IRVINE, Calif. — Few rituals are as ingrained in LA culture as the car wash. Like Rose Royce sang so inimitably back in the ‘70s, “it’s always cool,” even if it isn’t the most water efficient.
Keeping a car clean can use more than 75 gallons if it’s done with a running hose without a self-closing shutoff nozzle in the driveway (which is no longer allowed under California’s current water restrictions). But there are other options as Californians are asked to conserve an increasingly precious resource heading into summer.
Yes, it’s possible. A handful of companies make so-called waterless car wash products that can be sprayed onto the surface of a car and wiped off with a microfiber towel. A bottle of waterless wash typically costs between $12 and $15. An average car will use between a quarter and a third of a bottle. Cleaning a sedan takes 20-30 minutes.
“This is about as extreme as you can go with being water conservation minded because we’re strictly using what’s in a bottle,” said Michael Stoops, senior global product and training specialist with Meguiar’s car care company in Irvine.
Instead of a running hose, this method uses a pair of buckets to conserve water. One is filled with two gallons of water mixed with car wash shampoo. The other is filled with two gallons of plain water for rinsing. Use a microfiber wash mitt dipped in the soapy water and run it over a section of the car, wiping off the dirt. Then dip the mitt in the rinse bucket. Repeat. Dry with a microfiber towel.
Under current LA water restrictions, the LA Department of Water and Power only allows car washing with a hose if it has a self-closing nozzle. Presuming the hose uses 5 gallons of water per minute, washing a car with a self-closing nozzle uses 12.5 gallons of water, the agency says.
There are different types of commercial car washes, from coin-operated machines that allow drivers to spray and wash a car themselves to full-service drive throughs that let someone else do all the heavy lifting. It depends on the exact car wash, but many of them capture the water when it runs off the car during cleaning so it can be recycled to wash another vehicle.
“Car washes can appear as if they’re throwing water all over the place to wash your car. A lot of people don’t realize that water is being used multiple times and treated on site to make sure it’s clean and safe for the car,” said International Car Wash Association Chief Executive Eric Wulf.
As much as two-thirds of the water used in a commercial car wash is recycled, he added. “There are car washes that will easily use less than 20 gallons per wash, which begins to put you in the range of some of our home washing machines for clothes.”
While a high-pressure touchless car wash could use as much as 70 gallons to wash a vehicle, the average is about 35 gallons.
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