August 1, 2008

Who Knew? The Carwash Beats Do-It-Yourself in Portland, Ore.

By Shelby Wood, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Aug. 1--Portlanders love doing it themselves. The DIY route often is cheaper, more original and less toxic: think backyard gardens, local microbrews and handmade crafts at Saturday Market.

But when it comes to washing a car, it's better to see a professional. Oregon's rivers and streams will be healthier for it.

The message runs counter to the bad rap that commercial carwashes still fight, nearly 20 years after the federal Clean Water Act began requiring operators to treat wastewater in a far more environmentally responsible way than most driveway washers do. Telling people not to wash their cars at home butts up against a distinctly American hot weather ritual -- an excuse to soak your brother in a hose fight, and still a favorite way for schools and community groups to raise money.

About 38 percent of Americans prefer to wash their cars at home, according to a survey by the International Carwash Association, although that's down from 48 percent in 1996. Who hasn't seen a movie or music video with a girls-washing-cars-in-bikinis scene? The DIY carwash culture, like car culture, is a part of us.

Here's why it shouldn't be, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services and the Oregon Environmental Council:

Commercial carwashes waste less water than Driveway Guy. They can't afford not to conserve; water is the lifeblood of their business. According to Stormwater: The Journal for Surface Water Quality Professionals, most commercial carwashes use 60 percent less water to soap and rinse a car than a home wash uses just to rinse it.

Drive-in carwashes save water by recycling it, said Brett Hulstrom, an environmental specialist with the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services. Clean water rinses the first car, moves through filters where dirt and other impurities are removed, then gets mixed with chemicals to create soap for the next car.

Water waste, however, isn't the biggest mark against the at-home wash; it's their impact on streams and rivers.

Commercial carwashes must send wastewater through a treatment facility -- like the path toilet water takes after a flush -- before it reaches rivers and streams. But the soap, oil and grease that sluices off a car in a Portland-area driveway or street flows into storm drains, which carry it straight into Johnson, Fanno or Tryon creeks, the Columbia Slough and the Willamette River.

There, any phosphorus from the soap encourages algae growth, which blocks sunlight and steals oxygen from fish. Oil and grease can coat fish gills and harm other water-dwellers, such as snails, insects and worms.

A home washer can reduce the damage by washing a car on the lawn, where soil soaks up some of the toxins (plus, the neighbors will love you!); attaching a water-saving nozzle to the hose and dumping sudsy water in the toilet or sink, not into the street.

The Oregon Environmental Council recommends home washers use no-soap cleaners labeled "nontoxic" or "phosphate-free." But those gentler cleaners, often labeled biodegradable, can still harm aquatic life before they degrade

The regional Eco-logical Business Program (, a government-backed effort to certify auto shops and landscape services that take extra steps to minimize their environmental impact, is developing a new certification for carwashes that do more than conserve water and meet federal wastewater regulations.

The group also plans to expand a fundraising option offered by some carwashes in the Portland area, in which schools and other nonprofit groups can buy coupons for a commercial carwash. The groups resell the coupons at a markup to raise money, eliminating the need to actually wash any cars.

Nobody's going to make a music video about selling coupon books. But the fish will be pleased.


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