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Water & Detailing: Reclamation, Runoff, and EPA Fines

In the mobile detailing world, water can be one of the more inconvenient aspects of your day-to-day process. Not only refilling your tanks or finding water nearby, but what to do with dirty water can be a problem as well.

The EPA has guidelines for different states regarding whether or not water needs to be reclaimed (sucked up), but more importantly, allowing contaminated water to enter certain storm drains you want to avoid.

In this blog, I’ll give you an overview of what to be aware of, and some recommendations for avoiding these penalties. Keep in mind I’m not a legal expert in these matters, so it’s best to consult with your local government agencies for specific guidelines. Commercial car washes are usually subject to reclamation (while mobile detailers remain exempt), but it depends on your local laws.

Why Water Runoff is a Problem for Detailers

When it comes to water runoff the real problem is the actual quality of the dirty water itself. Many car wash soaps or cleaners that you may use as a detailer can contain phosphates, bleach, and other pollutants that can enter storm drains and lead to polluting rivers, streams, and wildlife.

While evaporation may take care of most of the water, homeowners and property managers still may not like oil, grease, and dried chemicals left behind which is why so many detailers use mats these days (more on that below).

For this reason, many detailers have chosen to use eco-friendly soaps not only to put some clients or office park owners at ease but to also to protect against the risk of runoff.

EPA Regulations and Penalties

The problem with runoff really comes down to the enforcement of the Clean Water Act of 1972 by the Environmental Protection Agency. While I am definitely no legal expert, you can read up on the law itself on this page of the EPA website. The EPA basically groups pollutants in three categories:

  • Nonconventional (chlorine, ammonia, phosphorus, nitrogen to name a new)
  • Conventional (covers oil and grease)
  • Toxic (metals and manmade organic compounds)

Obviously several of these identified pollutants like phosphorus are found in many car care products you use, which is why it’s tremendously important to make sure you are cautious about where your water ends up.

Enforcement and Fines

Many counties have storm drain regulations that prohibit any contamination from mobile detailers running into streams and rivers. Fines vary by state but can cost you anywhere from a couple of hundred bucks to well over one thousand dollars. Based on what I’ve heard, these penalties tend to be pretty lofty if enforced.

While enforcement is pretty rare, it’s something that could potentially have major financial consequences (like if wildlife are harmed). The best course of action is to be prepared and to take the appropriate steps to prevent any fines or cleanup fees.  Here are a few recommendations and best practices for dealing with dirty water.

Recommendation 1: Use Water Containment Mats

carwash water reclamation mat

Probably the most popular solution to preventing water runoff and the penalties associated with it are the use of water containment mats. These mats are ideal for securing contracts in areas like office parks that may even prohibit detailers from washing cars in the first place. Based on what I’ve heard, many of the property management companies that don’t allow mobile detailers do so based on water runoff regulations.

There are several different size mats you can purchase in all different sizes. Most mats have inflatable cylindrical tubing along the edges of the mat that inflate up to around 5 inches in diameter depending on the model.

This helps to contain the water and suds inside the map itself to get sucked up by a wet vac or water reclamation unit.

Recommendation 2: Purchase a Water Reclamation Unit

alkota vfs-1 for carwash water reclamation

These units are made specifically for sucking up dirty water and some contain a variety of filters that filter the water to remove contaminants.

The benefit of using water reclamation units is that you can safely dispose of water in storm drains once it has been filtered to remove these contaminants. You may also dump this water on grassy surfaces if your client allows.

There are a couple of these units you can purchase, and some are even compact enough to place on a skid unit or bolt to a wooden trailer for example. Check out my blog post “Building a Pressure Washer Skid Mount for Detailing” if you are looking for ideas or recommendations.

Commercial water reclamation units are surprisingly pretty difficult to find, but are essentially wet vacs with a filtration system for removing contaminants. Keep in mind that while wet/dry vacs can technically suck up water, they are not built with motors capable of constantly sucking up large volumes of water like a reclamation vac is.

For beginners, you’re probably okay with a wet vac, but as you graduate to larger accounts, you will want to purchase something more substantial. Here are a few options you have:

Option 1: Alkota VFS-1 Portable Recycle System

Alkota units are the most common I’ve seen for detailers, but are generally a few thousand dollars. Unless you are washing fleets, it’s probably not a purchase you will want to make right away, but they are nice to have whenever using a reclamation mat.

This one not only sucks up water, but filters it also (so you can safely dispose of it). These are usually sold through dealers of the manufacturer, so be sure to check the Alkota website.

Option 2: Big Dawg Water Reclamation

Detail King also makes a couple of reclamation vacs called the Big Dawg Water Reclamation Vac (available here Amazon) that you might want to check out. This model comes with a 15 gallon or 30 gallon waste tank

Option 3: Sirocco PEV2

This Sirocco unit is also a good choice that costs significantly less than most I’ve seen, and includes a 30-gallon tank as well.  This one is built well with a steel frame that you could mount to a skid or trailer if you wanted.

Recommendation 3: Use a Storm Drain Cover

storm drain

There are actually a few different storm drain covers that help prevent runoff. One is called the Ultra-Filter sock by Ultra Tech. It is basically a tube-like barrier that surrounds the entire storm drain and filters the water before it enters. These claim to remove many chemicals found in car wash products like phosphorus.

These really serve as a last line of defense, but may not be a bad idea if you frequently detail in urban areas with stiff penalties for contamination. They also make catch basins and other devices that fit inside the storm drain itself.  While evaporation is usually your best bet for preventing runoff, you want to avoid certain storm drains.

Recommendation 4: Dispose of Water Properly

Some state-approved drains will send water to a sewage treatment system as opposed to streams or rivers, so it’s important to pay attention to what type of drain you are using.

Professional Car Washes and Sludge

In the case you are thinking about owning a conveyor-based car wash (or similar), the waste generated from dirty wastewater (sludge) must also be properly disposed of from time to time. Many owners will choose to call a qualified professional to dispose of this sludge, which is what probably makes sense for most people.

Conclusion

Overall as a detailer, it’s important to be aware of these EPA regulations and steps you can take to avoid fines. The recent trend in eco-friendly shampoos and other wash products is evidence to me that more detailers are aware of runoff and regulations, so is something to keep an eye on. Even if you use traditional products, a water reclamation process is a great idea and can be a selling point if you are marketing your services as environmentally friendly.

It really depends on where you live and your business model as well. If you use minimal water or usually wash vehicles in a client’s driveway, it may not be as big of an issue like in is in many cities. Many states and cities have different laws when it comes to water runoff, so be sure to be aware of any local regulations or restrictions if you are new to detailing.

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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