An investigation by Eyewitness News reveals that is not the case.
In fact, in some circumstances automatic car washes can stay open without recycling or reclaiming any water so long as they use less than 55 gallons per basic car wash. Eyewitness News obtained what amounts to a checklist of requirements that all car washes must pass in order to be certified to stay open in Stage Two, which began at midnight on Friday, February 15th. For certification of automatic car washes, also known as in-bay car washes, the rules are much more lax than one might expect.
The checklist says that all "reject water" used to create the spot-free rinse portion of an automatic car wash must be recycled and reused. Water used for the spot-free rinse is cleansed of its impurities (so that it doesn't leave spots); the impurities make up the reject water that has to be recycled. However, car washes wishing to stay open can simply disconnect their spot-free systems if they don't have the ability to recycle the reject water and receive certification under Stage Two.
The checklist from the City of Raleigh also says that automatic car washes using less than 55 gallons of water per basic wash will also get certification, even if those car washes don't have a recycle or reclaim system.
In other words, each time a car is washed, it could theoretically use up to 55 gallons of water out of dwindling Falls Lake that just goes down the drain.
"This is in the ordinance, and it' s very clear that if they meet the specifications of the program, they can continue to operate in Stage Two," said Ed Buchan, the City's Water Conservation Specialist. It's Buchan's job to certify car washes. More than 50 have already met the Stage Two requirements, he said.
The certification program was adopted years ago after the drought of Two005, city officials said. It does not appear they have been revisited or revised during the current drought.
Eyewitness News took its findings to Isley, the Raleigh City Councilman. "They probably need to be tweaked some," Isley said. "I don't know if that means shutting down the entire car wash industry, but I would be a fool to sit here and say that shouldn't be on the table at least for consideration."
In fairness, many of the car washes that have received certification to stay open conserve a great deal more than the city requires. John Wyatt, a vice president with American Pride car washes, says his company has one of the best recycle and reclamation programs around.
"We've always tried to be a leader in the conservation efforts," Wyatt said.
Most of the car washes at his company -- which has 7 locations now certified by Raleigh -- end up using about 15 gallons of water after factoring in recycling and reclaiming water in the washing process, a fraction of what is required under Stage Two.