Charitable Car Wash Guidance

Purpose: This guidance was developed for landowners, industrial, commercial and residential property managers; charities, religious, civic and fraternal groups and organizations, public and private schools and educational institutions, municipal officials, and other interested parties regarding fund raising vehicle wash events and effective water pollution control.

Problem: The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) recognizes the large number of fund-raising events, usually held on weekends, which rely on car and vehicle washing donations at many sponsored locations statewide. While in nearly all cases these activities are carried out in good faith and for a worthy cause, there is widespread unawareness of their potentially harmful effects on the environment. DEEP receives many requests for information about the proper disposal of vehicle washwater, which may contain pollutants such as detergents, oil, grease, gasoline, and phosphates. The following is some informational guidance on this issue, including acceptable options for disposal of vehicle wash wastewaters from these types of activities.

Should you have any questions on this guidance material, please call 860-424-3025 and ask for the Engineer of the Day.

Guidance: All vehicle washing must be performed in a manner which prevents the direct discharge of soapy washwater to a stream, river, or other surface waterbody. Washwaters must not enter a stormwater catch basin because the vast majority of these stormdrains discharge ultimately to a surface waterbody.

The most environmentally sound choice is that of prevention. Despite popular perception, uncontrolled disposal of these wastes is not a harmless activity, particularly where large numbers of vehicles are involved. For fund raising car washes, the first consideration should be to find an alternate activity to earn money.

There are no acceptable detergents or soaps that can be discharged to a surface waterbody without treatment. There are no licensed or approved products that may be used to wash vehicles outside. Even non-phosphate "biodegradable’ soaps must not be allowed to enter a surface water directly. These products contain ingredients (called surfactants) that may cause unsightly foaming in receiving waters and can be toxic to sensitive stream organisms at small concentrations. Most detergents also contain high levels of phosphorus, a nutrient that increases algal blooms in surface waters. Remember: the term "biodegradable" only means that the product will eventually break down through the action of microorganisms. It does not necessarily mean that the product is non-toxic, that it is not a carcinogen, or that it is safe to discharge to the environment. Many products such as engine degreasers and tar removers contain solvents and other toxic substances and must not be used at fund raising car wash events.

Commercial vehicle washing operations are presently regulated by the DEEP through the discharge permit requirements of Section 22a-430 of the Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) and related regulations. Commercial facilities are required to obtain a DEEP permit and install pretreatment tanks to remove sand and oil from the wash waters prior to directing them to a municipal sanitary sewer. When a sanitary sewer is not available, wastewater collection in a holding tank is required followed by recirculation or off-site transport of the wastewaters thorough a licensed waste hauler. Stream discharges are not allowed.

Note: At this time DEEP does not issue permits for the discharge of vehicle washwater generated by individuals or charitable events, nor are there any plans to do so. However, acceptable disposal options for vehicle washwaters generated in this manner are listed below. Please contact the local sewer or public works department prior to discharging to the sanitary sewer system. Their telephone number is located in the blue section of the local phone directory.

Option 1

Vehicle washing must be performed in an area where all washwater enters a municipal sanitary sewer for proper treatment. This could be accomplished as follows:

  • Vehicles could be washed inside an enclosed and roofed location where the floor drain is connected to a municipal sanitary sewer (such as a public works or parking garage);

  • Vehicles could be washed outside on a paved area. All drainage from the paved area could enter a catch basin that has been temporarily sealed and supplied with a pump that sends all wash water to a sanitary sewer manhole. A small submersible pump could be rented for this purpose. Prior permission to pump to the sewer must be obtained from local municipal officials;

Option 2

Vehicle washing could be performed in a parking lot draining to a level grassed area large enough to contain all washwater and allow it to seep into the soil. It is important that the area selected be away from on-site or neighboring potable water supplies (wells). This option is less desirable but still acceptable provided the site soils will absorb the water.

Option 3

Some commercial car wash operators have indicated a willingness, depending on circumstances, to sponsor and make available use of their facilities for certain charitable events. This would involve negotiation of an agreeable pricing and proceeds sharing arrangement.

Content Last Updated February 2020