close up image of someone washing the front side of a car

Car Washing: Clean Car – Clean Environment

Help keep our waterways clean with responsible car washing practices

Summer months usually bring us outdoors: gathering with friends, bar-b-ques, 4th of July fireworks, swimming, hiking, boating, concerts in the park, and summer camps. Really, an endless list of summer activities to enjoy in the sunshine and warmer weather. This year is different as we navigate summer with social distancing restrictions. Cancellation of community gatherings and sheltering in place orders are leaving people to stay home more than usual, especially for summer. We are having to rethink how we spend our time, adjusting to staying home and finding ways to keep busy.

In addition to the increase in recreational activities during the summer, summer is also a popular time for residents to pull out the hose and bucket of soapy water to wash their cars. After months of rainy weather, as soon as the weather turns warmer, most people like to shine up their cars and clean off the winter dirt. And this summer, with people staying home, car washing at home is a more popular option. Not just for getting the car clean, but a way to keep busy and pass the time.

Did you know that washing your car at home can be harmful to the environment? If proper care is not taken, soapy wash water, oil, grease and grime can end up in our local rivers, creeks, and streams, impacting water quality and habitat. Storm drains connect directly to rivers, creeks, and streams. Any liquids, pollutants, trash or other substances that enter into the storm drain system flow directly to surface waters. There is no treatment, so pollutants that are put down the storm drain will end up in surface waters. Residential car washing is often a source of pollution, especially during the summer months.

What can you do to prevent car wash water pollution from entering the storm drain, but still have a clean car? Luckily, there are lots of options! The best option is to take your car to a commercial car washing operation. These facilities are designed to prevent wash water from entering the storm drain system, including disposing of spent water to the sanitary sewer system. These facilities also often have a closed loop system where wash water is reused.

If you are unable to take your car to a commercial operation, there are still measures you can take at home to minimize the harmful effects on the environment:

  • Wash your car on your lawn or over gravel so that the wash water can be absorbed into the ground instead of flowing into the gutter.
  • If you wash on the pavement, divert wash water to a nearby landscaping area, such as your lawn, using a rolled-up towel or the length of the hose.
  • Use a minimum amount of water and soap.
  • Use a spray nozzle with an automatic shut off nozzle.
  • Wring sponges and wash rags into buckets, not onto the pavement.
  • After you are done washing, sop up sudsy puddles with towels.
  • Empty buckets into sinks or toilets so the dirty wash water goes to the sanitary sewer system.

Washing your car in a safe and responsible manner can help protect the environment. Please do your part in keeping our water clean!

This article was authored by Colleen Hunt, on behalf of the City of Sebastopol for the Russian River Watershed Association(RRWA). RRWA ( is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.