What could turn out to be the driest summer for 100 years has given many petrol retailers in the south east some sleepless nights. With car washing one of the three main profit centres of a petrol retailing business - alongside petrol and the forecourt shop - the merest hint of having to shut down this key part of their operation, has sent some retailers into a blind panic.
Three water authorities have now been granted drought orders to limit non-essential use of water. Southern Water, which covers large areas of south-east England, was granted the order for Kent and Sussex. A single order has also been made for the entire Mid Kent Water area. But both these companies have said they will not use the orders yet.
However, Liz Thorne, spokeswoman for Sutton and East Surrey Water - which was the first to be granted a drought order - said the six-month order in their case would mean car wash facilities would have to close unless their operators could show they were using less than 23 litres per car during the wash cycle.
Peter Spencer, managing director of car wash and water recycling specialist Atlantis International, said the average rollover car wash used between 130-150 litres of water per vehicle.
"A lot of car wash customers of ours are now panicking because they realise they can’t continue to use their jet wash or car wash. The only way to achieve less than 23 litres per wash is by having a total recycling system - that means 95% recovery of the wash water."
Spencer says there are 67 forecourts with car wash facilities in the Sutton and East Surrrey drought area, and 70 in the Mid Kent and Southern region, and a total of 295 within the current Environment Agency ’threatened’ areas. He believes that the rest of the authorities will apply drought orders, and they will probably apply the same ruling as Sutton and East Surrey. "I believe the whole of the south east could eventually be under a drought restriction," he said.
"The demand for our systems has increased - it always does when there is a drought. However, over the past two years more people are showing long-term rather than reactive interest. The cost of water is going up - it makes commercial sense regardless of whether there is a drought or not.
"The cost of a recycling system is around £12-13,000 installed," he said. "Looking at the payback period of around two to three years, using a recycling system is cheaper than using mains water.
"The benefits of a water recycling system is that you can continue to operate your car wash in a drought - a potential one third of your business turnover; you save 95% of your water bill; you’re offering a ’green’ service to your customers; and you have a competitive advantage - if you have recycling in a drought and your competitor doesn’t you will get their business."
There could be further benefits: Atlantis has applied to get water recycling on the list of Enhanced Capital Allowances - which rewards businesses that invest in environmentally beneficial equipment. If the product meets the criteria listed on the ECA-Water website it is added to the Water Technology List (WTL) and the supplier will be able to use the WTL brand in their promotion of that product. "We’re pioneering that and should know if we’ve been successful later this year," says Spencer.
If you decide to go the water recycling route you could have a recycling system installed within four to six weeks. It depends on factors such as if you already have a connection between the plant room and the interceptor. But you don’t need planning permission.
Unconvinced about the cost and quality of a water recycling system David Charman of Parkfoot Garage in West Malling has taken an alternative route - drilling a bore hole on his site.
He was aghast when he heard about the impending drought orders and the manner in which the water authorities went about obtaining them - without giving interested parties a fair chance to make their case. As a consequence he thinks there should be some kind of lobby by retailers to ban roadside car washing.
"There was a meeting on April 10 when the water companies made their case to DEFRA for a drought order. I only knew about it because I happened to go to the website and glanced at it. The water companies gave their submission first of all, via barristers. I got there, but I was only able to sit in the public part and speak for two minutes. The only people that had complained as far as car wash operators were concerned were IMO and Esso. Every other oil company had missed the submission date and people like myself - independent retailers - had not known that it was on in the first place.
David wasn’t allowed to talk about anything that had been said before: "The guy from IMO covered the majority of things. The company was after permission to carry on washing because it uses some recycled water.
"I was told I couldn’t speak. But I said I was really angry because I didn’t think I’d had the correct opportunity to put my case. You have seven days to put your submission in and it’s advertised in a London newspaper - the London Gazette. In my view that’s not acceptable. Also I know of people who’ve been phoning the water company, asking them when the meeting would be held and when submissions would have to be in, and they denied all knowledge of it. I think it was a little underhand. But at the end of the day, did they want to have 130 people represented there? No!
"The incredible thing was, the argument being put forward by the water companies was that if they closed down 130 car wash centres in these regions, they said they would save half a million litres of water per day, and they needed to save 12 million litres per day. This was an incredible assumption that the 200 vehicles that we would have washed, were not going to get washed - that they weren’t going to go home and get washed elsewhere - which, of course, they would! Also at this meeting the water companies were asking for the shutting of all car wash companies - full stop. Forget recycling."
The only point David was able to make was that rather than shut his car wash operation down, they should be encouraging people to wash their cars in such places.
"The reason for that is because with any car washed at home, every litre of water is lost," explains David. "With any vehicle washed at a properly-established car wash centre, every litre goes back into the system and is recycled again. Even without a recycling system, the water goes through traps, through interceptors into the foul sewer, which will find its way to a sewerage plant, where industry picks it up and uses it as ’gray’ water. Then finally it goes into a river - in my case the Medway. The Mid Kent water company abstract out of the Medway, so the whole thing becomes a circle. We’re charged for 95% of the water that is supplied on a sewerage basis, and at least that amount goes back into the system. All the water used in the car wash goes back down the drain. That is a fact of all the car wash centres the water authorities want to close down. So rather than shut us down, there should be a campaign to make it illegal to wash a car anywhere but an official car wash centre - as is the situation in Germany."
David has invested heavily into his car wash operation, and couldn’t be in business without it. He has two high-pressure rollover car washes and two jet washes, and cleans between 175-200 cars a day - a process which uses 10,000 litres of water. "It’s 30% of my income," he stresses. This year we’re hoping to be approaching £200,000 of income."
David looked into a recycling system, but decided it wasn’t for him: "Not only was it going to cost an awful lot of money, but I wasn’t sure that I could get the volume of water that I needed. I’d have to change all my chemicals to ones that were less aggressive and not able to do the same job.
"I would almost certainly have to change the soft brushes I use, because they are very kind to the car and you can use them for polishing. Also, I wasn’t sure that the recycled water was suitable for use on my high-pressure pumps, so I wouldn’t be able to use those. They are piston pumps, and if any particles get inside, they break.
"On top of that we’re talking about £27,000 to do the whole thing, and I was told I may not be able to use both washes, so what use is that?"
David first hit on the bore-hole idea at the IFFE show in March, where it was mentioned that there were one or two sites around the country that were supplied by bore holes. "It hadn’t occurred to me before," said David. "It’s something I had more associated with farmers or golf courses that use tremendous amounts of water. I also thought it would cost tens of thousands of pounds to do it.
"It wasn’t in my mindset that I could be in a situation where I could get free water. Because that’s effectively what it is once you’ve made the investment. The first thing I did was call the Environment Agency which is just up the road and told them what I was planning to. They had no problems and thought it was the right thing to do for someone in our situation where we were uncertain about supply."
David then started to speak to a few people about bore-holes, and found someone to do the job via Well Drillers Association.
"The first stage is to get your geology report. You go to the British Geological Society. Go online, put your postcode in and for £250 order your geological survey. That gives you a water prognosis bore-hole report, which tells you what chance you’ve got and where you’re going to find water. It also tells you where other bore-holes are in the area. No licence is required for less than 20,000 litres a day."
The bore-hole was drilled behind David’s forecourt at the end of April. The cost depends on what has to be drilled through, but for David it worked out about half the cost of a water recycling system. Plus the fact he won’t have to pay for any water - he currently pays £4,000 a year.
"I feel I’ve done the right thing to protect my business investment," stresses David. "But I feel the need to take it further. It’s almost a call to arms. I think every car wash retailer in the country should have been there supporting that DEFRA meeting, but they obviously didn’t know about it - which is a dreadful disappointment - because the argument should have been made absolutely categorically that it’s not the car washes that should be shut down, but people washing their cars at home.
"If you close all the car washes down, the cars will still get washed. This is something that we as an industry need to be putting to the Government bodies and the water companies, and arguing strongly and strenuously for.
"Illegal washing is affecting all our businesses. It is a big issue. The worst people are some of the borough councils that give permission for car washing in their car parks. Seventy per cent of the UK’s cars are washed at home. The water companies are only tackling the 30%.
"I was in a situation where I didn’t know where I stood. Am I going to be closed down or not? They cannot close me down if I have my bore hole. This had to work - there’s no plan B. It was business saving or breaking."