Coming clean
Car washes let everyone know they use recycled water

LAWRENCEVILLE - North Georgia's reservoirs are drying up. Water restrictions have tightened. The need for rationing may not be too far down the road.

And car wash owners are getting nervous.

Always the easy target in times of drought, several local car wash owners have begun working to get the word out that their businesses are about as conservation-minded as they come.

Bruce Arnett, owner of the seven Carnett's Car Washes in Gwinnett, has taken out ads on the radio to plead his case to the public, telling listeners his company has been "saving water (since) before it was cool."

Ultra Car Wash, which has two Gwinnett locations, has put up signs to let patrons know 85 percent of the water it uses has been previously recycled.

It's an effort to educate the public before the viability of their business is threatened by restrictions which owners say are more of a political ploy than anything.

"A lot of times there's perception and it's a little different from reality," said Gary Dennis, one of the owners of Ultra Car Wash. "Perception isn't even close to reality for us."

Professional car washes typically use less than 1 percent of water used in a large or medium size municipality, a study by the International Carwash Association said.

Many commercial tunnel car washes in the county have spent large amounts of money to install water reclamation systems. These systems are able to recover nearly all of the water used during a car wash, excluding whatever remains on the car drive when the car is driven away.

The motivation to spend money on these systems is partly about saving the environment, but really more about saving money.

"Water's gotten to be so expensive, businesses like ours can't afford to waste water," said Chip Hackett, another owner of Ultra Car Washes.

Either way, saving as much water as possible is the net result.

Ultra Car Wash said approximately 110 gallons of water are used for each car that comes through the business' tunnels, but only 17 gallons of that is fresh water pulled from the county. The rest is water collected from previous washings. That water goes through a filtration system to remove any dirt or particles before it is used again.

For some car washes, the water used to wash cars may not even make the biggest dent on their monthly water bills.

"Those are the two big users right there," Arnett said, pointing to the restrooms. "The toilets."

Car wash owners say if politicians really want to help conserve water, they should focus on everyday usage in the home rather than on the commercial car wash industry.

"When you look at it from a solutions standpoint, it's a shame we don't have more public service ads regarding at-home use," Dennis said.

But those in the industry aren't just worried about tighter restrictions by politicians, they're also worried about a trip to the car wash weighing on the consciences of their patrons.

"Most of the public still doesn't realize they don't have to feel guilty coming to a car wash," Arnett said.

SideBar: At a glance

Here's a look at the average amount of water used in some everyday household activities. Owners of Ultra Car Wash say their service uses 17 gallons of fresh water for each vehicle it cleans and that's for an activity most people only do six times a year.

Fixture, Average gallons per capita per day

Toilet, 18.5

Clothes Washer, 15

Shower, 11.6

Faucet, 10.9

Source: The Awwa Research Foundation