When hosting a car wash, keep it clean

Sunny days are finally here, and with that comes the opportunity to have your car washed by enthusiastic youth eager to raise money for their favorite activity.

Fundraising car washes offer community groups the opportunity to raise money while local folks get their cars sparkling clean for a good cause. A great thing for all involved — except the environment at times.

Much of the oil, soap and dirt washed off during car washes runs directly through storm drains into wetlands, streams and lakes.

Unlike sanitary sewer systems, water running through storm drains goes back into the natural water supply with little or no treatment. The chemicals in oils and soaps hurt or kill fish and animals.

People who don’t contain their wastewater at fundraising car washes are violating pollution laws, said Don Robinett with the Federal Way surface water management office.

“There are federal, local and state laws, including Federal Way city code, that prohibit discharge of pollutants into storm water,” Robinett said, adding that city officials are more interested in educating people than enforcing penalties.

“We don’t have car wash police going around and issuing tickets,” he said.

Before hosting a fundraising car wash, residents can call the city to discuss environmentally-friendly options.

Folks can borrow a car wash kit from the city that will contain the wastewater for treatment, or they can sell tickets for environmentally-friendly commercial car washes.

Toxic waste from washing cars can also be a problem in personal driveways, Robinett said. Water running off into the street goes through storm drains and directly into lakes and streams. It could contaminate drinking water.

Soaps that claim to be environmentally friendly are not a good alternative, Robinett noted. Biodegradable soaps still contain grease-fighting chemicals that strip natural oils from fish as well as cause other harmful effects to wildlife.

At home, Robinett encourages people to pull their car onto the lawn and wash it there. The phosphorous and nitrogen in soap is unlikely to damage a lawn the way it would a stream.

“The water’s going to be filtered through the grass and the soils,” he said. “The same thing the fish find toxic, the grass loves.”

Commercial coin-operated or drive-through car washes are the most environmentally friendly way to clean a car, Robinett said. Those businesses are required by law to ensure wastewater is recycled and treated before entering the natural waterways.

Contact Margo Hoffman: or (253) 925-5565.

Helping our environment:

The City of Federal Way along with the Puget Sound Car Wash Association (PSCWA) offer environmentally-friendly alternatives for fundraising car washes.

The PSCWA offers a charity car wash program where a charity can cheaply purchase tickets for a commercial car wash and re-sell them at a higher price. The tickets are usually purchased for $2, printed with the charity name and sold for $6 to $8 each. To learn more, call (800) 509-WASH.

The city offers environmentally safe car wash kits that pump wastewater into the sanitary sewer system, keeping contaminants out of local streams and lakes. There is no charge to borrow the kits. A one-week notice is needed to borrow a car wash kit. To learn more, call (253) 835-2752.

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