Workin' at the car wash...

| August 05, 2009
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Durham residents received a notice in their most recent water bill recommending that if you wash your car at home, do so over gravel or grass. The water will seep into the ground rather than run off into the storm drain, which, in turn, sends it directly into rivers and streams. And remember, the water contains not only soap, but also can carry residues of paint, wax, gasoline and exhaust fumes—all pollutants that can harm the environment.

If you must wash your car at home, don't waste water by leaving the hose running. Don't use paper towels, but washable cloths or sponges. Instead of using harsh chemicals—not good for your hands or lungs—concoct your own biodegradable car wash: Mixing one cup of liquid dishwashing detergent and three-quarters of a cup of powdered laundry detergent with three gallons of water. Make sure the detergents are chlorine- and phosphate-free and non-petroleum-based. Seventh Generation, Biokleen and Ecover all have good enviro credentials. However, note that soap can damage some car finishes and strip the wax, although GNLD's LDC cleanser (which was used on penguins covered in oil after a spill near Africa) has received good marks for its friendliness to the environment and car finish.

While commercial car washes admittedly consume green space with swaths of concrete, they also are legally required to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, so it is treated before being discharged into waterways. Patronize car washes that recycle and/or reuse their water. Some car washes use half as much water per car—45 gallons—than you would at home—80 to 140 gallons.

Comments (3)

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This just in: Durham does not have a stormwater system that "sends [water] directly into rivers and streams" as your article states. Durham has a stormwater system, consisting of curb grates and culverts, that sends water directly into open ditches. You can readily see these open ditches running parallel along Durham's streets. The city of Durham claims to "maintain the drainage system in the city right-of-way." Where does all that water collected in grates and ditches go? Often it is channeled into other open ditches coursing through vacant lots and back- and side-yards, depositing pollutants (as well as abundant litter) along the way. So you see, Ms Sorg, it makes little difference to the health of rivers and streams where you wash your car in the city of Durham when you take the reality of the conditions into account.

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Posted by cq on 08/07/2009 at 5:11 PM

I have a question for Ms Sorg and for the city of Durham. If washing your car over a gravel driveway presents little or no danger to streams and rivers, why does the city of Durham count gravel as an impervious surface when calculating your stormwater bill? For example: My gravel driveway (with grass growing in it) is, according to the city, just over 800 square feet. This added to the approximately 1200 square feet of my roof puts my property just over the second tier's 2000 square feet of impervious surface threshold for billing purposes (2043 square feet exactly, according to the city). Is gravel an impervious surface? The city seems to say yes with its stormwater billing and no with its recommendations for car-washing. If I wash my car over the grass growing in my gravel driveway while keeping the gravel dry am I helping to protect streams and rivers from pollution or am I just playing along while the city pretends to have a handle on its affairs?

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Posted by cq on 08/06/2009 at 4:12 PM

Whew, 1 CUP of dish detergent AND 3/4 cup of laundry soap? Y'all must have an interest in the auto refinishing business. First, although the INDY did offer up a half-hearted warning about detergent and auto finish ... decidedly NOT recommended, the amounts suggested are far in excess of the amount of the wrong stuff needed to clean anything short of a building or something. That stuff goes somewhere when it swirls down the storm drain. Do your car and the planet a favor. Use a mild SOAP and warm water. Soap is a mostly natural substance while detergent, according to the EPA "refers to household cleaning products which are based on non-soap, synthetic surfactants and which are primarily used for laundering and dishwashing." They should not be used interchangeably and definitely should not be used on auto finish. Hire a fact checker.

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Posted by binks on 08/06/2009 at 9:31 AM
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