Dear Dot: Are Commercial Car Washes Bad For the Environment?



Dear Dot,

I recently moved to San Diego and heard that it’s illegal to self-wash my car here. But are commercial car washes bad for the environment (all that water!)? 


Dear Nick,

With dusty air and little to no rain (the downpours we’ve been having this winter are definitely not the norm) here in Southern California, I find myself in a car wash crisis pretty often. I personally don’t care too much about driving around in a squeaky-clean car, so I forestall my car washes until absolutely necessary — such as when my windshield has become a canvas for creative (and often crude) art.

When I finally work up the motivation to wash my car, I take it to the commercial car wash because I live in an apartment building with no yard/driveway or hose I could use to do the job myself. And between the drought, ash from all-too-frequent wildfires, and the dirty city streets, it’s not long after I wash my car that I find it filthy once again.  

Surely we can keep our cars clean without harming the planet. Can’t we? 

Well, before we get into solution mode, let’s make sure what we’re doing is legal. In San Diego, where you’re writing from, Nick, a ban on washing vehicles at residences went into effect in June 2022. Commercial car washes, like you mention, are still legal. 

San Jose is another city in California that has flat-out banned at-home car washing. 

I am part of the Los Angeles branch of the Dot family and here the city permits us to wash our cars at home only if we use a hose that has an automatic shut-off nozzle, although I’ve never seen the hose police making the rounds to enforce this. This rule applies to many other California cities as well. 

Like you, Nick, I assumed that those drive-through commercial car washes that dump torrents of water on our cars must be plenty more wasteful than me spraying down my car at home. So I spoke with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Manager of Water Resources Policy, Terrence McCarthy, to get the real dirt on cleaning our cars.

“The most efficient way is to take your car to a commercial conveyor car wash because the majority, if not all, of those car wash facilities in the city of Los Angeles will have some form of a recirculating system that filters and then reuses a good portion of the water,” McCarthy told me. 

Good news for you, Nick, is that the city of San Diego also requires commercial car washes to recycle water. And good news for all clean-car-loving Californians is that the state signed a law in 2012 requiring all new commercial car washes to use at least 60% recycled water. 

How does this work, I wondered? “With a recirculating system, they can filter and then reuse that water without causing any impurities to come onto your vehicle when it goes through the conveyor car wash,” McCarthy said. 

Now, I might have some fellow Californians reading this who live in cities that do not ban at-home car washing and, perhaps for the sake of convenience or to save a few bucks, are keen on washing their cars themselves. If that’s you, McCarthy gave me some tips to minimize water waste and negative environmental impact. 

First of all, make sure to pick up some biodegradable soap. Although “biodegradable” doesn’t mean squat unless the product biodegrades in a relatively short amount of time. Bluedot loves Dr. Bronner’s car washing soap, if you need a recommendation. You should also use a shut-off nozzle (whether or not it’s the law) and minimize the amount of times you rinse your car.

Divert the water to your drought-stricken plants, McCarthy recommends, but, again, ensure the soap isn’t harmful. 

Nonetheless, giving your local car wash some business will be more water efficient. But even with their recycling systems, they are going to waste some water, and McCarthy urges moderation. 

“We want to make water-use efficiency a permanent way of behavior in Los Angeles, so we would say wash your car only when you feel it’s necessary simply because we want to preserve that resource,” McCarthy said. 

If you can bear it, letting your car gather a bit of dust before its next wash won’t hurt anyone. Unless, of course, you can’t see out your front window.



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