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      Department of Public Works Bureau of Sanitation


In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in response to the polluting of the nation’s waterways from industry, sewage treatment plants and urban runoff. The Clean Water Act gave the states the power to begin solving this problem. Given this authority, the states enacted laws to begin healing our nation’s waterways by targeting cities, counties, and businesses to implement pollution prevention programs.

To regulate water quality, the state of California created a State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) as defined by the Clean Water Act. The SWRCB’s authority allows them to regulate any activity or factor that might affect the quality of state waters. This includes the prevention and correction of water pollution.

Recently, the SWRCB asked all state counties to apply for permits to discharge runoff into state waters, called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System or NPDES Municipal Stormwater permits. As a requirement of the NPDES Permit, each permittee is responsible for developing programs and passing ordinances to control and reduce their local runoff/pollution.

In October 1998, the City of Los Angeles passed the Stormwater and Urban Runoff Pollution Control Ordinance, which regulates all stormwater-polluting activities. However, the City agreed to provide an exemption for "car washing performed as a charitable or social fundraising activity by scholastic, religious, or community organizations in the City of Los Angeles." This exemption is based on an understanding of the intrinsic value of car wash fundraisers to communities and youth throughout the City. The Regional Water Quality Control Board required the City to develop a set of "good housekeeping" pollution prevention practices for distribution to and implementation by these organizations to minimize stormwater pollution from car washing events.

Stormwater Discharge and Car Wash Fundraisers

During a car wash, dirty water containing soap and detergents, residues from exhaust fumes, gasoline and motor oils washes off the cars, flows off the pavement and into nearby storm drains (usually openings in the curb/gutter). Unlike the water we use in our homes and businesses which is treated at wastewater treatment plants, the water that goes into storm drains flows directly into rivers, bays, oceans and lakes without any kind of treatment. Alone, one car wash fundraiser event will create little, adverse environmental impact. But, collectively, car wash fundraiser events contribute significant amounts of water pollution.

To help ensure your compliance with municipal regulations, we suggest that you follow the "Good Housekeeping Practices" listed below for an environmentally successful car wash fundraising event. Using these practices, you will meet two equally important goals: (1) Raise a lot of money for your organization and, (2) Minimize the amount of soapy wash water that enters any storm drain.

NOTE: Both the owner/occupant of the property on which you conduct your car wash and your organization are responsible for implementing these practices. Ensuring that your group implements these practices will protect the site owner/occupant and should make them supportive of hosting car wash events of the future.


  • Good Housekeeping Practice #1:
    Before beginning your car wash, remove all trash and debris from the car washing area.
  • Good Housekeeping Practice #2:
    Use only soaps, cleaners, or detergents labeled "non-toxic", "phosphate free", or "biodegradable". The safest products for the environment are vegetable-based or citrus-based soaps.
  • Good Housekeeping Practice #3:
    Avoid the use of acid-based wheel cleaners.
  • Good Housekeeping Practice #4:
    Minimize the amount of water or soapy wash water running off the car washing area by implementing the following:
    • Always shut off or kink the hoses when not in use.
    • Whenever possible, select a site where the cars can be driven onto grass or gravel for washing. Or, select a site where wash water will drain onto grass, gravel, or landscaping, or into the sanitary sewer system. This will allow the soapy water to filter through vegetation and soil instead of flowing into a storm drain.
  • Use a bucket of soapy water to resoap rags or sponges throughout the wash rather than adding more soap directly to the rag/sponge.
  • Do not empty buckets of soapy or rinse water into the parking lot, street, gutter, or storm drains. Always empty buckets into the sanitary sewer system (e.g. sinks or toilets).


  • If you choose a site that drains into a street, block off the storm drain with sandbags or wet towels and divert the dirty water, onto grass, gravel or an area where the water can pool and evaporate throughout the day. At the end of the day, pump any remaining water into a sanitary sewer drain. If no one in your group owns a water pump, ask local wastewater authorities if you may borrow a pump. Another option is to vacuum the water using a shop vacuum.
  • Wring sponges and wash rags into buckets, not onto the ground.
  • Clean up the site after the event. Have volunteers walk the perimeter of the site location picking up any trash and debris and dispose of it properly.
  • Shake car mats into a trash can or vacuum them. Do not shake dirt from car mats directly onto the ground.
  • Make sure no car wash water goes into storm drains, ditches or waterways.
  • Work with the Supplies Coordinator to obtain vacuums, sand bags, etc., which will remove excess water and block off storm drains.


Water conservation is as important as ensuring that runoff from your car wash fundraising event does not flow into local storm drains. The average person uses 65 gallons of water to wash their car. This total can increase to 3,600 gallons of water used during a car wash fundraising event where hundreds of cars are washed.

The following are some suggestions for ensuring that you clean cars with the least amount of water possible:

  1. When using a regular garden hose, turn off nozzles or kink the hose when you are not spraying a car.
  2. Consider contracting with a local professional mobile car washer or car detailer. By spraying a car for 20 seconds to get it wet, soaping off the dirt and then rinsing the car for approximately 40 seconds, mobile car washers use only 2.4 gallons of water/minute/car (You may also be able to bring on a professional mobile car washer as a partner or sponsor. They get good publicity from being at your event! But, make sure the mobile car washer follows the good housekeeping practices on pages 27 and 28).
  3. Use a pressure washer for your car wash. Large department stores have electric or gas powered units for $300 and $800, respectively. Or, borrow a pressure washer from a local painting contractor. Using a pressure washer you should be able to wash 20 cars with one five-gallon water bucket. This will reduce your wet/rinse cycle to a little over one gallon of water/car. With a pressure washer, you can wash 50 cars with the same amount of water you would use to wash one car with a regular garden hose – a significant amount of water saved!
For more information on running a successful and environmentally-safe carwash, download this free guide.