Ferguson on the Frontline: Awash in Savings

Oct. 1, 2015
New ideas such as a waterless car wash can be helpful in times of drought

About the author: Bob Ferguson is a consultant in water and wastewater product safety, certification, analysis and treatment, and is a frequent author on water and environmental topics. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @Ferguson9806.

I am an eternal optimist. Some people who know me and work with me may not always agree, but I am. I think this has to be the greatest time in human history to be alive. We have a lot of problems to solve, but we also have greater resources than any other generation in history with which to solve them. Sometimes it is the big idea on a big scale that changes the landscape; sometimes the idea is just as big, but precipitates a lot of smaller changes with a sweeping cumulative impact.  

I love looking for such new ideas; I’ve written about them in previous columns. So when I saw a story about a Pennsylvania State University student who was looking for a better way to wash her car, I was intrigued.

Waterless Car Wash

Taylor Mitcham was an engineering student at Penn State who graduated earlier this year. She had a car on campus that she wanted to keep clean, but she found that the local car washes had long lines and wait times that didn’t fit into her busy class schedule. She thought she could keep up by washing her car at her apartment, but she didn’t have access to water and a hose. This presented Mitcham with a problem: how to maintain her clean car without water and without trips to the car wash. Mitcham, originally from California and familiar with droughts and water conservation, also was intrigued by the idea of a car-washing system that used no water.

She did her research and found a number of ideas and options for waterless car washes. She also found a number of commercially available products that were portable, biodegradable and claimed to be effective. She ordered 20 different samples from different manufacturers. She found many to be ineffective at cleaning. She found that others froze on the car in the cold Pennsylvania winter. But after some trial and error, she found one that was effective at cleaning her car, didn’t damage the finish, and was biodegradable and reasonably priced. She started using it regularly to clean her car. 

Mitcham’s friends found out about what she was doing and asked if she would clean their cars, too. Soon, more people asked as word of her service spread. To keep up with requests, she started recruiting her friends to help with the work. This was when she realized that she may have a real business opportunity and, after seeking some help in getting started from the Penn State Small Business Development Center, Simple Car Wash was born.  

I learned about Mitcham and her new business because we are both Penn State graduates. Simple Car Wash offers water-free, on-location car washing services. You can schedule an appointment online for a trained wash technician to come to your location and wash your car while you’re at work or otherwise occupied. How is a wash technician trained? Mitcham told me, “It’s all about the technique and the materials used to get a good, clean shine while protecting the car and the clear-coat finish.”   

This magazine is, of course, about water, so how much water can someone save by using a waterless car wash system? Well, it depends who you ask. There are many people—including those in car wash industry associations—who estimate that a car wash at home (in a driveway with a hose and bucket) can use up to 150 gal of water or more.  One informal study I read claimed that by judiciously using a 2-gal bucket, hosing off a pickup truck for about a minute and a half, shutting off the water (or using a trigger hose) and washing the truck from the bucket, and then rinsing off the truck for another minute and a half that they were able to wash the truck using only about 11 gal of water. I suppose it’s fair to ask, who is really that careful when they wash their car? From observation and experience, I’d say people can get north of the 100-gal mark. Different car wash associations estimate that the average mechanical car wash (the friction design that uses brushes or fabrics to clean the car) uses approximately 35 to 70 gal (for the “touchless” high-pressure water design) of freshwater per wash. Car washes that use efficient treatment and recycling systems can lower that mark to about 15 to 30 gal. Regardless of the number, it doesn’t take much math to see how saving between 30 and 100 gal (or more) of water per car wash can add up.

The Significance of Savings

How important is this? I suppose that answer is, “it depends.” As I have mentioned in previous columns, in water-stressed areas such as California or Arizona, it could be an important and significant contributor to water conservation efforts. In other places such as Cleveland and New Orleans, which are not water stressed, the impact would be far less important.

Mitcham is setting up her second franchise in Arizona. She is looking for team members, investors and franchisees. I asked Mitcham if people are attracted to the fact that the process uses no water. She told me that most people are first attracted to the convenience of the service, but are happy about the fact that it also is saving water. I asked if she was aware of any business incentives available to promote her water-saving techniques or if she has been contacted by any corporate sustainability groups interested in adding to their water-reduction efforts. She said that over the past few years she has been building up her car-washing expertise and small business skills, but is not as knowledgeable about water conservation incentive programs. She did mention that she would be interested in talking with water or sustainability experts who could help her explore those options. I told her they are available. If you are interested in learning more about the business, you can do so at www.simplewaterless.com.

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About the Author

Bob Ferguson

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