(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

BusinessJuly 5, 2020

There’s a drought in Auckland, so why are car washes still allowed?

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

As Auckland suffers its worst drought in 27 years, many of the city’s self-service car washes are doing a roaring trade. Michael Andrew finds out how these businesses are getting around the strict water restrictions.

Car washing may seem like a wasteful luxury in the middle of a drought, but take a weekend drive out to any of Auckland’s self-service car washes and you’re likely to see a queue at every bay three cars deep. It’s a disconcerting sight; after all, the city’s reservoirs are the lowest they’ve been since 1993, you’ve been taking 40-second showers once every three days and washing your dishes in the birdbath, and these brazen people are blasting the grit off their mud flaps with gallons of what appears to be your precious drinking water.

It’s an infuriating notion, especially with the strict water restrictions in place, and has certainly roused a few disgruntled squawks from passing rubberneckers and even more sullen social media comments.

But according to Hugh Gardiner, general manager of Wash Depot Greenlane and Henderson, all the bellyaching is unjust. His car washes – and six others in Auckland – aren’t using any of the city’s water supply and haven’t been since the restrictions came into force.

In fact, he’s spending hundreds of dollars trucking the water in daily and storing it in tanks on site. Along with new boost pumps and re-plumbing, the whole set up cost more than $30,000. But with Auckland Council threatening violators with a $20,000 fine, it was the only way to get around the restrictions and prevent yet another business shutting up shop and nine workers losing their jobs.

“We’ve worked closely with Auckland Council and Watercare throughout the implementation of water restrictions,” he says. “But I still get complaints from people daily that I am operating. I guess they just assume we are flouting the rules.”

“People think that we’re a really large company but we’re just a small business with big overheads and we’re just trying to scrape through like everybody else.”

Non-potable water tanks at Washworld. (Photo: Michael Andrew)

Because of all the communication and PR about the water restrictions from Auckland Council, Gardiner says he’s perplexed that people would assume his car washes would still be using mains water. While he’s installed information signs, he thought the giant 70,000-litre storage tanks sitting in front on the car wash would be a giveaway that he’s using non-potable water.

“I guess people feel the need to lash out either on social media or directly without even opening their eyes or asking a question,” he says.

For car wash businesses, the water restrictions were a particularly painful development, especially since they came immediately after the trade drought during alert level four. Facing financial ruin, Gardiner says he and the owners of the six other self-service car washes got together and worked frantically before the restrictions were in place to ensure they could continue operating within the law.

“We got everything installed within 72 hours,” he says. “We all pitched in and worked 24-hours-a-day throughout the weekend because cash flow was so tight and we needed money in the bank.”

“There was a nationwide shortage [of storage tanks] and I managed to find a rotational moulding company and they ran their machines round the clock and literally made all the car wash guys’ tanks.”

While the new system and daily water delivery is a considerable expense, it’s ultimately proved a sound investment considering how much demand there’s been for car washes since the business reopened.

“We’re up on revenue and it’s quite busy. But because of the increased costs of water, all our margin is gone and we’re really operating for no loss and no gain at the moment.”

So where exactly is this other water coming from? And how is it viable to extract water from these sources when Auckland appears to have so little of it?

According to Auckland Council and Watercare, there are numerous bores and sources throughout the city with plenty of non-potable and non-drinking water for businesses to use. There’s a 3,000 or 10,000 litre limit per visit depending on the site, and because it’s untreated it can only really be used for cleaning and outdoor use. However, some water, like that from the Western Springs site, is too dirty for cleaning and is only suited for watering plants and construction purposes.

The non-potable water source at Western Springs. (Photo: Watercare)

Because it’s mostly water sourced from deep below the ground and separate from the town water supply, using it doesn’t affect the reservoir levels and actually saves thousands of litres of drinking water every day.

As for the hundreds of drive-through car washes at Auckland petrol stations, most of them don’t run on non-potable water and have to use recycled water instead to operate throughout the restrictions.

Although 76 of BP’s Connect car washes throughout New Zealand use technology that recycles 80% of their water, the company has temporarily closed all its Auckland sites except for two which have since been equipped with non-potable water. Mobil, whose car washes can’t recycle water, has suspended the use of all its sites in Auckland and Northland.

“Mobil is also considering other measures that can be implemented at our company-owned, independently operated sites that will support the Auckland region to reduce its overall water usage,” says Andrew McNaught, lead country manager of Mobil New Zealand.

That’s a good thing for water conservation and an even better thing for Hugh Gardiner and the self-service car wash circuit. In the next few weeks, most of them will have their own bores dug 300m into the earth; courtesy of an enormous bill and a fast-tracked resource consent application.

Gardiner says it’s the best move in order to become a viable business while remaining compliant and helping Auckland get through the water crisis.

“There’s nothing anyone can do or say that can put water back in the dam, and that’s an important thing to accept,” he says. “I understand that, despite our immeasurable water usage compared to the food and beverage industry, we are very visible to the public.”

“But there’s a silver lining because eventually I’ll get a bore and I think maybe my business will flourish, hopefully.”

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