Burning Trash and Keeping the Car Clean: What Is More Environmentally Friendly: Washing My Car Myself or Going to the Local Car Wash?

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What is more environmentally friendly: washing my car myself or going to the local car wash?--Jim, Denton, TX

Few people realize that washing cars in the driveway is one of our most environmentally unfriendly chores. Unlike household wastewater that enters sewers or septic systems before it is discharged into the environment, the runoff from your car goes right into storm drains--and eventually into rivers, streams, creeks and wetlands. Wastewater is loaded with a witch's brew of gasoline, oil and residues from exhaust fumes--as well as the harsh detergents used for the washing itself.

Federal laws in both the U.S. and Canada require commercial carwash facilities to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, so it gets treated before it is discharged. And commercial car washes use computer-controlled systems and high-pressure nozzles and pumps that minimize water usage. Many also recycle and re-use rinse water. The International Carwash Association, an industry group representing commercial car wash companies, reports that automatic car washes use less than half the water of even the most careful home car washer. According to one report, washing a car at home typically uses between 80 and 140 gallons of water, while a commercial car wash averages less than 45 gallons per car.

If you must wash your car at home, choose a biodegradable soap such as Simple Green's Car Wash or Gliptone's Wash 'n Glow. …