To your average Canadian, a commercial car wash may seem like a luxury; one that carries with it harmful effects for the environment. In fact, most Canadians (60%, according to a 2021 Ipsos-Reid study conducted for Suncor) believe that hand washing a vehicle in the driveway has less of an impact on the environment, a stigma that has been disproven again and again. And yet, manufacturers in the industry continue to innovate in the name of sustainability, and to help operators make their car washes more ecologically friendly.
Tim Walker, partner at Soapy Brushy, a creative car wash consultancy based in Dundas, Ont., says that one of the first considerations for car wash operators is water, since it’s no surprise that traditional car washes use an enormous amount of water. Walker suggests that operators can reduce their water consumption by using low-flow nozzles and implementing other water conservation measures like recycling water using a water reclamation system.
Michigan-based Tommy Car Wash Systems produces water reclamation systems that can help operators filter and reuse water for specific functions. Communications manager Carrie Caldwell says that water reclamation technology plays a large role in reducing water usage in the company’s systems. According to Caldwell, modern Tommy’s Express Car Wash tunnels use an average of just 28.1 gallons of water per car, as opposed to the 46.4 gallons of water for other comparable tunnel washes (note, a driveway car wash uses about 116 gallons).
“While washing cars, it’s essential to use clean, grit-free water. By filtering and reusing water for specific functions, water reclamation systems can reduce your overall water consumption significantly without harming your vehicle wash quality,” says Caldwell.
Water reclamation systems not only help conserve water, but can also help operators save a significant amount of money on their water bill, which can rack up to a hefty sum in the millions over 10 years, says Mackenzie Ewing, director of strategic initiatives for Transchem Group and Turtle Wax Pro in Cambridge, Ont. Ewing says that a major part of Transchem’s focus has been on creating reclaim-optimized chemistry, which works extremely well with the reclaimed systems in today’s commercial car washes.
Sewer safe chemicals
Transchem Group has been manufacturing chemicals for the car wash industry for over 45 years. A large part of the company’s commitment to sustainability has revolved around creating hyper-concentrated products—meaning that operators can use a small amount of product and still provide a quality wash.
This is a sentiment that Soapy Brushy’s Walker recommends all operators consider when looking to reduce their ecological footprint. With highly concentrated compounds, operators will create “less packaging waste and in turn have a smaller carbon footprint from manufacturing and transportation.”
Transchem Group also prides itself in creating products that are 100% biodegradable and chemicals that steer away from harmful phosphates, such as boron monofluoride and hydrofluoric acid. These compounds are popular in car wash cleaning products for their ability to clean effectively but are known for having a harmful ecological impact.
Paul Harkins, business development manager at Diamond Shine, a car wash chemical supplier that’s part of Sonny’s Direct, says that Diamond Shine strives to create environmentally friendly wash solutions. According to Harkins, Diamond Shine uses mainly biodegradable surfactants in its formulations and its products do not contain nonylphenol ethoxylates or PFOAs—compounds that are also popular in car wash cleaning products, but bad for the environment.
“Our formulas are safe for sewer systems,” says Harkins, adding, “the goal is to be hard on dirt, but easy on the earth.”
Velocity Water—another company under the Sonny’s umbrella–is also producing water reclamation systems that Harkins says can help operators recapture and reuse 50 to 60% of the water their wash uses. The company is steadily working on a new system that can reuse up to 70 to 80% of water, but the system is still under development and testing. Harkins says that one of the biggest challenges in water reclamation is trying to remove the dyes/colours that are used in soap.
Transchem has also stepped away from using dyed chemistry in its newer portfolio of products. Ewing says that this has been part of the company’s effort to create reclaim-optimized chemistry. One way that Ewing is trying to recapture the theatrical experience strong red, green and blue dyes have given automatic car washes is by encouraging operators to incorporate LED lighting systems in their car washes.
“The show that customers are used to experiencing at car washes isn’t as vibrant with no dye, and that’s where the LED lighting system comes in,” says Ewing.
By incorporating LED systems with deep colours, Ewing says that operators can enhance the clear nature of chemistry that has no dye and is optimized for water reclamation. By stepping towards these products, Ewing says that Transchem’s reclaimed systems can recycle about 65% of the water that they use in their car wash.
Beyond water, Walker says that operators should also consider upgrading their equipment to more energy-efficient models that can help them reduce their overall energy consumption.
Part of that is energy efficiency, something that Arthur Stephens, president and CEO of International Drying Corp., has been working on at his company. International Drying has been manufacturing car wash drying systems for around 22 years, with an ongoing focus on improving energy efficiency, performance, longevity and sound control.
Stephens recommends operators consider using car wash systems that use axial fans for their efficiency. International Drying’s latest system delivers over 11,000 cu. ft. of air a minute out of a 10-horsepower motor, versus an average centrifugal unit, which he says typically delivers around 5,000 cu. ft. of air per minute out of a 15-horsepower motor.
“By using a system that’s more efficient, you won’t need as many motors to hit all of those different pinpoints on a vehicle because of the airflow,” explains Stephens, “you’re saving upwards of 20 to 30% on your electric bill.”
Beyond the axial fans, Stephens says that operators can also consider technology like variable frequency drives (VFDs) or dimmer switches that can help control the energy input and voltage used to run their drying system. He recommends operators run their centrifugal fans between 55 and 57 hertz, versus a higher hertz like 60—this can help reduce energy consumption by 6 to 8%.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but when operators are saving a couple of thousand dollars a month in their electric bill and reducing their energy use by that amount each month, it adds up over the year, both in energy savings for the environment and in an operator's pocket.