Do Environmentalists Wash Their Cars At Home?   Leave a comment

According to most of the propaganda: no. And yet, weekend before last I was outside washing my car at home. In fact, I wash my car at home as often as I can. Eco-sin? No, I don’t think so.

Water conservation and pollution is the major reason that commercial car washes are touted as the more environmentally friendly option. Commercial car washes can filter and reuse water so that they use less water per wash than if you’re using potable water from you hose. A car does not need to be washed with potable (drinkable) water, and not doing so reduces the energy required to treat water to drinking water standards. Additionally, car wash waste water is discharged to the sewer where it goes to a wastewater treatment plant for treatment before discharge to whatever water body. The wastewater from a typical home car wash runs into the street into a storm drain where it discharges directly into whatever water body, without any treatment to remove oils, metals, or particulate matter. So from a water perspective the commercial car wash wins out compared to a typical home car wash.

But what if you don’t discharge into the storm drain at home? When I wash my car I pull it onto the lawn first. This way the lawn soaks up the waste water, preventing non-storm water discharge to the storm drain. The oils, soap, and any other organic compounds will biodegrade in the ground. Any heavy metals will not degrade, but I figure that the trace amount of heavy metals in the waste water is probably comparable to what deposits from the air (from exhaust and dust raised by cars in the street).

And what if  you really restrict water use? Some people use a bucket method: one bucket for soapy water, one for clean water, and that’s it. You could use rainwater or gray water to avoid the energy cost of potable water. Since I don’t have my rain barrels hooked up yet, in the winter I use the hose with a spray nozzle so that the water is off when I don’t specifically need it. In the summer I let the hose run, but I don’t run the sprinklers that weekend and consider the car wash to also be watering the lawn (a two-birds-one-stone approach).

In my mind there are other environmental benefits to a home car wash. I use a mild vegetable soap, while I assume that most car washes use a petroleum based soap. Inside the car I either wipe down with just a damp rag, or a damp rag with the same mild vegetable soap. For the windows I use the same vinegar/water/castile soap glass cleaner that I use everywhere else in the house, as opposed to a commercial ammonia-based cleaner with synthetic fragrances and additives. Personally, I could care less about shiny tires so I don’t clean the tires with anything at all.

As far as electricity use goes, I have no idea which method wins out, although I’d guess it’s a bit of a wash. The car wash may get a per-car reduction in electricity when multiple cars are going through the tunnel together, and they may spend less time with the vacuum on then I do. But the car wash also has to keep the lights on in the attached building, run the register and the inevitable popcorn maker, and run the blower to start drying the cars. I use a chamois cloth to absorb most of the water instead of a blower or lots of towels, and I don’t think that my regular home electricity use counts in this calculation.

On a completely different level I really like washing my car at home because of the increased awareness it grants me about my car. When you are washing your own car you really notice new dings, scratches, paint transfers, etc on the outside, and you can focus your cleaning inside on the things that you care about. And for those of us who personify our cars, talk to them, and generally have a relationship with them, bathing them personally feels like a thank you treat for the friend who so reliably transports me wherever I want to go.

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Posted February 27, 2012 by mayakey in cleaning, energy use, environment, frugal living, water use

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