Green and Clean

Operators see big savings on water, electricity and money via eco-friendly car-wash features.

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

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Paying less for electricity and water, reducing liability risks, differentiating your business against low-price operators—and, oh yeah, saving the Earth: For car-wash operators, there are multiple advantages to implementing “green” solutions.

For Kwik Trip Inc., La Crosse, Wis., which operates 425 sites in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, a responsible, green car wash is simply one facet of a corpo­rate-wide effort. Half of all c-stores in the United States that have earned Leader­ship in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification are owned by Kwik Trip, and earlier this year, the chain opened an alternative-fueling center.

In Kwik Trip’s 134 car washes—mostly in-bay automatics from Mark VII, Ryko and PDQ—this translates in multiple ways. The retailer uses biodegradable chemicals through its distributor, Reliable Plus Car Wash Services Inc., Burnsville, Minn. Inside the wash bays, skylights and glass blocks provide natural light and heat. Lighting in the bays’ mechanical room is motion-controlled. Many facets of the entire operation is wired into a system from Sidney, Ohio-based Emer­son Climate Technologies that monitors energy usage and controls the lighting, heat and doors.

“Everything has set points and alarms loaded: heat in bays, doors, car wash activ­ity, boiler temp, etc.,” says Heidi Kerska, car-wash coordinator. “If the outdoor tem­perature is below a set criteria and a door is open too long, we get an alarm at the support center and can react accordingly.”

Kwik Trip also uses variable-frequency-drive (VFD) dryers, where each dryer unit starts individually. “All motors are not fir­ing up at once,” she explains. “They kick on in one, two, three, four [stages], so in the few seconds it takes the guest to advance to the dryer, they’re all on but on the back end there’s an 30% energy-use reduction, from standard dryers.”

Mid-Atlantic Convenience Stores (MACS), Richmond, Va., has 34 car washes at its more than 70 company-owned and -operated sites. The majority are touch-free rollover washes, with a mix of Mark VII, Ryko and PDQ equip­ment. According to Derek Gaskins, CMO and senior vice president of marketing and merchandising, the car washes have the potential to transform from a profit center into a destination, and his team is focusing on a green approach to provide the differentiation.

For the past six months, the com­pany has been using Custom Solutions Smart Stack chemicals from its supplier, National Carwash Solutions, Cranberry Township, Pa. The biodegradable chemi­cals are concentrated to reduce the con­tainers’ shipping and handling weight, and have recyclable cardboard packaging.

The “green” chemicals have had no tradeoffs in terms of price or efficacy, says Gaskins, but he has held off on promot­ing their use to customers because he is finalizing wash pricing. But as he sees it, promoting them may be a moot point.

“Certainly it was something we thought was the right thing to do,” says Gaskins. “From a marketing standpoint, we haven’t scratched the surface yet with trying to get credit for it from consum­ers. I’m not sure in this day and age if we can. Five years ago it was something I screamed on signage and it was a point of difference. Now it’s almost an expectation that if you have a wash, you have to do so in a responsible manner.”

Water Reclamation Revisited

One of the biggest changes a car-wash operator can make to help the environ­ment is cutting water usage, which has made water-reclamation systems a stan­dard feature in most green washes.

MACS has water-reclamation sys­tems from National Carwash Solutions installed at most of its washes, partly because the equipment is mandated by municipalities in its markets surrounding Washington, D.C. That said, the retailer has seen an average annual savings per location of 300,000 to 450,000 gallons; dollars saved varies based on regional water rates. Gaskins also believes that MACS’ responsible water usage places it in good standing for future growth.

“We viewed it as: Let’s be proactive and responsible,” he says. “From a busi­ness standpoint, we also knew we wanted to grow. If we can be proactive and show the state or county that we are good cor­porate citizens, then when we try to get a new station or as we look to rebrand sta­tions, it doesn’t take us a lot of time get­ting tied up with zoning to get approval for signage, facades or permitting to add a roller grill or revamp the bathroom.”

New Wave Industries, Palm Harbor, Fla., offers the PurWater water-recla­mation system. President Gary Hirsh says PurWater’s competitive advantages include its small footprint—it measures 16 inches by 48 inches, making it an easy fit in most equipment rooms—and its ability to filter water down to a 5-micron level. On average, an operator will cut 85% of its water and sewer costs after installing the reclaim system; washes that use high-pressure applications such as wheel blasters enjoy the greatest savings.

The PurWater system also operates on a VFD, recirculating the reclaim water at a very low speed during non-operating hours, keeping it aerated and minimiz­ing bacterial growth. “During operating hours, as soon as you bring the first car into the bay, all of a sudden the wash sends a signal, and the system ramps up to meet demand of the car wash,” says Hirsh. “We can handle very low volume to the operating washing peak volumes without missing a lick and, at the same time, doing it very, very efficiently.”

Because of their greater energy effi­ciency, VFDs have application beyond water-reclamation systems. They can also give operators the option of offering good/better/best drying to go along with their good/better/best wash, says Jim Belanger, vice president of marketing and sales for National Carwash Solu­tions, which offers elements such as eco-friendly chemicals, LED lighting and water-reclamation systems.

While this option is more expensive than a standard motor starter—about $8,000 more—it can deliver an ROI of three years or less for high-volume sites, in-bay automatics moving 20,000 or more cars a year, and tunnels moving 60,000 cars a year or more.

Some considerations for wash operators interested in a reclaim system: Consider the design of a site’s under­ground tanking and plumbing, which are key components of an effective water recovery system. Hirsh advises retailers to consult with their supplier to con­firm whether their setup will meet the requirements for water recovery or if it needs modification. Also, chemicals should be environmentally friendly and not contain mineral seal oil, which can gum up the system’s plumbing and hamper wash quality.

Operators can expect to save 70% to 90% in their water usage with a water-reclamation system, depending on the type of wash, says Doug Roush, director of product marketing for Ryko Solutions Inc., Grimes, Iowa. The company’s Ultra­Clear reclaim system breaks particulates down to 5 microns, features an ozone generator to eliminate odor, and is avail­able in different configurations for vari­ous wash sizes and types.

The ROI depends on the cost of the water by gallons, a wash’s volume and the system’s price. “If you have an extremely high water rate, you would want to reclaim as much as possible to save as much money so the ROI is better,” says Rousch. Some municipalities have a set standard for reclaimed water, he adds.

The typical ROI for a reclaim system is 24 months, says Hirsh. The type of wash, its volume and gallon-per-minute demands and options such as ozone injection all factor into the type and price of the system, he says.

Kwik Trip is a member of the Inter­national Carwash Association’s Water­Savers program, which recognizes car washes that follow several water-saving practices. However, it does not currently use a water-reclamation system because it has not been able to find equipment that meets the very strict water-quality standards in Wisconsin for reclaim water, although it is working with vendors and evaluating the process. For now, it reuses reject water that passes through a reverse-osmosis system from Ecodyne Industrial, Naperville, Ill.

“For every gallon of water that goes into the RO unit, only half makes it into the spot-free rinse water tank. The other half-gallon is not used and normally goes back to the city as discharge water, which is very wasteful,” says Kerska. “We use that reverse-osmosis reject water in various passes throughout the wash cycle. The machines we use are very energy-efficient with water usage as well.”

Chemical Chain

In addition to water, chemicals are the next biggest component of a clean car and another area where operators can make a big impact. In 2008, Ecolab Vehi­cle Care introduced its Beyond Green certification program, which provides standards for operators to follow in water and chemical usage, and includes marketing and merchandising materials. The program centers on Ecolab’s Earth-friendly car-wash chemicals, which are free of phosphates and NPEs, among other substances.

According to Troy Brock, corporate account manager for Ecolab Vehicle Care, St. Paul, Minn., another key advantage to going beyond green is its effect on liabil­ity risk, and not only through reduced harm to the environment. The company’s environmentally friendly line of chemi­cals is offered in a “Mini Pack” system, delivering concentrates to the car wash in compact, bag-in-box packaging.

“We’re reducing packaging sizes with hyperconcentrates in small packages so employees don’t have to shift 55-gallon barrels around,” he says. These barrels can weigh 300 to 500 pounds compared to a 25-pound Mini Pack. “These are con­centrated chemicals that get dispersed through the mechanical process, through the equipment, so you have a much smaller footprint in the equipment room.”

C-store car-wash operators have felt pressure from aggressive pricing compe­tition with tunnel-wash operators, says Brock, a former car-wash manager for 7-Eleven. Going green may be a way to stand out. “The c-store side, to compete, has to do something to differentiate itself, and by using something that lets the customer know they’re having less of an impact on the environment, it’s definitely a selling advantage,” he says.

Meanwhile, Ryko’s EnviroSafe bio­degradable chemicals are packaged in recyclable containers, and are free of phos­phates, hydrofluoric acid, ammonium bifluoride, nonylphenol ethoxylates, ozone depleting compounds and VOCs.

Bright Lights, Big Savings

Light-emitting-diode (LED) bulbs have found applications in the c-store and under the gas canopy—and now car washes are taking advantage of the technology’s energy efficiency. The bulbs typically use half the power per unit of light of compact fluorescents and one-tenth that of incandescent bulbs.

Many operators refresh their sites with LED wall packs behind white vinyl panel­ing, which reflects the light, says Belanger of National Carwash Solutions. While the upfront cost is higher than conventional bulbs, financial assistance from govern­ment, local and utility programs may be available to help offset it.

“There are incentives for VFDs, high-efficiency heating systems and lighting systems,” Belanger says. “And usually when you spend a little extra money on an LED lighting system, there are extra dollars that come back at you to rank into the ROI equation.” (See “Incentives to Save” on previous page.)

MACS has installed low-power, high-lumen LED wall lighting in its car washes, which has proven a no-brainer from a short-term and long-term perspective. While LED lighting typically has a pre­mium upfront price, the retailer enjoyed a 40% to 50% price break thanks to its new partnership with Circle K. “On an ongoing operating basis, it was much cheaper for us to run it,” Gaskins says. (For more on MACS’ Circle K partnership, see p. 50.)

Despite green technology’s potential energy savings, Gaskins is keenly aware that not all c-store and car-wash opera­tors share MACS’ mindset.

“A lot of retailers would opt to not make an investment that would take three years to pay back because they look at the car wash as a profit center,” he says. “Like anything else green, it’s about find­ing the right balance between process and planning. How can we be right in that sweet spot so we’re not … eroding profits, and not too far on the profit end that we are leaving ourselves liable to a claim because we’re not operating as a responsible retailer?”

The future green frontier for MACS involves linking a car-wash loyalty program to a carbon-offset program, so custom­ers can see a connection to using a more efficient, Earth-friendly car wash and can increase their frequency without guilt.

“As people become more knowledge­able about the benefits of sustainability, those kinds of offsets really start to take on a life of their own,” says Gaskins. “We can marry it with fuel and gallon purchases. It’s one more way to extend a halo of green to cover something that’s not as green, like a petroleum-based product.”

Incentives to Save

Car-wash operators may have access to local and state grants and other financial incentives for installing energy-efficient equipment. The Database of State Incen­tives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) offers a searchable listing of state, federal, local and utility incentives and policies that support renewable energy and energy efficiency. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, DSIRE is an ongo­ing project of the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council Inc. To learn more, visit

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