Rinsing away environmental concerns

On any given weekend throughout the neighborhoods of Shelby County, soap suds and cleaning products adorn the hot rods and family haulers parked in the county’s driveways.

But what may seem like a routine Saturday tradition could be harming Alabama’s environment and slowly destroying ecosystems in the state’s creeks, rivers and streams, according to the Alabama Clean Water Partnership.

When people wash their cars in a driveway or residential street, the runoff from the car wash usually flows down the road and into a storm drain, which drains directly into a stream or river, said Clean Water Partnership Coordinator Allison Jenkins.

“The main danger is phosphorous runoff from the car wash,” Jenkins said. “Phosphorous is in most detergents and soaps, and it is a component of fertilizer.”

When excess phosphorous enters natural waterways, it can cause algae growth in the water, which can damage aquatic ecosystems and give water a fowl taste.

Most car wash-related environmental damage can be averted by washing a car in the grass, or ensuring the car wash runoff does not flow into a storm drain, Jenkins said.

“Most people think the storm drain is tied to the sewer system, but that is not the case,” Jenkins said. “But that flows directly to the stream.

“The one thing I want people to take away is that if you are going to wash you car at home, do it in the grass,” Jenkins added.

Eco-friendly car aficionados could also help the environment by washing their cars at a commercial automatic or self-serve car wash.

Commercial washes are required to tie their drainage systems into sewer lines, where the water is transported to wastewater treatment plants, treated and recycled, Jenkins said.

Shelby County features dozens of commercial car washes in nearly every area city, including the locally owned Anthony’s Car Wash in Pelham.

“Compared to washing your car at home, there is a big water savings when you wash you car at a commercial wash,” said John Lewis, manager of Pelham’s Anthony’s Car Wash. “They’ve done surveys, and I think they showed the average driveway wash uses 120 gallons of water, where a commercial wash uses 30 gallons per wash.”

Lewis said his company recycles drums of cleaning chemicals, and uses only biodegradable cleaning products.

“Realistically, getting it washed here is safer for your car, and it will save a lot of water,” Lewis said.

However, Shelby County Environmental Services Manager Robert Kelley said many commercial car washes branded as eco-friendly may not be better for the environment than normal commercial car washes.

“Everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon, so they may just be advertising as eco-friendly,” Kelley said. “When you wash your car at home, there’s such a minute amount of phosphorous generated. I don’t think there’s really a whole lot of environmental damage from washing your car at home.”