Municipal vehicle washing can generate dry weather runoff contaminated with detergents, oils, grease, and heavy metals.
Vehicle washing BMPs can eliminate contaminated wash water discharges to the sanitary sewer system. Such BMPs include
installing wash racks that discharge wash water to the sanitary sewer, and contracting the services of commercial car washes,
which are permitted to discharge wash water to the sanitary sewer system. Finally, employees and subcontractors should be
trained in the municipality's vehicle washing procedures to avoid illicit discharges.
Municipalities typically operate a fleet of vehicles, including public works trucks, fire trucks, ambulances, police cars,
school buses, and other types of vehicles. Municipalities with a large fleet of vehicles might consider building
municipal-operated vehicle washing facilities. Municipalities with small fleets might consider contracting with a commercial
car wash. Municipalities that own and operate concrete trucks should look at the Concrete Washout fact sheet
for proper washing procedures. For information on how to educate the public about reducing pollution while washing personal
vehicles, see the
Residential Car Washing and
Stormwater Outreach for
Commercial Businesses fact sheets.
Siting & Design Considerations
When installing a wash rack at a municipal facility, several design features should be considered. A designated wash area
should be paved and bermed or sloped to contain and direct wash water to a sump connected to the sanitary sewer or to a
holding tank, process treatment system, or enclosed recycling system. Note that you must seek the permission of the sewer
authority before discharging wastewater to the sanitary sewer, and that special treatment requirements may be placed on such
discharges. Alternately, the wash rack could be designed to recycle wash water, thereby eliminating the pretreatment costs
of discharging to the sanitary sewer.
The following good housekeeping practices can minimize the risk of contamination from vehicle wash water discharges at
municipal facilities (adapted from CASQA, 2003):
Commercial Car Washes
- Wash all vehicles in areas designed to collect and hold wash water before its discharge to the sanitary sewer system.
Normally, wastewater treatment regulations require wash water to be pretreated prior to its discharge to the treatment plant.
Contact your sewer authority to ensure that all requirements are met before designing, building, and operating the wash rack.
- Avoid detergents whenever possible. If detergents are necessary, a phosphate-free, non-toxic, biodegradable soap is
recommended. Detergents should be avoided if an oil/water separator is used for pretreatment prior to discharge to the
- Municipal facilities that store vehicles should stencil their storm drains to remind employees to wash vehicles within
the designated wash area. Signage can also be posted with this message.
- Mount spill kits with absorbent containment materials and instructions near wash racks. Immediately contain and treat
Municipalities can negotiate with commercial car washes and steam cleaning businesses to handle their fleet vehicle
washing. This option eliminates the cost of building and the liability of operating a wash facility. This option may be
limited to smaller sized vehicles, however, since many car washes do not have bays large enough to handle buses, fire trucks,
ambulances, and other large vehicles.
If a vehicle must be washed outside of a facility plumbed to the sanitary sewer, take precautions to avoid wash water
discharges to the storm drain system. For small jobs, berm the area surrounding the vehicle and use a wet/dry vacuum to
capture the wash water for discharge to the sanitary sewer. For larger jobs, use a combination of berms and a vacuum truck,
such as those used to clean storm and sanitary sewer systems, to capture and safely dispose of wash water. If detergents are
used, clean the pavement to prevent this material from being carried to the storm drain during the next rainstorm.
A wash rack's paved surfaces and sump should be inspected and cleaned periodically to remove buildups of particulate matter
or other pollutants. Plumbing, recycling, and pretreatment systems also require periodic inspection and maintenance. The
area surrounding the wash rack should be visually inspected for leaks, overspray, or other signs of ineffective containment
due to faulty design or physical damage to berms. Any defects should be corrected.
Building a new wash rack can be expensive. Also, for facilities that cannot recycle their wash water, the cost of
pretreating wash water prior to discharge to the sanitary sewer can represent a cost limitation. If the appropriate
facilities are available, vehicle washing BMPs are relatively inexpensive housekeeping measures.
Studies have yet to demonstrate the effectiveness of car washing management practices at reducing stormwater pollutant
Municipal wash racks plumbed to the sanitary sewer can be expensive to build. They need to be pursued as a capital
improvement project or through other measures based on your local policies for such projects. Costs for contracting with
commercial car washes can vary depending on the size of the fleet. Rates are subject to negotiation, but they would
constitute an annual operating cost that could be included as part of the municipal budget. Other measures to control
discharge of incidental washing to the storm drain system (berms, wet/dry vacuums, etc.) are relatively inexpensive.
California Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA). 2004. California Stormwater Industrial/Commercial Best Management
Practice Handbook. Stormwater Quality Task Force, Sacramento, CA.
Center for Watershed Protection. 1999. On Watershed Behavior. Watershed Protection Techniques 3(3): 671-679.