Wash your car the eco-friendly way

Melissa Preddy
Special to The Detroit News

Some kids near me whiled away an hour on a recent warm day out in their driveway, with buckets, hoses and soapy sponges. What could be more wholesome than washing mom’s car on a sunny afternoon?

Except that I was cringing thinking of the soaps and oils that were being hosed down the driveway and into the storm drain just a few dozen feet away — and from there to Metro Detroit’s creeks, rivers, ponds and streams.

Many people — including the man I saw rinsing gas off a lawn tool accessory into the gutter outside his house, cavalierly sending petroleum products out into nature — apparently still don’t realize that those handy openings every block or so do not go through any sort of filtration system before the runoff water is released into natural waterways.

The water doesn’t travel the same path as that which you flush down your toilet or emit from your dishwasher — that waste does go through a detox process in the sanitary sewer system. What you spray down the drain during your driveway car wash sweeps things like lead and zinc right out into our watersheds — along with detergents that can erode fishes’ membranes and gills, and other nasty stuff.

Cars spew all sorts of pollutants onto pavement, and tires track them far and wide; the rain itself contains airborne particles of things we’d rather not think about. But one thing we can control is what runs off our driveways and into lakes, rivers and streams, even if that means foregoing the summertime fun of the DIY car wash.

It’s counterintuitive because we tend to think the manual method of chores is the most eco-friendly.

But just as studies have proven that dishwashing by machine is better for the planet, so is running your vehicle through an automated system cleaner and more parsimonious of water than doing it at home.

Modern commercial car-wash equipment is designed to conserve water and contain poisons. That saves operators money on utilities, controls supply costs and gives them standing to market themselves as a green alternative.

George Matick Chevrolet, for example, next week will debut a state-of-the-art wash system at its Redford dealership, with dual wash tunnels. A water system featuring eight underground storage tanks and a reverse osmosis purification system will ensure that 90 percent of the wash water used in those tunnels is clean, recycled H20.

“It’s a much more efficient use of water and chemicals,” said Molly Williams, chief operating officer at Matick. “We toured car washes all over the country in preparation for designing ours.”

In addition to its water conservation strategy, the wash facility will feature reflective roof material, a rain water management system, abundant energy-efficient windows and plenty of recycled materials used in construction.

Matick is opening the giant $7.5 million wash center to prep the vehicles it delivers to customers, to offer a free wash to auto-service patrons — and to give prospective customers a reason to stop and check them out. The wash will be open to the general public after May 21.

In addition to the automated tunnels for exterior cleaning, the retailer will offer a 30-minute express detailing service. Workers in 10 bays will freshen up vehicle interiors while customers relax in the glassed-in lounge and use free Wi-Fi or browse for snacks, car care items and more.

To celebrate, Matick is hosting an appreciation luncheon on May 21 for some 600 Detroit and Wayne County Meals on Wheels volunteers. And that evening, the new car wash facility will provide the setting for Motor City Wheels for Meals, a ticketed cocktail reception that organizers hope will raise $300,000 to support Meals on Wheels. For tickets, which include strolling dining and other amenities, visit

If you’re determined to wash your car or truck at home, pull it onto the grass — at least then the soil under the lawn will filter your waste water before it hits the watershed. Use soap or detergents sparingly, if at all, and shop for phosphate-free products.

Limit overspray — or use drop cloths — if you’re applying tire shine chemicals or other extras. And empty your soapy-water buckets into your bathtub, kitchen sink, toilet or laundry tub — not onto the driveway or into the street — where at least the waste will go through filtration.

Porous driveway systems are pricey but another way to help, as are French drains and other designs that keep your runoff water out of the storm sewers. The nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Rouge offers guidelines for building simple residential rain gardens to mitigate the impact of our motor-driven lifestyles; visit for information.

Modern times are tough enough for frogs, turtles, fish and other wildlife — give them a helping hand instead of a snoutful of chemicals whenever you can.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via