Where you wash your car impacts the environment

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By Terasa M. Lott
Water Resources Agent
Clemson Extension

I’m one of those people that really like my vehicle to be clean which means my weekend chores often include washing my SUV. Since I’m on the shorter side, I have to drag out a step stool in order to reach the roof and my mid-section ends up wet, dirty, and soapy from stretching to clean all the way to the middle. Needless to say, I sometimes use a commercial car wash rather than my own elbow grease.

There is actually more to the story of where I choose to wash my car. While using a commercial car wash does save me some elbow grease, it also protects our local waterways. How, you ask? It’s all about the water: how much is used, what’s in it, and where it goes.
It may be hard to believe but car washing is actually considered to be a serious contributor to water pollution. The water that runs off a car when it is washed in a driveway, street, or parking lot can contain contaminants like soap, gasoline, heavy metals, oil, and grease. Once this wash water enters a storm drain, it has direct access to a waterway where it can harm wildlife and water quality. As you can imagine, car wash fundraisers can be especially problematic because of their usual location in a paved parking lot and the volume of vehicles. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the spirit in which they are conducted but their potential environmental impact makes me cringe.

When a vehicle is washed in a commercial car wash, the wash water is collected and routed to a wastewater treatment plant. This keeps all of those nasty contaminants out of the streams, rivers, and lakes that provide wildlife habitat, opportunities for recreation, and in some cases, drinking water. Commercial car washes also use far less water per car than the average homeowner.

For the DIYers out there who aren’t in to automated car washes, there are other options. You can get the same water quality benefit by using a self-service car wash. If washing your car at home is your preferred method, select a phosphate-free soap and park your car on an area that absorbs water such as a lawn. This will reduce the amount of runoff that makes its way to storm drains and filter the water as it moves through the soil. You have the power to keep our waterways clean and healthy.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, marital or family status and is an equal opportunity employer.

Author: Jana Pye

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