Tommy Car Wash feature image
The first LEED certified car wash that also uses cutting-edge water reclamation technology will open in October. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Wash Systems

Gray skies did little to dampen the enthusiasm at Wednesday’s groundbreaking for a new car wash in northern San Antonio. With seven locations in the U.S., the local Tommy’s Express Car Wash will be the first LEED certified car wash in Texas and the first fitted with a proprietary water reclamation system using technology widely in use in Europe.

Alamo Wash Systems, which produces a water treatment car wash system using Rotating Bed Biofilm Reactor (RBBR) technology, is partnering with Windmeer Enterprises to open the car wash over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge area at U.S. Highway 281 North and Marshall Road. The future location, at 23032 N. U.S. Hwy. 281 is expected to open in October.

Managing development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge area is one sustainable practice for a better water future. Another option is promoting the adoption of water-efficient equipment. If businesses could have their water-related needs met by using reclaimed or recycled water, they could maximize water usage without affecting their economic productivity.

Alamo Wash Systems specializes in water reclamation, the process of converting wastewater into water that can be reused for other purposes. Denis Brown, president of Alamo Wash Systems, is partnering with Nicolaas Blom of Windmeer Enterprises, the local developer who will operate the new car wash location.

“With this system we can reclaim up to 90% of the water used to wash each car, typically anywhere from 60-70 gallons at a traditional car wash,” Brown said. “The standard in the industry for reclamation is around 50%.”

According to Brown, Windmeer is run by a family whose many members live in the Netherlands, where the RBBR technology is widely used. RBBR is also in use throughout Europe as a sustainable means to manage limited water supplies.

“As a result of Windmeer’s commitment to sustainability and environmental practices, they are investing heavily in this location,” Brown said. “With its LEED certification, energy efficient systems, and eco-friendly technologies that include the RBBR water reclaim system, they expect a direct return on investment for both the environment and its investors.”

In addition to its technology for reclaiming water, the car wash is designed to be energy efficient.

“We also use 60-70% less energy consumption than what is used at typical car washes,” Brown said.

RBBR Water Reclamation Differentiates Itself from Other Methods

As cars are washed, solids such as dirt and mud come off, fill the holding tanks, and reduce the amount of water that can be reclaimed. The car wash water also carries pollen, bird droppings, and bacteria. Almost every current car wash reclamation system uses mechanical filtration to separate solids from water, then treats the water with ozone. Sometimes called activated oxygen, ozone is considered the second strongest oxidizer in the world and is sometimes used for disinfecting and sterilizing.

Current ozone systems, however, are not scaled large enough to treat the volume of water used in a car wash.

“This process to treat water becomes very expensive, time-consuming, and financially unsustainable over time,” Brown said. “One tablespoon of dirt contains over 1 billion bacteria [particles], and at a car wash you wash off much more than one tablespoon per vehicle.”

Other car washes that reclaim water deal with the bacterial load by sterilizing the used water to prevent odors from developing. Chemically sterilizing the water by using chlorine or other chemical compounds interferes with the soaps’ ability to clean. UV light can sterilize water only if the water is clear enough so it can reach the entire flow of water passing through – and dirty car wash water is not clear.

Instead, Alamo Wash Systems uses a rotating bed biofilm reactor that treats the bacteria in the water, much like wastewater treatment plants use established colonies of microorganisms to break down bacteria safely.

The RBBR water reclamation technology will be used at the Tommy Car Wash opening in north San Antonio.
The RBBR water reclamation technology will be used at the Tommy Car Wash opening in north San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy Alamo Wash System

Alamo Wash Systems has combined its reclaim system with a mechanical delivery system customized for car washes to provide an economical, ecological, and sustainable option for reclaiming water.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Brown works with a different company to provide the reclaim system equipment for other uses, such as for military washing facilities to decontaminate large military vehicles. He also works with agricultural customers in remote locations to clean large farm and ranching vehicles where generating large contaminated amounts of wash water is not an option. For ranchers concerned with the possible spread of foreign animal diseases, or to prevent large military vehicles from spreading possible soil-borne pathogens, the RBBR technology meets the need for a sustainable water reclamation option.

Tank gets washed n decontaminated Alamo Wash System
The RBBR water reclamation technology is used to wash an Abrams tank. Credit: Courtesy image from Alamo Wash Systems

“We installed a system for washing the trains in Fort Worth’s light rail system and the DoD [Department of Defense] has one in use for their Abrams tanks,” Brown said. “We also had a module platform [that reclaimed water but did not have the RBBR technology] used at Ground Zero to wash off the asbestos on all vehicles leaving the 9/11 site.”

The possible applications for the RBBR technology include using it to support a mobile sewer treatment facility in the event of a catastrophic response or at a remote oil field. In case of an oil spill, operators can build a leach pond and put the contaminated dirt in it, then circulate water with the biofilm bacteria so they can safely “digest” the oil.

“Vehicle washing will change extremely quickly over the next 10 to 15 years, with autonomous vehicles going to a car wash to get cleaned without a driver, much like the Las Vegas monorail washes itself at the end of its run today,” Brown said. “The technologies invested in this car wash represent the future.”

As San Antonio’s population continues to grow, the need to maximize water and develop wastewater treatment plants will become a necessity.

“Water is the next cost effective renewable source,” Brown said. “Building local systems with water reclamation technology will help reduce the demand on a very fragile water supply.”

Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science, and veteran affairs. She won the Texas Veterans Commission Media Excellence Awards for her 2016 Veterans Day story "Life as a Veteran: What Veterans...