While drivers are becoming more environmentally conscious by purchasing hybrid vehicles, many may not be aware that washing those automobiles at professional car washes also positively impacts the environment.

Environmental Partners, Inc., Issaquah, Seattle, conducted two tests in 2006 to measure the potential impact of untreated car wash discharges into the storm water system (and thereby to streams and lakes) using fish mortality as a measure.


In the independent study, underwritten by Vic Odermat, a lifelong environmentalist and owner of Brown Bear Carwash, Seattle, Washington, fish toxicity tests were performed using a water runoff sample collected from a fundraising car wash event held in a parking lot and compared against a simulated run-off sample that was potable. The car wash runoff sample caused 100 percent mortality of fish in all dilution steps tested, while all the fish survived in the potable water. Detergents, including those that are biodegradable, can be harmful to fish by destroying their protective mucus membranes. In addition, detergents can damage fish gills and wash away natural oils that help fish absorb oxygen.

“I hope this study empowers citizens to be more informed about how small acts, such as visiting professional car washes, can really make a difference on the environment,” said Vic Odermat.

Detergents and surface residue from driveway or parking lot car washes generally runs directly into the nearest storm drain. Most storm drains are designed to carry excess rainwater into nearby waterways without any additional cleaning of that water. Storm water run off is the most common source of pollution of streams, rivers, lakes, oceans and inlets, and can have a devastating effect on aquatic life.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, a commercial car wash cannot send their dirty water into storm drains. The water must be discharged into a separate sanitary sewer or treated and recycled. Professional car washes also use less than one tenth of one percent of the water used by a municipality daily.

“As the year progresses and temperatures dip lower, drivers will need their cars washed more often because mud, road grime and salt are more likely to accumulate on their vehicles,” said Mark Thorsby, International Carwash Association Executive Director. “By using professional car washes, drivers can maintain clean cars and help the environment.”