A Cleaner Way

By Chandra Orr

April 4, 2008 5 min read


A professional car wash is the green way to go

By Chandra Orr

Copley News Service

Thinking of washing your car at home? Think again.

The do-it-yourself carwash often doesn't do Mother Nature any favors. In fact, a commercial carwash may be your best bet for a green clean.

That grime coating your car isn't just dirt and dust. Exhaust residue, road tar, gasoline and oil make up the bulk of that dingy film. Add in harsh chemical-laden cleansers and non-biodegradable detergents and you have one nasty brew.

"All the toxic chemicals and powders that accumulate on your car - that has to go into the environment somewhere," said eco-advocate Debra Lynn Dadd, author of "Home Safe Home: Protecting Yourself and Your Family From Everyday Toxics and Harmful Household Products," (Tarcher, $20).

The risk to the environment is so great that many cities have banned do-it-yourself driveway car washing on account of the environmental pollutants and wasted water.

"The best thing you can do is take your car to a professional carwash where the whole environment is designed for washing cars," Dadd said. "They have their own drains, and they are regulated in terms of collecting water. Many even recycle their own water."

When you wash your car at home, chances are that chemical concoction is running down your driveway and into the nearest storm drain. You might as well be dumping it into the nearest lake.

Unlike the water in your home, which is processed by a sewer treatment plant, water that feeds into storm drains flows directly into nearby natural bodies of water, chemicals and all.

Professional carwashes, on the other hand, are regulated by the Clean Water Act of 1972. It's against the law for commercial carwashes to discharge dirty water into storm drains.

Instead, the water must be sent to a sanitary sewer or treatment facility, though many commercial carwashes use on-site water reclamation systems to treat and recycle water.

Still not sold? Automatic and self-service carwashes save water as well. By combining computer-controlled systems and high-pressure pumps and nozzles, the average commercial carwash uses just 32 gallons of water per vehicle, according to the International Carwash Association.

At-home carwashes use up to 10 times that amount.

If you simply must wash your car at home, minimize the environmental impact:

- Use ecofriendly cleansers, or make your own. Mix 2 tablespoons of natural, biodegradable liquid dishwashing soap with a bucket of water. Don't use liquid detergent, which is made from nonrenewable crude oil and may not be biodegradable.

- Block off nearby storm drains, and wash your car on permeable surfaces like gravel or grass, which naturally filter runoff. Don't dump your suds outside. Even if you use a biodegradable soap, send that bucket of dirty water down the sink so the water will be treated.

- Don't leave the water running. Equip your hose with a high-pressure spray nozzle that shuts off when not in use.


When it's time to tackle the inside of your car, skip the specialty cleaners. "The inside of the car is actually where the most toxic things happen, from toxic vinyl and leather cleaners to air fresheners," Dadd said. "You don't need all those chemicals to get things really clean."

Instead, she suggests the following:

- Vacuum everything first, but skip the coin-fed vacuums at the local car wash. While powerful enough to pick up bits of gravel and trash from under the seats, few self-serve stations offer attachments for tackling the tiniest nooks and crannies. Vacuum cup holders, dashboard crevices and door handles. The more you pick up manually, the less you have to treat chemically.

- Dust carpets and upholstery with baking soda before vacuuming. It helps loosen dirt from fabrics and leaves a clean smell.

- Clean windows with equal parts distilled white vinegar and water. The acid in vinegar cuts through dirt and grime as well as any store-bought spray. Club soda also works wonders. The sodium citrate softens the water, and soft water cleans better than hard water. Forgo paper towels. Look for reusable cotton or terry cloth towels to save trees and money.

- Condition leather seats with a mixture of 60 percent olive oil and 40 percent vinegar - and save your leftovers. This "salad dressing polish," as Dadd calls it, works great on furniture as well.

? Copley News Service

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