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Pressure Washing Pollution Solutions

Pressure washing removes petroleum and chemical pollutants from driveways and facilities, but beware what happens to that polluted washwater. Too much is going down the storm drains and into our water supply.

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One quart of used motor oil
contaminates 250,000 gallons of fresh water!

Water Pollution and Urban Runoff Comingle in Surface Waterways

Stormwater runoff refers to runoff resulting from rainfall. It is very noticeable during heavy rainstorms when large volumes of water drain off the urban landscape picking up pollutants along the way.

Urban runoff can happen anytime of the year when excessive water use from irrigation, vehicle washing and other sources carries trash, lawn clippings and other urban pollutants into storm drains.


The largest source of water pollution comes from city streets, neighborhoods, construction sites, and parking lots -- sometimes called "non-point source" pollution. And our pristine cityscapes are harboring a nighttime secret. Very dirty, very polluted washwater!

Clean businesses attract more customers. If we are going to reduce storm drain runoff pollution, high traffic areas need to be cleaned often. However, have you ever thought of what happens to all the wastewater generated by pressure washing?

Stormwater and Urban Runoff Pollution Sources

Stormwater and urban runoff pollution merge in the open stormwater drainage system to create a polluted cocktail.
  • Agressive cleaning agents aid in the cleaning process, but chemicals such as muriatic acid and degreasers are very toxic.
  • Used motor oil contains lead, copper, cadmium and chromium, all toxic to humans and wildlife.
The wastewater from washing our pristine sidewalks and parking structures contains all the contaminants being removed from the surface, as well as the toxic cleaning agents. The effect is devastating to water quality and aquatic wildlife and habitat.

These toxic pollutants should NEVER be dumped into storm drains...or the sewers, either! But they often are because it is faster and cheaper...and can be hidden by the cover of darkness.

Parker Pressure Washing polluted parking  lot  driveway

Sample Parking Garage Oil Deposits Before Being Pressure Washed

"What you see here are drive-through lanes at a bank being cleaned. We pressure wash this location 4 times a year. Look at all the oil and grease on the surface after only 3 months of not being cleaned. Can you imagine all the contaminated wastewater that is being discharged when cleaning a parking structure that hasn't been cleaned for a year or more!" reports Cathy Parker of, who provides an innovative solution that keeps wash water out of the drain and then separates the contaminants from the water before it is disposed of safely.

Non-Point Source Pollution from Transportation

There are over 235 million registered cars in the U.S. Vehicle engines make daily, one-drop-at-a-time "oil spills onto roads and parking lots. 80 percent of pollution in the marine environment comes from pollutants washing off of outdoor surfaces, during normal rainfall.

Environmental Power Washing and Risk Management

Most oil pollution in North American coastal waters comes not from leaking tankers or oil rigs, but rather from countless oil-streaked streets, sputtering lawn mowers and other dispersed sources on land, and so will be hard to prevent, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences said,

"Oil carried from runoff is particularly damaging, the report said, because it typically ends up discharged by rivers and streams into bays and estuaries that "are often some of the most sensitive ecological areas along the coast." That relentless runoff carries traces of a host of chemicals found in most fuels and can harm marine life, even in low concentrations." May 24, 2002 – New York Times

Municipal and Community Wastewater Problems

The wastewater generated by pressure washers contains everything -- all the grime and oil and antifreeze and gasoline -- every unwanted pollutant on the dirty surface.

Traffic and Parking Structures and Lots Accumulate Hazardous Chemicals

Outdoor high traffic and parking structures and lots are cleaned regularly, utlizing pressure washers for cosmetic, maintenance, safety and liability concerns. Pressure washers are very effective, inexpensive cleaning machines that remove oil, grease, gum, paints and dirt very quickly and efficiently. Anyone can buy and operate a pressure washer. Over 700,000 are sold each year.

The most common method for getting rid of the pressure washing wastewater is to simply hose it to the nearest storm drain -- which leads to our nearest creek, river, lakes and ultimately the ocean.

Parker West pressure washing

Wastewater generated by pressure washing high traffic areas contains the used motor oil, antifreeze, air conditioning condensate, as well as, the toxic degreasers that are being used in the cleaning process. Most pressure washers allow the wastewater to flow to the nearest storm drain which leads to the nearest waterway, such as a creek, river and ultimately our ocean bays. Remember, ONE QUART OF USED MOTOR OIL contaminates 250,000 GALLONS OF FRESH WATER.

We all know that the streams and ocean provide us with food and drinking water. We might not know the solution.

Parking facilities are cleaned regularly for cosmetic reasons, as well as to meet safety and liability concerns.

  • Prior to resealing, many surfaces need to be prepped, so the new seal coat will adhere better and last longer.
  • Also, automotive fluids and corrosive salts need to be removed from concrete to prevent corrosion and expensive repair costs.
  • Parking facility maintenance guidelines from several industry sources recommend slab wash down on at least a semi-annual or annual basis.
Dirty pressure wash water BEFORE separation of pollutants and water by the Parker West unit.
Parker West dirty waste water from pressure washing

Parker West clean waste water from pressure washing
Clean pressure wash water AFTER separation of pollutants and water by the Parker West unit.

Modular or Mobile Wastewater Treatment Systems Provide Environmentally Friendly Pressure Washer Solution

Pressure washers are the most effective, cost efficient method for removing oil, grease, gum, salts, tire marks and dirt. Pressure washers are powerful cleaning machines that use hot or cold water under high pressure to make quick work of cleaning parking structures and lots. And not all pressure washers are made the same -- or managed with equal concern for the environment.

...and the Pressure Washer Waste Water Problem

Pressure washers generate approximately 10,000-20,000 gallons of wastewater for every 100,000-150,000 square feet of surface being cleaned. Used motor oil contains lead, copper, cadmium and chromium, all toxic to humans and wildlife. Additional pollutants include antifreeze and air conditioning condensate. Aggressive cleaning agents aid in the cleaning process, but chemicals such as muriatic acid and degreasers are very toxic. These toxic pollutants should NEVER be dumped into storm drains...or the sewers, either!

Polluted runoff via the storm drains is one our nation's most predominant water quality control problems.

Seventy six percent of our waterways are too polluted to fish or even swim in safely.

Forty percent of water pollution is from automotive fluids washing off paved surfaces from normal rainfall and from cleaning activities.

Property Managers and Facility Managers Can Prevent Hazardous Water Disposal

It just makes common sense that property and facility managers be responsible for preventing this toxic timebomb by diligently instructing their service providers to not discharge wastewater into the storm drains.

The Clean Water Act Risk of Wastewater Treatment Systems for Property Managers

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the principle law governing pollution control and water quality of the US's waterways. The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation's waters (33 U.S.C. 1251).

The part of the Act that facility and property managers are responsible for and must manage the risk of is the penalty section.

"On March 15, 2004, the Clean Water Act civil administrative penalties were increased to $32,500. for Class I penalties and $157,000 for Class II penalties. The maximum administrative penalty per violation remains at $11,000 per day" (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website

Among discharges prohibited to the Storm Drains listed in Section 301 of the CWA is waste water from a "Power (pressure) washer that cleans such things as equipment, a restaurant's solid waste storage areas, or a parking lot and discharges the process water into a storm drain."

Also, even though a company providing pressure washing services may have a Sanitary Sewer discharge permit from the local jurisdiction they are providing the service, it does not mean they can discharge untreated wastewater to the on site sewer.

Sewer Discharge Permit Limitations for Wastewater

"Remember, compliance with a sewer discharge permit does not relieve the permittee of its obligation to comply with any or all applicable pretreatment regulations, standards or requirements under local, State and Federal laws," explains Cathleen Parker of Parker West.

"If the wastewater generated contains any significant levels of oil, grease and metals, the wastewater must be pretreated prior to discharging to the on site sewer or it must be hauled by a licensed waste hauler."

Compliant Disposal of Wash Water to Meet Environmental Codes

Any person who conducts cleaning operations which generate wash water must perform their cleaning operations, based on best management practices (BMP's) established by the local Water Quality Control Agency.

With permission from the sanitary district and the property owner, wash water from pressure washers can be discharged into a:

  1. Floor, Utility or Mop Sink
  2. Toilet
  3. Drain connected to the sanitary sewer system (never the storm drain or manhole)
Why does the wastewater have to be pretreated if it going to be treated by the Sanitary Sewer System?

Grease can build up in the intake pipes and sewers, creating blockages, which then can create wastewater overflows into businesses, homes or storm drains. If toxic wastewater enters the sewer it can upset the biological treatment processes at the treatment plant or even pass through to our waterways.

How do you eliminate the risk of improper wastewater management?

"The only effective way to protect your company against the potential exposure created by traditional parking facility pressure washing is to analyze and understand your company's risks and take ongoing steps to eliminate those risks," states Parker.

Until recently, the only way to legally handle contaminated wastewater generated by pressure washing was to collect, store, haul, dispose and manifest it, which is costly and time consuming.

Fortunately, new technologies are now available which enable pressure washers to properly manage their wastewater very cost effectively.

Environmental Pressure Washing and Mobile Wastewater Recovery Systems

Mobile, remote controlled and robotic equipment enable environmentally compliant pressure washers to compete against standard pressure washing companies because these new generation machines clean much better and faster than standard, inexpensive pressure washing equipment.

"By investing in new technologies, environmentally compliant pressure washing companies are protecting and eliminating risks for their clients," says Parker. "By providing clients with a complete service that incorporates the use of industrial vacuums and waste water recovery and processing systems, you meet both compliance and social responsibility goals.

Parker West pressure washing unit Parker West clean waste water from pressure washing
The Parker West Systems incorporate industrial vacuums and mobile wastewater processing equipment that enables them to separate the contaminants from the wastewater generated by pressure washing. In one step, clean water is ready to discharge through on-site sewer. The solid waste contaminants removed from the wastewater are permenantly locked within their formula, rendering a non-leachable, non-hazardous, Class II solid waste.

Identifying Environmentally Compliant Pressure Washing Companies

First of all, well-managed companies are not operating out of the back of a pickup with a small pressure washer and some hose wands. An environmentally compliant pressure washer has invested in additional equipment that makes it efficient to catch washwater before it enters stormwater and sewer drains.

"Modern wastewater recovery systems are small enough to be installed in trailers that are 18'to20' long and they fit easily inside low ceiling parking structures," Parker says.

Before hiring a service provider to pressure wash your parking garage, ask for a demonstration, which includes the wastewater management. Really LOOK at their equipment and know what to look for:

  • Storm Drain Covers
  • Industrial Vacuum/Wastewater Recovery System (not shop vacs)
  • 500-1,000 gallon holding tanks
  • Waste water processor
  • Sewer Discharge Permit from the local POTW in each city they are providing the service.
  • If they say they are hauling the wastewater off site, be sure to ask them for a written manifest and proof of legal disposal at a government approved facility.

The Problem with Municipal Stormwater Regulation Enforcement

"Every city has its own rules for wastewater management, based on their facility's capabilities for removing contaminants. For example, a pressure washer permitted in Sacramento can not use their permit in Los Angeles.

This is an issue best addressed by the social responsibility and environmental ethics policies of each company that hires or mandates "clean parking garages and sidewalks". Only through proactive vendor management, will this problem be solved because it is just too big and too much of a 'maintenance issue' be be enforced by beleaguered environmental enforcement teams. Companies can sometimes get away with the immediate price of compliance...but with our dwindling fresh water supply -- no one will get away with it in the long term.

Companies have the means, they just need the procedures to prevent this nighttime pollution problem from continuing. Where there's a will, there's a way!

For more information about environmentally compliant power washing and risk management, contact
Cathleen Parker, President
Parker West International, LLC
Cleaning America-Preserving Our Waterways

Year of the Ocean Information Line: 1-888-4YOTO98
Year of the Ocean Website: NOAA's Year of the Ocean

NOAA's National Ocean Service
Office of Coastal Resource Management
ATTN: Non-point Pollution
1305 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

For specific information about state or county / city regulations regarding pressure washing or cleaning hazardous wastes (oil, gas, etc.) from your property, contact the environmental department of your state, county or city government. Corporate social responsibility recognizes that oil products are hazardous and need to be recycled, reclaimed and removed in a safe manner to keep our water supply clean for both people and environmental sustainability.

Solutions are available, it is up to professional, conscientious facility and property managers to make sustainable choices at the critical point where an ounce of prevention makes a world of difference.

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| clean water act | waste management | water supply | runoff | stormwater | pollution prevention | pollutants |


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