Benton City business keeps cars clean with less

Frank Prior washes cars without making much of a splash.

The Benton City man says he uses less than five gallons of water each time he cleans a car for clients of his mobile car wash business, 1st Priority Detail. He uses equipment that helps him reclaim 100 percent of the water he uses, and he rarely relies on soap.

His mobile unit, which he recently set up in the parking lot of Columbia Center mall near North Center Parkway, has specially designed mats, a water pump and a filtration system to help him do his job more efficiently.

And he does most of his washes by hand.

A 10-minute home wash can use as much 140 gallons of water, said Elly Snow, executive director of the Puget Sound Car Wash Association. Also, there’s a danger of water being discharged into storm drains and into the waterways when a car is washed in a driveway or in a parking lot at a charity event, she said.

A commercial car wash is the best option for keeping a car clean unless drivers are careful about washing cars at home, said Sandy Howard, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Ecology. The car wash industry in the state has changed with the times and adopted eco-friendly practices, Howard said.

Over the years, technological advances have helped improve cleaning equipment, cleaning solutions and brushes, said Rod Smith, treasurer and vice president of wholesale fuels at R.H. Smith Distributing Co. in Grandview, which also owns Smitty’s Paradise, a West Richland convenience store with a gas station and a car wash.

Smitty’s uses phosphate-free cleaning agents and has an in-bay auto car wash system — where a car is cleaned by a moving machine — that consumes 30 percent less electricity and about 80 percent less water, Smith said.

“We don’t need to reclaim water, ” he said. “The waste water needs to be treated with chemicals and we don’t want to do that.”

The average cost of an in-bay auto car wash in the Tri-Cities starts about $7. That’s a small price to pay for a clean car and to help make the environment safe, Smith said.

But Lisa Allen, a customer of Prior’s business for about 2 1⁄2 years, says she trusts the human hand to keep her 2003 Dodge Stratus Coupe clean. She commutes to Kennewick daily from her home in Prosser and wants her car to be spotless and shiny.

“That’s important to me. I like things a certain way, “ said Allen who spends about $30 a week to have Prior clean her car once a week.

Prior meticulously removes surface grime and also cleans the inside of her car, and even takes care of the wheels, she said. It would take her about 1.5 hours if she were to clean the car herself, Allen said.

He charges $25 for a basic wash, and can customize prices for customers depending on what kind of wash and detailing they want.

Thoroughly cleaned wheels and windows rank high for car wash customers in judging the quality of service, according to a study of consumer car washing attitudes and habits by the Chicago-based International Carwash Association, a trade group for car wash operators and suppliers.

Getting a car cleaned regularly is about prolonging the life of a vehicle, said Roy Hulburt, who co-owns Jiffy Car Wash in Kennewick with his wife, Susan, and two daughters.

Dust and grime can build up and bird droppings can eat into the paint, said Hulburt. A shiny car also make you feel good, said Hulburt who’s run his car wash business for more than 30 years.

“We towel dry the cars as they come out of the wash,” he said. “We also reclaim a portion of our water.”

Hulburt said he didn’t know the amount of water used daily at his car wash, where a car is pulled by a mechanism to go through different wash cycles, often described as a conveyor car wash.

“I can tell you I pay $1,500 a month for water.” On a good day, he can wash 300 to 400 vehicles, he said.

Industry estimates suggest the average use at a commercial car wash can range from 15 to 60 gallons of water, depending on the type of equipment used.

The average probably refers to the amount of fresh water used, said Dave Parmeter, owner of Autobahn Auto Car Care Center in Kennewick.

The use of fresh water is limited to the first and last wash cycles, and the rest is reclaimed water, Parmeter said, who’s been in car wash business since the late 1980s.

It’s in a car wash owner’s interest to minimize water use and reduce costs, said Tim Riley, president of the Puget Sound Car Wash Association. Riley said he would be concerned if a mobile car wash business didn’t use the required amount of water. There’s a possibility of rubbing the dirt back instead of wiping it clean, he said.

But Prior said that’s where his experience comes in. And now, mall shoppers will be able to come to him to get smudges off their vehicles while they shop or dine.

“I make it convenient. I can come to you,” Prior said.