting a debit card system, and plans to employ the customer tracking of the DRB system to remind customers that they should, for example, plan a return to the detail center soon.

The 20 to 25 (depending on season) employees are smartly uniformed. Wash employees wear blue jump suits in winter and blue golf shirts in summer, all with the Touch of Class logo. Detail shop employees wear white golf-type shirts with the logo in summer, sweatshirts in winter. Rain jackets are being considered as part of the uniform.

Turnover is low, with some employees who have to be away for a while providing their own replacements. Some have been with Touch of Class almost since it opened.

One or more of the partners are always at the wash during open hours, and all are hands-on partners who handle everything from billing and ordering to general supervision. Anthony Biello is involved in overall daily operation and supervision, along with key employees such as Matt Schwalb, who supervises the detail shop and oversees the front, and John Accardi, who diligently checks quality standards of the wash. Both Schwalb and Accardi have been with Touch of Class for seven or eight years.

The Biellos and Ehrlich have a solid understanding of the car wash business; their fathers, who were partners, and they have been in the car wash business for 30 years. "We grew up in the pits," Ehrlich jokes. They built and opened Touch of Class in 1989.

At one time, they had three car washes, but downsized in order to concentrate their energies on the single location on the north side of Long Island, at 836 Jericho Turnpike. They have plenty of room on their nicely landscaped acre-plus site to add other businesses, either within their present concrete-block, well-windowed structure or in additional space they could build.

"We want to expand this location to the utmost," Andrew Ehrlich explains.

How? Possibly a food court. With retail customers typically spending 15 to 20 minutes at the wash, they could get something to eat in the 40-foot atrium. Presently customers can enjoy free coffee or purchase little snack cakes, cigars or greeting cards as well as air fresheners and other automotive-type items. While waiting, customers can relax on couches or other seating and watch TV, usually tuned to CNN or other news shows.

Also under consideration is another automotive-related business, such as a repair shop, a tire store or a lube center. With window tinting and dent removal already underway in the detail shop, such activity could be expanded and bays could be added to accommodate it.

Clearly, Touch of Class owners are tuned to opportunity and improvement of the car- and driver-related services they presently offer. Their investment in water recycling and other enhancements demonstrates their commitment to the future of not only their business but to the community and environment, too.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.


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