Increasing the eco-friendliness of your car wash can help reduce costs while boosting customer traffic.
By Brad Perkins, Contributing Editor
Enacting environmentally-friendly policies can be good business. From recycling to energy efficiency, there are many options for convenience stores to reduce costs while aiding the environment.
But there is one often overlooked area that can be both cost effective and good for the environment: the car wash.
The notion that car washes are environmentally friendly can seem unlikely, as they historically use a large amount of chemicals, water and electricity and also take up a significant amount of real estate. But the International Carwash Association (ICA), a trade association for car wash owners and operators, works with car wash owners, operators and suppliers to change that view.
“Car washes have always been the more environmentally-friendly choice when deciding where to wash your car,” said Claire Moore, chief operating officer of the Chicago-based ICA.
In fact, studies show that car washes use less water than the average home washing machine. And while the thought of parking the car on the driveway and getting out a sponge, bucket and garden hose to wash the car is a romantic notion, it’s also one that is notoriously bad for the environment as excessive water, dirt and chemicals collect on concrete and run into sewers and eventually into lakes and streams.
As it details at washwithwatersavers.com, car washes that are part of the ICA’s WaterSavers program use an average of less than 40 gallons of water per car in conveyor or in-bay systems.
Home washing is also something that not many people have the time or patience for anymore. And as the desires to save time, money and the environment merge, convenience stores would be well served to consider environmentally- friendly ways to improve car washes.
“By washing on pavement, water is running into storm drains, as are the chemicals consumers are using to clean their cars,” Moore said. “By washing a car in a car wash, consumers use significantly less water, and the water is most often reused in the wash cycle or is discharged to the sanitary sewer where it is treated appropriately.”
Reducing water consumption—and other initiatives to save energy—can be a cost-effective way to attract customers. According to the ICA, there are 80,000 car washes in North America—nearly 40% of which are part of a convenience store or gas station. That’s a significant number of car washes that can help improve the environment while positively impacting a company’s bottom line.
The ICA uses WaterSavers to focus on water saving, encouraging operators to become environmentally friendly and save costs while educating consumers on the benefits of going to a car wash instead of washing on the driveway.
“It is a recognition program for car wash owners who are using significantly less fresh water in the wash cycle,” Moore said. “With over 350 car wash companies participating, representing almost 1,500 locations, these companies are committed to sharing their eco-friendly practices with their customers and communities.”
Those practices are administered at Giant Eagle’s 41 WetGo car washes—which are affiliated with Giant Eagle’s GetGo convenience retail chain. WetGo, which has locations across Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where environmentally-friendly car wash policies have reflected the parent company’s long-standing desire to be eco-friendly in all its areas. Earlier this year, Giant Eagle announced a plan to reduce water consumption at its WetGo car washes by 5% by 2017.
“WetGo car wash locations have evolved to utilize water reclamation systems in order to make quality car washing more environmentally friendly,” said Dan Donovan, a Giant Eagle spokesman. “A single car wash at WetGo uses approximately 50% fewer gallons of fresh water than typical car washes. In addition to water reclamation systems, WetGo car wash locations also feature environmentally-friendly cleaning products.”
The initiative meshes with Giant Eagle’s company tradition of “supporting the communities it serves as well as being a responsible steward of the environment,” Donovan said. “The company has long been dedicated to conserving natural resources through the implementation of environmentally-minded business practices across its various retail formats.”
In fact, Giant Eagle has made changes across its brands, including GetGo, to implement more solar power, recycling efforts and energy conservation. It might be corporate policy, but it also makes good business sense.
“Offering our customers the ability to go through the car wash in the same location where they can fill up their gas tank and choose meal options is one way that we provide them with a convenient shopping experience,” Donovan said. “On-site car washes allow us to offer customers unique opportunities to save on fuel at the pump.”
Making resource-reducing changes to a car wash are not always simple or cheap, but the initial investment pays for itself in terms of improved water flow, water re-use and energy efficiency. There are a number of advantages, including the ability to attract customers who may become frequent customers because of environmentally-friendly policies. And with droughts and water shortages in the news recently, water conservation is a popular topic. Anything that convenience stores can do to save waste and cost is seen as a positive.
“Water conservation efforts are the biggest opportunity in eco-friendly car washes,” Donovan said. “The water reclamation systems in place at WetGo have helped us to significantly reduce the amount of fresh water waste and the associated cost.”
In terms of redeemable resources, car washes have come a long way from the original hand-wash systems and even from the automated systems of a few years ago. Variable frequency drives, which control drying, and other systems to lower water, chemical and energy usage are easy to find.
“Water reclamation systems continue to become more advanced, working towards a closed loop system, where no fresh water would need to be used,” Moore said. “Many operators are making the investment in LED lights to also save on energy costs. There are a few examples of highly eco-friendly car washes that are using solar panels to assist with energy.”
For c-stores interested in bolstering their car wash offering, installing a water reclamation system can be the first step in improving the environmental friendliness of the car wash. Through its WaterSavers program, the ICA offers tips on saving water and letting potential customers know about it. The logic is that—ultimately—environmental and cost-friendly practices will attract ecological-minded customers.
“A car wash can be a valuable profit center in your overall operation, but requires regular maintenance and upkeep to ensure it meets the consumers’ needs,” Moore said. “The ‘green’ message still resonates strongly with consumers, and our consumer research has shown that they are likely to choose a professional wash if they know it is more environmentally responsible than washing their cars at home.”