Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Consumer Smarts: Use a car wash, the fish will thank you

Q: Is it better for the environment if you wash your car at a commercial car wash or at home?

A: If you wash your car at home, on a concrete driveway or pavement, all the soap, dirt, detergent, oil and grime washes off the car and runs straight into the storm drain and directly into local streams, lakes and ultimately Puget Sound.

Environmental experts say it's better to wash your car at a professional car wash because those businesses are required by the federal Clean Water Act to drain their wastewater into the sewer system, where it is treated before ending up back in area waters.

Most soaps contain phosphates and other chemicals that harm fish, other aquatic life and water quality. The oil and grease contain hazardous materials such as benzene, lead, zinc and other metals.

Even if you use biodegradable soap at home, the oil, grease and metals from your car's brake pads are still a problem, said Sue Joerger, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.
"None of those pollutants are taken out of the waste stream," Jorger said. "If it's going to a salmon-bearing stream, those fine particles can smother salmons redds."

Professional car washes discharge water into the wastewater-treatment system, where it is treated and recycled before being discharged into area waters.

"Many (car washes) recycle a lot of their water so they're not using as much water as personal car washing," said Logan Harris, a spokesman with the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Professional car washes use less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the water used by a municipality daily, according to the International Car Wash Association.

If you must wash your car at home, don't use any soap and wash your car on the lawn, on a gravel driveway or some other permeable surface that can act as a filter, advises Tom Watson, a program manager with King County's Recycling and Environmental Services.

Use a bucket of water and empty the bucket into the sink or toilet so the water goes into your sewage system and gets treated, says the International Car Wash Association.

The Environmental Protection Agency also recommends using an adjustable hose nozzle to minimize water volume. Make sure the car is parked away from direct sunlight. This slows evaporation and keeps water spots from forming.

Does this mean charitable organizations can't raise money from car washes?

Not necessarily. The Puget Sound Car Wash Association has a program that helps charities raise money through car washes while protecting the environment. Non-profit groups can sell tickets redeemable at 30 commercial car washes throughout the region rather than holding their own events.

King County also offers car-wash kits that redirect dirty water away from storm drains. The kit uses a hose to connect to a toilet, a sink or drain that sends the water to a treatment plant.

To build, buy or borrow a kit, visit goto.seattlepi.com/r1046. For information on the Puget Sound Car Wash Association's program, visit charitycarwash.org.

If you have a consumer question we'll try to get it answered. Call Phuong Cat Le at 206-448-8390 or e-mail consumersmarts@seattlepi.com.

Consumer Smarts runs every Tuesday. Call Phuong Cat Le at 206-448-8390 or e-mail consumersmarts@seattlepi.com.

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