Design - September 2009

Green Car Wash —
Whole-Building Design Approach
By Robert Roman

A “green” car wash is one that minimizes its impact on the surrounding environment and provides the developer with a good return on investment.

Some of the environmental impacts from placing a car wash on raw land are caused by the construction of pavement that is needed to support buildings and movement of vehicles. The building’s roof and ground pavement disrupt the natural hydrologic function of the site by intercepting precipitation that would normally fall on the raw land. The surface water mixes with the contaminants on the ground and the runoff is directed to a retention pond (on or off-site) and/or storm sewer system where it must be treated before being discharged back into the environment.

Other environmental impacts are caused by capital resources and material inputs. This includes equipment and fixtures and the water, energy (fuel and electricity), chemical, and supplies that are used in the car wash production process. The byproducts from washing vehicles are pollution in the form of garbage, noise, and wastewater. Add to that air pollution resulting from the consumption of fuel on-site and indirectly through the consumption of electricity.

Building a green car wash that mitigates these impacts and yet makes money requires a strategy that looks at how all the components of a car wash can be fashioned to work together as a whole. Instead of designing a car wash as a collection of independent subsystems, developers need to adopt a sustainable “whole-building” approach to design and construction.

This systematic approach begins in the pre-design phase. In this approach, the developer strives to make the most of the ways that the site’s components and materials connect and interact with each other. The objectives for a “green” car wash would include conserving energy, materials, and resources; providing an economic and comfortable environment for customers and employees; and reducing pollution. Achieving these objectives requires cooperation and interaction between members of the project team.


Figure 1
Figure 2

The process of developing a green car wash begins by establishing design goals from the onset. These goals can be identified by first developing a footprint of the project and a baseline for analysis.

Figure 1, right, provides a footprint for a conventional one-acre car wash lot with off-site drainage. As shown, the normal practice is to design the wash so the buildable area is utilized to the greatest extent. Typically, this means minimizing the non-income producing aspects of the site, such as green space, and maximizing the length of the building and conveyor and the number of vacuum spaces. This is done to make it as easy as possible for the greatest number of customers to enter and navigate the site, use the facilities, and exit the property. The end result is usually a concrete block building sitting on top of a large parking lot that consists mostly of asphalt and/or concrete pavement.

The design goals for a green car wash can be established by identifying and quantifying the environmental impacts and costs associated with building and operating the conventional design. This would include utility connections and impact fees; storm water impacts; construction and equipment costs; and usage rates for chemical, electric, water and sewer, fuel, and waste disposal costs.

After developing a baseline, the developer, architect, civil engineer, general contractor, equipment distributor, and other consultants would work together closely through the exchange of ideas and information so that integrated solutions will take shape along with the overall design while taking into consideration the benefit/cost aspects of potential solutions as well as the developer’s financial goals and objectives.


A full description of the activities that are involved with the whole-building design approach are beyond the scope of this article, but we can provide an example to help illustrate a possible outcome of the design process and what a green car wash might look like as compared to the conventional design.

As shown in Figure 2, above, the obvious difference with the green car wash is the conservation of open land space and significant reduction in the total amount of impervious surface area. This would be achieved with low-impact development (LID) techniques.

Environmentally friendly parking lot concept

LID is a storm water management approach that is modeled after nature. LID’s goal is to mimic a site’s predevelopment hydrology by using design techniques that infiltrate, filter, store, evaporate, and retain runoff close to its source. This is achieved through small, cost-effective landscape features located at the lot level. LID can be applied equally well to new development as well as redevelopment projects.

In the example, storm water impacts are mitigated with LID best management practices such as designing narrower driveways and smaller navigation areas; installing porous concrete where pavement is required to handle vehicle traffic; installing functional landscaping; installing grass or permeable artificial turf in the high foot-traffic vacuum area (see inset photo); and installing a rooftop rainwater harvesting system.

The green car wash also incorporates other sustainable design strategies:

  • Pre-engineered, see-through building made with less costly recyclable aluminum
  • Compact modular car wash system with all electric drive motors and variable frequency drive controls
  • High-efficiency, low-noise dryers
  • Open-loop wastewater reclaim system
  • Hyper-concentrated, bio-degradable chemicals
  • Geothermal heat pump system to provide floor heating for entrance, wash-bay, and exit pads
    Sustainable design strategies can provide car wash developers with tangible benefits.
  • LID techniques can reduce site development costs and storm water impact fees by 25 percent to 30 percent. These savings are achieved by reductions in land clearing, grading, piping, curbs, and paving
  • In an area that has 50 inches of rain a year, a 3,000-square-foot rooftop rainwater harvesting system would provide about 90,000 gallons of water for reuse in the car wash or for irrigation
  • Pre-engineered buildings are more economical and require less maintenance than conventional block structures
  • Compact modular equipment packages can reduce the size of the building footprint and its construction cost by 10 percent to 15 percent
  • Energy efficient electric motors and controllers can reduce the electrical consumption of motor functions by 30 percent to 40 percent as well as eliminate contamination and other problems associated with hydraulic oil leaks
  • The use of day-lighting, sunspace and other passive solar strategies can reduce annual energy consumption for lighting by 40 percent or more
  • Reclaim can reduce the typical cost of using fresh water by 50 percent to 70 percent
  • Hyper-concentrated chemicals save space and reduce shipping and waste-disposal costs
  • Geothermal heat pumps can reduce heating costs by 25 percent to 50 percent as compared to conventional systems
  • When artificial light is necessary, low-emitting diodes (LED) and pulse start metal halide deliver light more efficiently and last considerably longer than conventional lighting

Some of these measures can help car wash developers achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — developed by US Green Building Council) Green Building Rating System™ credit under water use reduction, water efficient landscaping, and storm water management. In addition to the economic and environmental benefits, the green car wash would provide the developer with a site that is more marketable and aesthetically pleasing to customers and community than the conventional design and one that may be far easier to get approved. Furthermore, our green car wash still has the potential to process 100,000 car washes a year.


Whole-building, sustainable design strategies should be evaluated in terms of their life cycle cost rather than sunk cost. Life cycle analysis accounts for the durability, energy, and resource cost savings of components over their anticipated life, impacts on maintenance and replacement costs, and waste disposal costs.

The payback period for a sustainable building design will vary depending on the benefit/cost ratio of the strategies applied. For example, it may take eight or 10 years to recover the cost of a $10,000 rooftop rainwater harvesting system. The time to recover the cost of wastewater reclaim will also vary depending on cost of impact fees and water usage rates. On the other hand, the cost of using porous concrete, functional landscaping, and low-energy strategies like passive solar are often recouped in the first few years of operation.

In addition to the added cost of hiring LID and energy consultants, research by the Department of Energy (DOE) has shown that an increase in design cost of 4 percent to 6 percent over that of a conventional building is generally considered acceptable for sustainable whole-building designs.


As with any commercial building design and construction, there will be hurdles to overcome to bring a vision of a green car wash to a commercially viable state. These hurdles or constraints will need to be addressed by the project team throughout the design and pre-construction phases.

For example, the viability of some LID strategies will depend on the area’s precipitation and evaporation ratio and the site’s drainage characteristics and soil conditions. Similarly, temperature differentials will dictate if geothermal heat is a practical alternative, and geography will affect the viability of day-lighting and sunspace techniques.

There may also be local and state regulations to deal with in terms of site design, community aesthetic values, and treatment standards. For example, some communities may not approve of see-through building designs, and low-rain areas, like the State of Colorado, prohibit rainwater harvesting. The car wash developer may also have to overcome resistance to change and the economic risk of change to become green.

Sustainable whole-building design, low-impact development, passive solar design, low-energy strategies, and pollution prevention measures can make car wash facilities more energy efficient, more comfortable, less expensive to maintain, more environmentally benign, and more profitable.

According to the Low-Impact Development Center and DOE, an integrated approach to building design is worth the investment in effort and time because it has been shown that it pays off in the long run. This type of approach can help car wash developers reduce energy and material use, save money, and preserve the environment.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises — Consulting Services ( and vice president of Bubble Wash Buildings LLC. You can reach Bob via e-mail at

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