Car Washing the Right Way

soapy water in a stream


Dirty water from vehicle and equipment cleaning should not be allowed to run into storm drains. Water from washing cars may contain oils, greases, solvents, detergents, petroleum hydrocarbons and other pollutants that degrade water quality and harm fish and animals that live in our streams.

The storm drainage system is separate from the sanitary sewer system. Storm drains convey stormwater runoff from the roads directly to local creeks and streams. It is not treated before entering our waterways. The sanitary sewer system carries wastewater from your home or business to a treatment plant before it is cleaned and later released into the environment. More information on these separate systems can be found on the water website.

There are two sections of the Fairfax County Code that deal with storm drains and streams:

These Codes make it unlawful for any person to discharge, deposit or allow to be discharged anything into the storm drains or streams other than rainwater. This includes chemicals, leaves, dirt and trash.

In addition, car washes must comply with the wastewater discharge and plumbing requirements that are specified in Chapter 67.1 and Chapter 65-6-11 of the Fairfax County Code which states that all car wash installations shall be equipped with a water recycling system approved by the county building official. More information on what can be directed to the sanitary sewer system may be found within the industrial waste and pretreatment car wash policy.

Car Washing at Home

If you wash your car at home:

  • Wash it on a grassy surface so the water can infiltrate into the ground.
  • Limit the amount of soap you use and use mild detergents, especially those that are phosphate-free.
  • Conserve water by turning off the hose while soaping up the car and rinse quickly.
  • Try a waterless car washing soap, many of which are biodegradable.

A great way to prevent dirty water from getting into storm drains is to take your car to a commercial car wash. County code requires that these facilities recycle or reuse most of their water and that the rest is sent to the sanitary sewer system for processing.

Commercial/Mobile Vehicle Washing

  • Direct the dirty water into the sanitary sewer system.
  • If water cannot be directed into the sanitary sewer system, collect the wash water into a portable container or wash pit and arrange for disposal at the wastewater treatment plant or an industrial waste disposal facility.
  • Protect storm drains by covering with an impermeable barrier. There are a variety of covers available through commercial vendors.
  • Use the minimum amount of detergents necessary and use biodegradable products that are phosphate-free and pH neutral.
  • When planning a car wash fundraiser, try to partner with a commercial car washing facility or take measures to prevent wash water from entering storm drains.

It is also important to maintain your car to prevent any liquids from dripping onto the ground that may be picked up by stormwater runoff.

For additional information or to request a paper copy of the Car Washing the Right Way brochure, e-mail the Stormwater Planning Division or call 703-324-5500, TTY 711.

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