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Residential Car Washes

By Annabelle Law

Washing cars in your front yard seems simple and cheap, but there are many consequences. Car washes mainly consists of two components: soap and water. According to the Environmental Services Department of the City of Sunnyvale, water runoff from soapy car washes ends up in storm drains. All types of car soaps and detergents, including those labeled as “biodegradable,” are toxic to fish and other aquatic creatures. The soaps themselves contain phenols, phosphates, dyes, ammonia, and acids. Moreover, the wash water picks up various hazardous substances from cars: grease, oil, elements from brake linings, residue of exhaust fumes, benzene, and chromium. From the wash water’s path down the driveway, it collects dirt, debris, and heat. The heated toxic solution then enters the storm drain system, untreated. Runoff water filled with toxins directly go to local creeks, streams, and lakes. The soap alone can contribute to creating excess algae in local waterways, which looks bad, has a horrid smell, and harms the water quality.  The soap also has surfactants that destroy the external mucus of waterways, which are necessary for fishes to fend off bacteria and parasites. As a result, untreated water can affect our food sources and degrade the quality of drinking water. The runoff from car washes happening on driveways not only harms the fishes, birds, bugs in our neighborhood, but also humans.

Instead of environmentally-destructive residential car washes, you can either do it in a safer fashion or merely go to a commercial car wash. If you must wash a car at home, pay close attention to the water. Use a nozzle to minimize the amount of water used. Avoid using soap and other chemicals. Also, carefully clean brake dust off wheels with paper towels and dispose of the towels in the trash. However, taking your car to a commercial car wash would be better. Commercial car washes drain wash water to local wastewater treatment facilities that remove pollutants. Additionally, they use less water than you would at home, and often recycle the wash water. If the price of commercial car washes scare you away, consider going to car washes that are part of the Watershed Watch Discount Card program in the Bay Area. They offer discounted car washes. Now, you can have clean cars without hurting our environment!


“Environmental Impact of the Car Wash.” Ride Kleen, 22 May 2017,

www.ridekleen.com/environmental-impact-of-the-car-wash/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.

Erie County, NY Environment & Planning,


Cupertino Environmental Programs. Clean Cars & Clean Creeks. Car Wash Brochure.

City of Sunnyvale Environmental Services. Keep Our Creeks Clean: Practices to Follow for Car

Wash Fundraising Event. Car Wash Brochure. Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.

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