Soap: Good for cars, not fish

If you’re a fish, here’s an all-too-familiar summertime scene of horror: Humans sudsing up their cars on a steaming parking lot as toxic rivulets of soapy water, engine oil and grime gush down storm drains.

Soap compounds coat gills, making it tough for fish to take in air, and more susceptible to the perils of petroleum and pesticides.

That’s why environmental educators with local governments are reminding car owners to use fish-friendly methods to wash their vehicles this summer: Use a commercial car wash, wash on grass or gravel, support a car wash fund raiser with environmentally sound water disposal.

Hulbert Car Wash, a commercial car wash in Olympia, washes 4,000 to 6,000 cars a month, owner Steve Hulbert said, but 80 percent to 90 percent of the water it uses is reclaimed and recycled, while the dirt washed off the cars is collected in a trough that is cleaned out quarterly and disposed of in Tacoma. Hulbert owns Hulbert Auto Park, the site of a collection of downtown businesses, including the car wash, a Shell gasoline station/convenience store and an oil-changing business. “It’s important to me,” said Hulbert about operating a car wash that has less of an impact on storm drains and ultimately Puget Sound.

“A typical individual doesn’t realize that (stormwater) runs right into the Sound,” Hulbert said.

In fact, half of those surveyed in a recent Pierce County poll thought the water in storm drains was destined for treatment, said Teresa Lewis, education and outreach coordinator with Pierce County Surface Water Management.

“We are trying to educate people,” Lewis said. “Anything that isn’t rain water shouldn’t go into a storm drain.”

Pierce County is launching a campaign to promote a newly acquired set of six environmentally friendly car wash kits, which divert dirty water from storm drains to a lawn or into a utility sink that leads to a sewer treatment system.

The county will lend the kits for free to groups holding car wash fundraisers in unincorporated Pierce County.

“We’ll do a mass mailing to businesses,” Lewis said, “ ... to let them know if they’re going to allow a group to hold a charity car wash, we’d like that group to contact us and check out a free car wash kit.”

The City of Tacoma has been lending out similar kits for years. Orting started last year. Puyallup has three kits on order and Sumner soon will have one available.

The cities are among the many jurisdictions redoubling efforts to publicize the public’s role in stopping pollution from getting into storm drains, as part of the localities’ compliance with the Clean Water Act.

They’re promoting natural yard care, installation of rain gardens and the proper disposal of dog poop and hazardous materials.

“A lot of people don’t think my one little car wash will do harm,” said Alicia Lawver, spokeswoman for City of Tacoma environmental services. But, she said, “It all adds up. Everything we do as individuals benefits or hurts the waterways.”


Summer is the prime season for car washing, which if done improperly can send thousands of gallons of polluted water in a single day into Commencement Bay, the Puyallup River and other South Sound bodies of water.

In contrast, clean water advocates say, commercial car washes are good options for protecting and conserving water. They are required to properly dispose waste water, and many filter and recycle the water.

Lewis said a commercial car wash typically uses 15 to 60 gallons of water to wash a car versus 16 to 180 gallons of free-running water used at home. Meanwhile, a charity car wash can drink up 3,000 gallons or more, depending on the number of vehicles washed.

Still, cars can be bathed properly at home. Washing them on lawns or gravel allows the yucky water to soak into the ground for filtration, and the soap doesn’t hurt the grass, environmental educators said.

Nonprofit groups can save elbow grease by selling car wash tickets from the Puget Sound Car Wash Association. It sells groups $2 coupons that the nonprofits can resell at a higher price and keep the profit.

Ticketholders get their car washed at one of the association car washes listed on the ticket. The car washes don’t receive cash from the tickets, but sometimes end up with new customers, association executive director Elly Snow.

“It’s an environmentally conscious way to raise very good money,” Snow said. “It’s a higher return than other fundraising products, without the complications of having a parking lot car wash.

“There’s less liability, too. Having kids in traffic is not the safest thing.”


Nonprofit groups are starting to realize the value of green car washes. Last year, they sold nearly 7,800 association tickets in Pierce County, Lewis said.

Sumner School District for several years has required that car wash fundraisers on school property use one of the district’s fish-friendly car wash kits. School groups holding off-site car washes are encouraged to do so at a commercial car wash or use the kit.

The Al Davies Boys & Girls Club Express Football Team is washing cars every Saturday this summer at the 76 Royal station at Center and Orchard streets. Tacoma has one of its fish-friendly car wash kits permanently available at the station.

Shelley Simon, whose son Marcel Huggins is on the tackle football team, said she learned about the importance of environmentally sound car washes from a Tacoma utilities newsletter.

“We chose that place because it is environmentally friendly and they’re nice to work with,” Simon said of the 76 Royal station.

Its owner, Gurcharan Chatha, said he’s been letting nonprofit groups wash cars at his station for 15 years. He charges a fee to cover expenses, and the fundraisers help generate business.

His main motivation?

“I give (the opportunity) to church, football teams, and youth groups to help the kids do something good,” he said.

Express Football Team members – boys 10 and younger – hope to raise $5,000 this summer to pay for uniforms, gear and other costs, Simon said.

Lately, they’ve been pulling in $550 a Saturday in donations, more than enough to cover the station’s $60-a-day fee plus soap and sponges.

“This year we’re having a lot of trouble getting sponsors because of the economy,” Simon said, “but we’ll make sure those kids have what they need when they hit the field.

“That is a high-volume corner there, so lots and lots of business comes to that location.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694