Cars – and water – come out clean at King Car Wash

By Nick Bastis

Sure, it’s April, but in the Chicago area, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee winter’s snowy onslaught is behind us. Still, most of us can’t help ourselves: We’ve got a bad case of spring fever, and with it the urge to store away winter’s scarves and boots with reckless abandon, throw open the storm windows, and take our salt (and perhaps beet juice) encrusted cars for much-needed TLC at the local car wash.

Frank Trilla, owner of King Car Wash, in Westmont, Ill., is ready for the spring rush. Yet, while most water-intensive businesses fret that more water means more money out the door, Trilla isn’t concerned: For 20 years, King Car Wash has been using the same water over and over again. Family owned and operated since 1953, for the past two decades, Trilla has experimented with five different water recycling systems. “We were doing it before it was cool. We were doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” says Trilla.

Water reuse is a great way to be a steward of our region’s water resources. Did you know we do a lot of things with treated, drinkable water besides drink it? Spraying down sidewalks, watering lawns, flushing toilets – and yes, washing cars – are just a few of the ways we use water we’ve paid to treat to drinking standards. Even worse, most of the time water is used just once before it runs down the drain.

For businesses, reusing water can also add up to significant bottom line benefits. While the recycling system King Car Wash uses cost them about $80,000, Trilla says it paid itself off in less than four years. Compared with other renewable resources systems, such as solar panels and wind turbines, this is an extremely impressive pay-back time. (In addition to the recycling system, Trilla also mentioned that he installed a rainwater catchment system. “I’m not sure what the savings are exactly, but I know it’s free water,” he points out.)

But as Trilla pointed out, reducing costs is just one goal of reuse. Every gallon Trilla recycles equals one gallon left in Lake Michigan, Westmont’s water source, as well as energy saved during the treatment and delivery process. King Car Wash is one of many businesses that have taken some serious steps toward saving our shared water resources.

Aside from saving water, it also means one gallon of dirty, soapy water that never makes it to the sewer system. After much testing and experimentation, King Car Wash settled on a system that uses soap-eating bacteria, or ”bugs,” as Trilla calls them, to filter their used water. “We wanted a non-chemical system that wouldn’t just create another sludge or waste product,” Trilla says, adding, “We did not want to use a flocking agent,” referring to the sticky coagulant often used in pool cleaning or oil spills.

On a normal day, Trilla and his crew clean about 300 cars. The recycling system operates like an organism constructed of simple parts that create a complex whole. The “guts” is a series of conventional pumps and four 2,500 gallon filtering tanks that receive the dirty water. The soapy water relies on gravity to work through a bacteria-laden filter. Clean water then empties into a reservoir and is ready to reuse. The water cycle takes about 10 hours to complete, allowing King Car Wash to recycle approximately 10,000 gallons of water daily.

This supply of recycled water is supplemented with water provided by the city’s water system. Because the recycling process takes a bit of time, on extremely high-volume days, Trilla and his team can opt to increase the amount of tap water they use; conversely, on low-volume days, they can use less. Generally, they maintain an 80:20 recycled-to-tap water ratio.

The knock against sustainability is that it costs money, but as technologies improve and markets expand, that’s simply no longer true. Trilla has proved sustainability can work for his bottom line, and he hasn’t done it at the expense of job cuts. His staff averages about 12 years on the job, five times the national average – proving water-intensive businesses can make a profit, provide jobs, and protect the environment at the same time.

WOWW factors

962,500 gallons a day

Some 275 car washes in the Chicago area use an average of 3,500 gallons daily – close to 1,000,000 gallons total each day.

770,000 gallons a day

All of this water – about 80 percent of current total consumption – could be saved if every car wash used a recycling system.

75% of chemicals

According to research at Johns Hopkins University, most potent, bacteria-killing chemicals found in anti-bacterial soaps, which people use and then rinse down their drains, survive treatment at sewage plants.

Conservation tips

Support green car washes in your area. Find out what your local carwash does with its water, and support businesses that care about our limited resources.

Reuse grey water at home. Grey water – water that has been used for laundry, dishwashing and bathing – is not drinkable. However, you can save water and money by reusing it in other ways around your property, such as washing your car. Here are some grey water reuse tips

Wash with biodegradable soaps. Generic soaps typically don’t biodegrade and can put more strain on your community’s water treatment facility, as well as the nearby bodies of water your area’s sewage empties into. Try to invest in organic soaps that have less impact on your area’s ecosystem.

Ask community about incentives or certification programs for green businesses. Your local community may have ways of rewarding businesses that take sustainability seriously. Check out the Chicago Green Business Bureau, one such certification program that highlights local businesses that are striving to be sustainable.

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One Response to Cars – and water – come out clean at King Car Wash

  1. Pingback: Coca-Cola saving water, energy through corporate sustainability strategies |

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