March 10, 2014
When washing your car, consider the local water resources,
Photo by Puget Sound Partnership
By Mark Tancig
Leon County Government encourages you to think about our local water resources when washing your car on a sunny afternoon. Cars are a symbol of freedom and independence and most people like to keep their cars clean. However, most folks don’t consider that how and where you wash your car can have an impact on your local environment, especially our water resources. Leon County Government works hard to keep our environment unspoiled and encourage citizens to consider the environment, even when washing your car!
For starters, we wash our cars because they’re dirty. But have you ever considered what else is on your car besides dirt and pollen? Many harmful substances stick to your car, such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, zinc, oil, and grease. Where do these come from? Well, tires contain zinc, sulfur, and carbon black (basically soot) for that nice black color. As we drive, our tires wear and what doesn’t end up in the roadside or into the air remains on the tire. Brake pads contain copper since it is a great conductor of heat. For these reasons, you typically wash the wheels last because your wash rag gets all black and grimy. The other substances are often attached to the dirt or come off with the bits of grease and oil that you clean off. Because of these substances, state and federal regulators consider washwater from car washing a hazardous, industrial waste when produced in large quantities, such as commercial car washing facilities.
In addition to the substances we wash off, the products we use to get our cars clean, such as soaps and degreasers, aren’t always the most gentle to the environment. Some soap brands contain phosphate, which can lead to nutrient enrichment and algal blooms. Degreasers often contain strong solvents and alkali compounds that can impact the pH of receiving waters and/or soil.
So what can you do when your ride needs a wash? The best recommendation for washing your car in the yard is to do it in a flat, grassy area. The main point here is that you don’t want the wash water draining to a storm inlet along the curb or into a roadside drainage ditch which typically drain to a natural water feature. Make sure the flat, grassy area is not near your fruit trees or vegetable garden since you don’t want heavy metals accumulating in your soils and potentially making their way into your food chain. It is also not advisable to wash your car over or near your septic system’s drainfield. This may compact and saturate the soil, causing septic system problems. Also, use a phosphate-free soap, use the least amount of water possible (rain barrel water is a great for car washing), and save the heavy duty degreasing and engine cleanings for a professional car wash facility.
In fact, if you’re really concerned about the impact of car washing to the environment, the best alternative to washing your car on a flat, grassy spot in your own yard is to take it to a professional car wash facility. These facilities capture all of the wash water and send it to the sewer treatment plant where many of these harmful pollutants are removed prior to being discharged at the City’s sprayfield on Tram Road. Many of the newer facilities even partially clean and reuse the wash water, saving precious drinking water.
Of course, you can skip washing your car and instead turn heads because your ride looks like a pile of leaves, mildew, pollen, and dirt. But if we do wash our car, let’s just wash responsibly.
Mark Tancig is a Water Resource Specialist with the Leon County Public Works Department. For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov