Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
WEST JORDAN — Robert Bartholomew runs his fingers through the bristles of a massive cloth brush inside a Mister Car Wash tunnel.
This brush, a tool to help clean off the 550 to 1,000 vehicles that come through this location daily, is temporarily off at this moment to reduce the noise inside the tunnel while there's a lull in traffic on a recent morning.
"If you feel it, it's less of a cloth and more of a kind of foam texture here," says Bartholomew, a regional manager of Mister Car Wash, before shifting his focus to some of the custom-made nozzles this particular car wash site uses.
These two components, he says, have been altered recently to function more effectively with less water than what the company may have used a few years ago. He slowly moves down the tunnel to a high-pressure water system, which he adds has been modified angularly to help clean vehicles efficiently without as much water, too.
Juan Moncada, the company's director of operations for a handful of Western states, including Utah, quickly interjects to point out that it's during this stage that excess soapy water is recycled and reused in the cleaning process.
"This trench actually goes from (inside the tunnel) to resettling tanks, where the settlement starts to settle and we're able to reclaim the water that's remaining, and so then that water is repurposed and actually used to clean the vehicle," he explains, as the machines restart for a sedan pulling through the tunnel. "The city water is only used mainly when mixed with the chemistry or to rinse the vehicle, but even that water makes its way into our trench, back into the settling tanks and gets recycled."
This is the complex process all happening behind the scenes while customers roll in to clean their vehicles. Customers aren't aware that they are moving past three massive tanks of stored reverse osmosis and rejected reverse osmosis water in a room next to the tunnel, which is where the excess water ultimately travels to. These tanks that supply water are used in different components of the car-cleaning process, mainly after the initial washing chemical is applied.
However, this is a process that Mister Car Wash executives say they also began retooling in Utah last summer as the weight of one of the state's worst droughts on record — and the region's 20-year megadrought — fell on water supply concerns.
Utah's water goes to all sorts of places, from farms to drinking water, lawns and industrial uses. But what about the water cleaning off vehicles?
How much water does it take to clean a vehicle? And why do car wash companies care so much about it?
Conserving at the car wash
There are several reasons why experts say you should wash your vehicle on a regular basis. It can help reduce corrosion and improve fuel efficiency, according to the International Carwash Association. Megan Everett, senior director of communications at Mister Car Wash, adds that it also reduces the odds of dirt and other filth washing off and going into a storm drain, which may flow into streams, rivers and lakes.
However, cleaning a car can take lots of water. The association estimates the use as somewhere between 15 and 85 gallons per vehicle, depending on the method of cleaning. The demand increases quickly when hundreds of cars show up to be cleaned daily.
The association's "golden standard" for conservation is using about 40 gallons of fresh water or less per car. Mister Car Wash was already a little below that benchmark in Utah before last year, Everett said. With Utah's worsening drought, she said the Beehive State seemed like the best place to try out new ways to cut back water.
The company began adjusting its model at 15 Utah locations, using new and more efficient nozzles and brushes, as well as an improved reclamation system.
This ultimately helped cut another 30% of their freshwater use, according to Everett. She added that the changes have saved an estimated 2 million gallons of fresh water every month. This new model is also being used at two new locations that weren't included in their pilot program.
Other car wash companies have also touted these types of water-saving measures, especially the reverse osmosis reclamation method — something Bartholomew calls an industry standard at this point. For example, Quick Quack Car Wash says its water reclamation system can capture as much as 99% of the water it uses, which allows it to clean vehicles with as little as 15 gallons of water.
This is compared to 100 gallons of water it may take to wash a car at home; the International Carwash Association's estimate there is based on a standard garden hose that uses 10 gallons per minute running for 10 minutes.
We are very well aware that if we want to sustain our position as responsible stewards, we're going to have to create and find ways not just to keep doing what we're doing but even better.
–Juan Moncada, director of operations for Western states at Mister Car Wash
It's worth noting that the Utah Division of Water Resources has yet to vet Mister Car Wash's water conservation figures — or any of its competitors for that matter. But Shelby Ericksen, the division's conservation manager, said in a statement to KSL.com that she is optimistic about companies willing to find solutions that reduce water consumption.
The same goes for companies that have flipped park strips outside of their businesses to help reduce water consumption.
"We applaud what these large organizations are doing to help the state's water supply. Water conservation works best when everybody is doing their part across all sectors," Ericksen's statement read. "Collaboratively reducing our water usage is what we need to do to build drought resiliency. Any organization that reduces their water use helps Utah reach its regional conservation goals."
Replicating the system
It may be a daunting task to create a standard system that uses less water for car wash companies like Mister, though.
One of the issues that it faces is that has only designed a few dozen locations that it owns. Most of its 400 nationwide locations were acquired from previous companies, which is a logical nightmare when it comes to replicating a system like the one in West Jordan. The buildings may not have the space for storage, plumbing or a reclaim system, so it requires a lot of creativity to make it happen.
"It's definitely a struggle," Moncada says.
Yet company officials say they are now working to implement what they learned in Utah to other locations across the country.
Ultimately, conserving water is in the best interest of car wash owners because, as Moncada puts it, you can't have a car wash without water. And since he oversees operations in other drought-stricken states, he believes finding ways to conserve water matters deeply not only in being a good neighbor but also for business.
"(Sustaining water) is one of our top priorities right now," he said. "We are very well aware that if we want to sustain our position as responsible stewards, we're going to have to create and find ways not just to keep doing what we're doing but even better.
"Hopefully we'll see (drought) turn around and we'll see water more as a resource," Moncada adds. "But the only way we're going to do that is if we each do our part in conserving as much as possible."