Car Wash Safety Rules

New Federal Clean Water Act guidelines are being implemented all around the nation and are directly impacting summertime activities, including car owners who wish to wash their cars at home.

Sandy Howard, Washington Department of Ecology spokeswoman, says the department is asking local governments, counties, and cities to adopt ordinances in hopes of ensuring only clean water flows into storm drains, and car washing plays a big part in that.

“We are not banning car washing,” Howard told Dave Ross on KIRO Radio. “There’s not a problem with washing your car. It’s all about where you wash your car, and how you wash your car.”

Howard says the department is currently in an educational mode.

“It’s about educating people about where the water goes and why soapy water is a bad thing,” she said. “Our advice is not to go out and fine or ticket people, but rather to educate them so they can make wise choices about protecting our water.”

The education period will continue into the foreseeable future before violations will result in fines, Howard said.

“It’s like any other educational campaign,” she said. “This is just kind of an evolution of how we can protect our environment.”

Howard says the bottom line is that the department needs people to understand that storm drains do not treat water and contaminants go directly into neighboring lakes and rivers and eventually flow into Puget Sound.

Officials hope people will begin taking the necessary precautions when washing their cars to help prevent runoff, including soap, grime and metals from the car, from reaching water bodies and contaminating fish and other aquatic life. Stormwater is one of the biggest threats to rivers and other water bodies in urban areas, contributing to disease in aquatic life and pollution concerns, officials say.

Even though many soap products are advertised as being biodegradable and friendly to the environment, they have no benefit to our waters, Howard said.

“It’s like anything, even if you dump milk down the drain, even though you can drink milk, it can be bad for your water system,” she said. “Only rain down the drain, that’s the mode we’re trying to take here.”

Even if you think you’re washing your car in a place where the water will not reach a storm drain there can be problems, she said.

“The wash water and soapy water might just dry up on the pavement outside your house, but the next time it rains, something is going to happen to that water,” she said.

However, Howard says it is still possible for people to wash their cars at home if they take the necessary steps allowing water to naturally percolate into the ground, such as finding a patch of gravel or pulling their car onto the lawn.

Another option that has both environmental and economic benefits is to take vehicles to a car wash where they are required to collect, treat, and properly recycle water, she said.

“We have a really neat partnership going on right now with the Puget Sound Car Wash Association,” Howard said. “They are helping these groups that you see washing cars on the corner. They’ve got a set up where groups can sell coupons for a car wash, rather than actually doing the car washes on the corner themselves.”

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