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When is it illegal to wash your car?

Drop that sudsy bucket, Toronto car lovers – you could be breaking the law!

  • Man washing car

    Horizontal view of a professional car cleaning

Drop that sudsy bucket, Toronto car lovers – you could be breaking the law!

A Toronto by-law, passed in 2000, prohibits the runoff from driveway car washing from entering the storm sewer and discharging into lakes and rivers untreated.

Calgary has a similar by-law and Brantford restricts unregulated discharge from charity car washes.

According to the Riversides Stewardship Alliance, a Toronto-based environmental organization, unregulated storm sewer discharge is a leading cause of water pollution.

Home car washes contribute detergent, grease, oil, heavy metals, brake dust and other contaminants directly into sensitive aquatic habitats.

Even if a bio-degradable detergent is used, the surfactant — which is a compound that can act as a foaming agent — poses a hazard to fish stocks by stripping their external mucous layer that provides protection from bacteria and parasites.

Riversides and the City of Toronto recommend that consumers use commercial car washes instead of the driveway bucket and brush.

Automatic car washes use far less water than your average home wash and, by law, all commercial wash water goes down the sanitary sewer to be treated before discharge.

Charity car washes are asked to rent a commercial car wash booth so waste water goes to a treatment plant.

Now, while this green concept has merit, there are counterpoints to consider. Unlike commercial washes, few driveway cleaners bother with an underbody wash that releases most of the nastier oil and heavy metal contaminants. And, except for detergent, the residue from washed cars would otherwise come off and enter the storm sewer during the next rainfall drive anyhow.

Certain older areas in North America have a common storm/sanitary sewer – making differentiation moot.

Mobile washes, even without detergent, are sometimes vital for safety. For example, removing encrusted mud from construction trucks, trailers, and their wheels is essential to protect other road users, particularly motorcyclists. If not hosed off, the mud dries in transit and releases dirt, rocks and other potentially hazardous flying debris.

Michael D’Andrea, Toronto’s director of infrastructure management, says educating residents not to put chemicals – such as those used in washing cars – down storm drains is part of the City’s effort to clean up waterways.

Unknowing violators, however, need not dread the car wash police.

Enforcement is primarily by complaints, and even then it’s normally education about the sewer system and the environmental effects of home car washing, rather than a ticket.

Toronto by-law officers haven’t yet issued a violation notice. However, repeat offenders could be ticketed and face fines of up to $10,000 if a collected water sample proves a sewer use by-law violation.

So must you bid adieu to driveway washes?

While not recommended, residents in other regions with a similar ban suggest using an absorbent mat to collect wastewater, parking on your lawn so the runoff doesn’t enter the storm sewer (though your lawn may suffer), or using a flowing hose-end brush or power washer without detergent. Pour leftover wash water down your laundry tub so it gets treated.

Since it’s the contaminants coming off the auto that are the problem, there isn’t a truly “green” method of washing at home – even without detergent.

For do-it-yourselfers, the best option may be to use a self-serve wash booth so waste water is treated.

Finally, wherever you live, driveway car washing may be prohibited during a municipal water shortage. For example, in York Region, under a Stage 1 water restriction advisory, residents are asked to voluntarily restrict their outdoor water use.

If conditions worsen, a Stage 2 mandatory water restriction is declared. Here, most outdoor water use, including car washing, is banned and violators may be ticketed by by-law officers.

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