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Drought: To wash or not to wash your car? 4 things to know

When it comes to water usage, not all car washes are created equal. Most car washes don’t recycle water, but more and more newly built car washes are starting to. Santa Ana Express Car Wash opened three years ago and its million-dollar equipment recycles 70 percent of its water.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
When it comes to water usage, not all car washes are created equal. More than 80 percent of the water used at Santa Ana Express Car Wash is recycled. Self-serve car washes use between 12-16 gallons for a wash; conveyor car washes like this one use between 20 and 40.

We did the homework for you: Here are the advantages and drawbacks to all the ways you can wash your car while California's in a severe water shortage. 

1. I want to wash my car in my driveway.

You gotta use a nozzle. For one thing, it’s the law. For another thing, without a nozzle, you could be using a lot of water. Car wash associations say, maybe 100 gallons’ worth. Yes, they could be exaggerating. But who’s checking when the hose is running?

Even with a nozzle, it’s all about your rinse time. In Manhattan Beach recently, I watched a guy rinse his truck, on and off over the course of an hour, while he was on a cordless phone. Spray for a minute or two. Talk. Spray some more. Wait. Your driveway car wash may cost between 30 and 150 gallons.

Maybe you should skip the driveway. That’s what state officials (and the EPA) have said for years. Why? Not just because of shortages. In a lot of Southern California, your dirty car runoff hits driveway pavement and goes straight into the storm drain, possibly right out to sea.  (A 1998 study in California found that three-quarters of respondents who washed their car in a driveway noticed it hit the storm drains.)

Stormwater pollution isn’t just a winter problem: trash, oil, dirt, bacteria and chemicals can end up in the ocean if they start out on your car. One solution offered from our Public Insight Network: Drive your car up onto your yard, and maybe even use gentle soap.

2. OK, fine. I’ll go to a car wash. (Right?)

If you’re going to go to the car wash, check to see if it meets standards for reusing water. An industry-sponsored program called WaterSavers certifies car washes if they use 40 gallons or less on the average car and meet a host of other conditions. 

You can look for that symbol … but it may be hard to find. Car wash associations like the Western Car Wash Association claim a tiny percentage (we’re talking single digits) of the businesses that wash cars as members. And there may be a couple to 3,000 car washes in the state.

Not all car washes are created equal. The industry's own numbers show that self-serve car washes use 12 to 16 gallons for a wash; conveyor car washes like the one in Santa Ana use between 20 and 40. The greatest variation in water use comes with "in-bay" car washes — the ones where you drive into a shed and the machines move around you. Those can use between 25 and 100 gallons, according to several estimates.

When in doubt, look for newer washes. “We constantly, constantly, filter and reuse the water, it stays with us for quite a while,” says Herschel Kilgore, a car wash designer and sometime owner. “It’s not a one-use situation for us at all.”

Saving water is all about saving money, at least for car wash owners. At the Santa Ana Express Car Wash, less than 20 gallons of a 100-gallon wash are “city water” – that is, new, potable water. The rest are reused through an elaborate system.  “If you were not reclaiming your water, you were using all city water,” Kilgore says. “The expense for the water would be very high."

California’s trying to help you make responsible car-washing choices. As of this year, all car washes in the state must reuse water. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) wrote the bill after a conversation with his late father. “My father actually lived through the Great Depression,” he says. “And we were talking about water conservation and he said, ‘Why is it that car washes use drinking water to clean the mud off a Jeep?’”

3. I want to pay the cheerleading team/the basketball team/the golf team from my local high school to wash my car.

A lot of them have the same problem that driveway car washes do. (Do you remember anyone in "Bring It On" being worried about their water use?) That said, in some communities, they’ve made best management practices – basically, a set of guidelines – for how to run a Saturday morning J.V. football car wash (or wash a car in your own driveway) without creating storm drain pollution. Check around.

4. The Lazy Way

The other methods require vigilance. Paying attention. Staying alert.

You can also just be lazy.

The (self-nominated) captain of Team Lazy for car washing is Gabe Smalley. He used to spend hours on Saturdays washing his Honda Insight by hand … and then he’d turn around and wash his fiance’s SmartCar. No longer: his weapon of choice these days is Windex.

“If your windows are clean, and your mirrors are clean and you’ve wiped down the inside it feels like you’re in a clean car,” Smalley says. “You’re not driving down the 5 thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, my hood is really dirty right now.”

The East Hollywood resident has found the silver lining to the drought. “You know, I feel like there’s less pressure on me now to have a clean car,” he says.

Why are you washing your car anyway? Tell us