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Capturing and Handling Used Wash Water

Environmental Cleaning For Pressure WashersCapturing your used wash water before it enters the storm drain system is the law of the land everywhere you go. The magic goal in every area is “Nothing down the drain but rain.”

There is some confusion among contractors about how to achieve this goal. Every water district (city, county, etc) has somewhat different ideas about what to do and how to do it as well as where and how much to enforce, sometimes even varying between inspectors within the same department. When enforcement policies vary widely, compliance is really problematic.

The one common denominator is that, as a power wash contractor, you are liable for fines when you fail to meet that magic goal. Interestingly enough, according to the Director of Storm Water Management in our county, there is a very interesting legal point about who is fined in the case of a violation. The property owner owns the dirt on his property – until a power wash contractor comes along and loosens it. Once that happens, the contractor has assumed equal responsibility for that dirt in the county’s eyes. Both the contractor and the property owner are fined, usually in the same amount. Other areas may view enforcement a little differently than this, but we were assured that this is a common approach.

When you realize that some of this dirt may contain hazardous elements, you begin to see why we all have to educate ourselves about the law and compliance.

Since each area enforces a little differently, what can you do to find out how to be compliant in your area? Part of your plan should be to contact the local storm drain administrator and ask some questions. Before you do that, you need to have a little information on what is generally acceptable in most areas.

Let’s begin by defining some very basic terms.

Storm drain is the drain designed to carry away rain. Water entering this drain reaches rivers and streams without further treatment. Most street drains in major cities are storm drains, but you can’t automatically assume that any drain is a storm drain (or a sanitary drain for that matter).

Sanitary drain is the drain designed to carry waste water to the treatment plant. The treatment plants are equipped to prepare ordinary waste water so that it is safe to enter rivers and streams. The treatment plants are not designed to handle extraordinary waste, such as some hazardous chemicals. The following terms are reprinted from the BASMAA website:

When people mean "wastewater," they may say:

When people mean "sewer system," you may hear:
Sanitary sewer
Collection system

Referring to a wastewater treatment plant, people may say:
POTW ---- "Publicly Owned Treatment Works"
Water quality control plant
Waste treatment authority
Sewage treatment plant
Treatment plant

When people talk about "stormwater," they may use these terms:
Urban runoff
Polluted runoff
Storm drain pollution
Nonpoint source pollution

A curbside or parking lot grate that is part of the storm drain system may be referred to as:
Storm drain
Catch basin
Drop inlet
Storm drain inlet

The system of pipes, channels, etc. carrying stormwater to a creek, the Bay, or Delta may be referred to as:
Storm drainage system
Storm drains
Storm sewer

Voluntary or regulatory pollution prevention guidelines for businesses or others may be referred to as:
Best Management Practices
Control measures
Pollution prevention practices

Why Comply?

There are two reasons why every contractor should comply with the rules surrounding the Clean Water Act.

The first is that, if you don’t comply, you will be fined and eventually driven out of business. Working on weekends and at night will only hide you for a little while, so you are better off just scrapping that plan. Other contractors and even your customers will turn you in. You might as well realize that you can’t hide.

The second reason is that compliance can help you make money and even prosper. Past experience has shown that the first contractors in any area to wash environmentally can double or triple their volume of business within 3 – 12 months. This happens naturally because the local enforcement folks will recommend you to potential customers if they know you are trying to comply. On top of that, the competition has no idea what to do to catch up to you. Finally, if you shield the property owner from enforcement problems that is worth paying a higher charge for the work. When you add it all up, doubling your business looks easy.

How To Comply

So, now that you know that you want to become compliant, what do you do first? Remembering that every area and every inspector has a slightly different idea of what is compliant, you must realize that there is no exact “canned” answer about exactly what you should do. The good news is that most enforcement agents give credit for effort, even if the system you set up isn’t perfect. If you are trying, you probably won’t be fined. It is far more likely that you would be gently corrected if your methods aren’t acceptable.

We will make some general suggestions about equipment and techniques that have worked for others. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or a lot of extra job time to be compliant, but there are some basic steps that are necessary.

Understanding what you are cleaning off the surface is the first step. For example, minor oil spots are usually not tough to deal with, but heavy layers of grease are an entirely different matter. Our suggestion is that you scrape off and sweep up all loose dirt, soil, and debris before you ever start to pro-soak or wash. If you have a build up of grease, for example, grinding in kitty litter and then sweeping up the result will get rid of most of the oil.

Avoid breaking down oil and grease any more than you have to. That process is called emulsification (breaking down the oil molecules) and it makes it difficult to remove the oil from the water until enough time passes for the oil molecules to re- group. How are the oils emulsified? Detergents and degreasers emulsify oils, and so does hot water.

Determine the low point where the waste water will gather on its way to the storm drain, and set up your capture point. Try to avoid setting up this capture point in the street by grabbing it ahead of the street.

The first element of your capture point is usually a dam created by sand bags or drain covers or other similar barrier. The dam is the farthest point you will allow waste water to travel.

The second element of your capture point is your capture method. This is typically a sump pump or a VacuBerm. This grabs the water that pools up in front of the dam you established.

The third element of your capture point is an oil boom or oil sock. It actually absorbs oil without absorbing any water, so it is placed before the VacuBerm (or VacuBoom) or sump pump to grab oil before it enters your capture point.

The fourth element of your reclaim system should be some kind of a filter to eliminate all particles larger than a certain size. Most areas permit filtering to a size like 200 – 400 microns (small to large sand grains). This filter can be a mesh bag in your vacuum or even window screen.

The heart of any reclaim system is the vacuum. You need a serious vacuum to do the job right. I have heard of folks who used pairs of high- end electric shop-vacs successfully. These units often produce excessive noise, and a pair of them can really hurt your ears. You are looking for at least 100 CFMs and as much “lift” as you can get in any vacuum system you select. We like to set contractors up with 200 CFM vacuums (either gasoline or electric). If you want to talk about vacuum systems, call us.

For cleaning surfaces that are not seriously contaminated and/or areas that are not too large, this is probably enough work and enough equipment to get you by in most areas. You will probably spend somewhere between $500 and $5000 for the equipment you need to set up this capture point, depending on the items and the quality level you select.

Use methods that minimize the amount of water you use. A turbo nozzle, for example, produces more cleaning power per gallon of water than a standard nozzle.

If you are going to clean a larger area, you should consider using tools like surface spinners that are designed to clean and vacuum up the water in one motion. You will still have to set up the same capture point, but you will minimize the amount of waste water that reaches that capture point.

Surface cleaners with built-in vacuum connections range in price from $1,000 to $35,000. Most contractors opt for a 21” to 24” surface cleaner, and those range in price from about $1000 and up.

When you talk about working within the law, better tools are worth every penny of investment cost. The less expensive (lower quality) tools will take longer to get the job done. You can make more money buy spending a little more for the most efficient tools. This is most true when you consider vacuum systems. Mechanics buy “Snap-On” brand tools (as an example of quality) for a reason.


Environmental Cleaning For Pressure Washers