washing your carWashing your car in your driveway on a warm spring or summer day is a rite of passage and a task many drivers look forward to all year. But most people aren’t aware of the damage they’re doing by washing their vehicles in their own paved driveways. Did you know that washing the grime off your car can actually damage Iowa water quality and aquatic life?

You’re not only cleaning off dirt, bugs and dust.  The water that runs down your driveway and into the storm drains also contains heavy metal from rust, brake linings, motor oil, gasoline, residue from exhaust fumes, as well as the soap and detergent being used. The storm drains then carry that toxic mess straight to your local waterways without the benefit of a good cleaning.

Many people don’t realize there is a difference between a sanitary sewer and the storm drains that line most residential streets. A sanitary sewer is a system of pipes that carries sewage from bathrooms, sinks, kitchens and other plumbing components to a wastewater treatment facility to be cleaned. A storm drain is designed to carry runoff and rainwater out of our streets and straight into our local streams, rivers and lakes. The pollutants from car washing that run down the driveway with the water damage the wetland plants, poison the fish and harm other wildlife living near our watersheds.

Washing one car a couple times a month can’t do that much damage, can it? Not really. But look around your neighborhood any given weekend during the summer; how many of your friends and neighbors do you see washing their cars in their driveways? And what of all the people in all the neighborhoods around your city and surrounding suburbs that you can’t see? Commercial car wash facilities are bound by law to not send their discharged water to storm sewers but there is no such regulation for the average citizen.

How can you help? There are several easy changes you and your neighbors can use to make a difference:

  • Wash your car on porous surfaces like your yard or a gravel pad. The water will soak into the ground where impurities will be filtered out as it makes its way to the stream or lake.
  • Use biodegradable low- and no-phosphate detergents for washing your car. These are much less harmful to plant and animal environments, as phosphates steal the oxygen from water that fish need to breathe.
  • Use a commercial car wash. You can still wash it by hand, but the waste running down the drains are recycled for more washings or sent directly to the local wastewater facility for cleaning.
  • Being environmentally-friendly doesn’t mean an end to charity car wash events! You can still hold your events by following the above suggestions or by partnering with a local commercial wash to sponsor your fundraiser. You can also block the storm drains before your event starts to drastically reduce the amount of dirty water that ends up in your local creek. Visit iowastormwater.org and click the link “In Your Neighborhood.”

There is a direct relationship between washing your car and clean water. By observing a few “green” practices, you can support your community wetlands and help your Water Works department provide cleaner, fresher drinking water.

If you have questions or comments, please contact Brandon Patterson, Osceola Water Works Superintendent, 208 West Jefferson Street, PO Box 515, Osceola, Iowa 50213, phone: 641-342-1435 email: osceolawater2@windstream.net