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Hard Water Affects Your Car Wash: How To Fix It

If you're running a car wash business, it's important to be aware of the effects hard water can have on your equipment and customers.

Hard water contains high levels of minerals, which can cause problems when when combined with presoaks and detergents. Today, we'll discuss the effects hard water can have on your car wash business and offer some tips for dealing with it.

What is Hard Water?

Hard water is water that contains a high concentration of calcium and magnesium. These minerals can cause problems when used with detergents, as they can bind to the detergent molecules and prevent them from being fully dissolved.

Water hardness varies depending on the geographical location. In general, hard water is more common in areas with high mineral content in the soil, such as the Southwestern United States.

What Causes Hard Water?

Water Hardness is caused by a high concentration of minerals or salt in the water supply. These deposits can come from a variety of sources, including:

  • Dissolved limestone
  • Magnesium sulfate
  • Calcium carbonate
  • Other minerals in smaller amounts

These minerals cause hard water and when they bind to detergent molecules, they prevent the detergent from being fully dissolved.

Why is Hard Water a Problem?

Hard water is a problem because it leaves behind deposits on surfaces that it comes into contact with. These minerals can have multiple ill effects when it comes to washing cars.

For example, hard water can:

  • Dull paint
  • Etch glass
  • Corrode metal
  • Leave spots or streaks 
  • Lower foaming capabilities
  • Create soap scum
  • Eventually clog pipes
  • Affect self-serve equipment

This is why it's important to be aware of the hard water levels in your area and take steps to protect your car wash business from hard water problems.

Where is Water Hardness Common?

As we mentioned before, water hardness is more common in areas with high mineral contents in the soil. In the United States, this includes the Southwestern states as well as parts of the Midwest.

Some of the hardest water can be found in:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Montana

What is TDS or Total Dissolved Solids?

TDS is a measure of the total amount of dissolved minerals in water. The higher the TDS level, generally, the harder the water.

You can test the water hardness levels in your area with a TDS meter, which you can purchase online or at a hardware store. To get an accurate reading it's best to test the water at your car wash business, as water hardness levels can vary depending on the location.

What is The Difference Between Hard Water, Soft Water and High TDS Water?

The terms hard water, soft water and high TDS water are often used together, but there is a difference between the three.

  • Hard water is water that contains a high concentration of calcium and magnesium.
  • Soft water is water that has been treated to remove calcium and magnesium by replacing them with sodium.
  • High TDS water is water that contains a high concentration of dissolved solids, but not necessarily calcium and magnesium. This means that soft water can still have a high TDS level if it contains other dissolved solids, such as sodium.
Car wash equipment

Does Hard Water Have Any Advantages?

In a car wash setting, hard water has no advantages. In fact, it can cause all sorts of problems for your business, from damaging equipment to leaving customers with subpar results.

If you have hard water, the best thing you can do is take steps to mitigate the effects.

How Do You Know if You Have Hard Water?

Water Hardness Test Kit

The best way to know if you have hard water would be to test the water with a hard water testing kit that can be found online, at your local hardware store, or your friendly car wash supplier.

To use a water hardness test kit, simply follow the instructions that come with the kit. In general, you'll add a sample of water to the test kit and then compare the results to a chart that comes with the kit.

Digital Hard Water Tester

Another way to test for hard water is to use a digital hard water tester. These testers are placed in the water and then give a reading of the hardness level.

By Eye

If you suspect you may have hard water and want a quick way to know before testing, look at your taps, shower heads or equipment.  If there is a white film or spots present then you likely have hard water. It is important to note that the varying degrees in hardness level may impact how visible it is on your taps.

Measures of Water Hardness

The standard guidelines in water classification include 0 to 60 mg/L of calcium carbonate as being soft. Water systems involving groundwater or well water often exceed 60 mg/L. This is because water travels through calcium carbonate deposits in rock or soil and becomes hard.

Hard water can range from being slightly hard to very hard, the degree of hardness is classified into different categories:

  • Soft water contains up to 60 mg/L of calcium carbonate.
  • Moderately hard water contains 61 to 120 mg/L of calcium carbonate.
  • Hard water contains 121 to 180 mg/L of calcium carbonate.
  • Very hard water contains more than 180 mg/L of calcium carbonate.

How Does Hard Water Affect Your Car Wash Business?

Hard water can affect your car wash greatly by impacting the quality of your wash and its ability to function.

The high calcium and magnesium concentrations in hard water can cause soap scum to build up on surfaces which can lead to equipment not functioning well. This leads to continuous (and more frequent) servicing.

Also, it can damage equipment by corroding metal or affecting the seals. This may cause a lower lifespan of your car wash's equipment. The American Water Works Association estimates it could affect the lifespan of equipment by as much as 30% in some cases.

Having problems with your equipment will increase downtime, cost money for repairs/replacements and leave cars improperly washed.

In addition to affecting your equipment, hard water prevents you from getting a great clean on vehicles. It leaves mineral deposits, spots and streaks on glass and paint, which will lead to unhappy customers.

Your car wash chemistry is also greatly affected by hard water. The hard water can bind with the detergent, making it less effective. This means you'll have to use more detergent or presoak to achieve the same level of clean. Costing you more money.

In addition it will also create a milky foam instead of rich suds, which does not clean as well.

All of these things can lead to a decrease in business and revenue. That's why it's important to take steps to protect your car wash from hard water.

The Importance of Water to a Car Wash

Water is the most important part of any car wash business. It's what you use to clean the cars and it's also a big part of your operating costs. So, it's important to make sure that the water you're using is high quality.

We've discussed the importance of having soft water or low TDS water but that is not the only aspect of water that is vital for your wash.

Water temperature, pressure, volume and more all play a role in the quality of your wash.

An Aside On Water Heaters

Water heaters can be critical to a car wash in colder climates. Not only do they help to maintain water temperature but they can also provide extra pressure.

Hot water is important in a car wash because it helps to clean the cars better. The higher temperature helps to break down the dirt and grease on the car, making it easier to remove. It also helps to reduce the amount of time it takes to wash a car, which can be important for a business.

While most car washes use cold water, some businesses do offer hot water washes for an extra fee. If you operate in a climate where it gets cold, you may also want to consider using a water heater to maintain the water temperature from your water supply.

Water's importance cannot be understated, it is vital that you have a strong grasp over the water you use for your business.

Water system closeup

How to Deal With Hard Water at Your Car Wash Business?

If your business only has access to hard water, there are a few things you can do to ensure your water is clean and primed for car wash success.

Use a Water Softener:

A water softener is a device that removes calcium and magnesium from water, making it softer.

Water softeners work by exchanging the hard minerals for sodium. This is done by passing hard water through a tank filled with resin beads. As the hard water passes through, the resin beads create an ion exchange between calcium/magnesium and sodium. The softened water then exits the tank and is ready to use.

While a water softener is great at removing minerals from hard water, they do have some minor disadvantages.

Aside from the initial cost of purchasing and installing the water softener. Some regular maintenance will be needed, most notably in regards to salt. Water softeners must be regularly filled with salt, or they will not be able to function properly to create soft water.

Use a Reverse Osmosis System:

An RO system filters hard water and removes minerals, leaving you with clean, low TDS water. This is the best option for your car wash business. Reverse osmosis systems can remove up to 99% of dissolved solids.

Reverse osmosis works by using a high pressure pump to increase the pressure on the hard water side of the machine. This forces each water molecule across a semi-permeable membrane, leaving almost all of dissolved solids behind.

The biggest disadvantage is the cost. Reverse osmosis systems can be quite expensive, both to purchase and maintain. They also require a fair amount of space, so if your car wash is limited on space, this may not be the best solution for you.

Are There Any Alternatives to a Water Softener?

Hard Water Detergents

If a water softener is not an option you can use detergents that are designed for use with hard water.

They contain solutions that help prevent the calcium and magnesium ions from binding to the detergent molecules. This results in less scum and fewer spots on dried vehicles.

While not a perfect solution, hard water detergents can be a good way to deal with hard water if soft water isn't an option.

Water Conditioners 

Water conditioners work by changing the structure of the water molecules. It does this by passing the water over a specialized material known as template-assisted crystallization (TAC) media. This causes the hard water minerals to form "seed crystals".

This helps to minimize spots and scaling but does not remove the high concentrations of minerals.

The main disadvantage of using a water conditioner is that it does not remove the minerals from the water. You will still have hard water, and some of the problems that come with it.

While water conditioners are a good temporary solution, they are not a long-term fix for water softening.

Does Water Pressure Matter at a Car Wash?

Yes, water pressure is important for several reasons.

First, high pressure helps remove dirt and grime more effectively. It does this by breaking up the particles so they can be rinsed away more easily.

Secondly, less water pressure can lead to hard water spots. This is because the water is more likely to cling to the surface of the vehicle and dry, leaving behind magnesium or calcium deposits.

If you are having trouble getting enough pressure at your car wash or start to notice problems, there are a few things you can try.

  1. Check for leaks in your system. A small leak can reduce water pressure significantly.
  2. Make sure all of your hose connections are secure. Loose hose connections can also cause a drop in pressure.
  3. If you have an older car wash, the pipes may be too small. This can be remedied by upgrading to larger pipes.
Turtle Wax Pro arch

Choosing the Right Car Wash Supplier

If you suspect you have hard water the first step is to seek guidance to ensure your business starts on the right foot. We suggest getting in contact with a reputable partner like Turtle Wax Pro or Transchem.

Working with a company like us at Transchem gives you access to a team of experts that can offer guidance and support on choosing the best solution for your business.

We have been working with car washes for decades and take pride in helping washes succeed in any way we can!

This means choosing not only the right system to tackle your hard water, but choosing the right chemistry to match.

Hard water is a very common problem and as a result, we have the experience and expertise treating hard water to help you choose the best system for your business.

By taking these steps, you can protect your car wash from the damaging effects of hard water. Starting with the right water is the foundation to achieving the cleanest, direst and shiniest cars.

As always, if you have any questions regarding your water quality, do not hesitate to contact us!

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