Car Wash or Wash your Car at Home?

September 9, 2010 One comment View all articles in Travel

If you own a car, you face the constant dilemma of choosing between washing it yourself or going to a commercial carwash. But for the Earth-conscious car owner, there's the additional question of which method is more environmentally responsible. So how exactly does one choose? To make your decision a bit easier, we've put together a list of pros and cons for both methods of car washing, along with some eco-friendly techniques and a few helpful alternatives.

According to the International Carwash Association, an industry group that represents carwash companies, the average commercial carwash uses less than 45 gallons of water per car; that's half the water used by even the most careful at-home washer. Additionally, under the Clean Water Act of 1972, carwash facilities in both the United States and Canada are required to drain their waste water through appropriate channels (i.e. into sewer systems), instead of allowing it to flow into storm drains. These regulations further the protection of drinking water from the run-off pollution that occurs with driveway washing. Carwashes also tend to have more water-efficient equipment such as computer controlled systems, high-pressure nozzles, and pumps. And last, but not least, many commercial companies recycle and re-use the rinse water.

At-home washing, on the other hand, uses anywhere from 80 to 140 gallons of water to clean a single car. But that might not even be the worst part: car owners who wash vehicles on their driveways are allowing gas, oil, residues from exhaust fumes, and toxic detergents to flow directly into storm drains that lead to streams, creeks, and wetlands. This means every time you wash your car, you're essentially poisoning aquatic life and incurring an even greater environmental catastrophe than driving alone does. But don't worry because there are plenty of eco-friendly car washing techniques available if you prefer to wash your car at home.

Eco Friendly Soaps/Detergents

  • Biodegradable solutions might seem good enough, but biodegradable only means the soap will break down over time and isn't necessarily any better for wildlife or the environment. So make sure you purchase a solution for automotive parts that's both biodegradable AND non-toxic such as Ecover's Carwash and Wax , or Simple Green Car Wash .
  • Look for eco-friendly soaps that contain none of the following: phosphates, petroleum-distillates, kerosene, silicone, or mineral spirits.
  • Look for soaps labeled non-toxic and phosphate-free , and that are either vegetable- or citrus-based.
  • Make your own car wash solution at home by mixing 1 cup liquid dishwashing detergent with ¾ cup powdered laundry detergent and combine with 3 gallons of water. This concentrate may be used sparingly over exterior car surfaces and safely disposed of afterwards.

Household Cleaner Alternatives

  • Bleach can be substituted with hydrogen peroxide.
  • Baking soda can replace scouring powders and fiberglass stain removers.
  • A solution of 1 cup vinegar and 1 quart warm water can be used instead of a window cleaner.
  • Instead of using varnish cleaner, try a mixture of ½ cup vinegar and ½ cup water.
  • Replace your aluminum cleaner with 2 tablespoons cream of tartar mixed with 1 quart hot water.
  • Substitute chrome cleaner with apple cider vinegar and chrome polish with baby oil.

Eco-Friendly Car Washing Tips

  • Buy some microfiber towels; not only are they more absorbent than ordinary paper towels, they can be re-used up to 50 times.
  • Park your car on your lawn instead of the driveway to water the grass and prevent contaminated water from flowing into streets and storm drain ditches.
  • If you choose to wash your car on your driveway, be sure to mop up or disperse the leftover soapy puddles. This will protect thirsty animals from being exposed to toxic residues (if you aren't using eco-friendly detergents/soaps).
  • Use a spray nozzle to control the water flow instead of letting the hose stream continuously.
  • By using only a bucket of soapy water to wash your car, you will not only limit the amount of water that runs into the street, you will be able to more easily dispose of its contents into a toilet or sink.
  • Wring out sponges and washrags into a bucket instead of onto the ground.

Waterless Car Wash

  • Biodegradable, non-toxic, waterless car cleaning products such as Eco Touch allow car owners to conserve 80 gallons of water and avoid the risk of other harsh detergents.
  • Waterless formulas are particularly useful for those who have water restrictions, don't have water hookups, or are Earth-conscious.


DIY car washer on Feb. 20, 2017 at 9:39 p.m.

The environmental effects of DIY car washing seem rather exaggerated. Here's my approach. I use Ecos laundry detergent, which is vegetable oil-based, and pH balanced. (Balanced pH is very important to avoid stripping wax off the car, which in turn is important for preserving the paint over the life of a vehicle.) Naturally, I use a garden hose with a nozzle to control the flow of water. Treated municipal water is costly, and we use it carefully.

Spraying the car quickly with water removes loose dust and dirt, especially mud which comes from the roads in the first place. I use about 30 mL of detergent in 8 L or 2 gallons of water. With a sponge or mitt, I float the dirt with soapy water, and the dirt ends up in the bucket as I wash. When I'm done, the bucket is still about 80% full, which tells me that only about 20% of the soap gets rinsed off the car and makes it way to the storm drain. The dirt from the car is in the pail, and it ends up on the lawn, where it will be naturally filtered as it percolates into the ground.

There is no oil, grease, gasoline, or residue from exhaust fumes involved. Again, the car gets dirty from bugs, airborne dust, and dirty roads. The only thing that DIY washing adds to watercourses is a small amount of soap.

Assuming my hose flows 2 gallons per minute, I expect I use less than 10 gallons for the initial rinse, 2 gallons in the bucket, and 10-15 gallons for the final rinse. These are generous amounts. Even after rinsing the bucket and the microfibre towel I use for drying, I think I'd have trouble using more than 30 gallons - even less than the commercial washes apparently use.

A couple of other thoughts. Car washing needs to be done in the shade, or early or late in the day. This protects the paint from damage, and avoids excessive evaporation and water use. Also, information from the car washing industry needs to be taken with a dose of skepticism, as self-interest seems to be influencing their comments.

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