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New car wash rocks out for environment

A St. Albert-area businessman has just done what no other Albertan has (legally) done before: used grey-water in a car wash. Sylvain Blouin officially opened the $7.5 million Rock-N-Wash car wash in Edmonton Thursday.
ECO-WASH – Rock-N-Wash Edmonton owner Sylvain Blouin
ECO-WASH – Rock-N-Wash Edmonton owner Sylvain Blouin

A St. Albert-area businessman has just done what no other Albertan has (legally) done before: used grey-water in a car wash.

Sylvain Blouin officially opened the $7.5 million Rock-N-Wash car wash in Edmonton Thursday. The 1950s-themed outlet is the first publicly accessible business in the province that is legally allowed to use greywater.

It wasn't easy, says Blouin, who lives just outside of St. Albert on Bellerose Drive – it took 11 months of talks with Alberta Health, Environment, Transportation, Municipal Affairs and the City of Edmonton, and extensive safety tests before he got the green light. The province had to write a special legal exemption for him as well – the first it's ever issued for greywater in a car wash – as greywater is currently illegal in Alberta.

But the systems he's installed will save millions of litres of water a year. "This site, every hour, consumes the equivalent of a 48-footer semi-trailer full" of water, Blouin says, or about 10,221 L. "By doing this (greywater system), we recycle 75 to 80 per cent of the water consumed at this site."

Jim Hole of the Enjoy Centre says he wonders how Blouin pulled it off – he tried to use greywater for landscaping at the Enjoy Centre, but gave up after he hit a brick wall of regulation. "Hats off to him for doing that."

Greywater, clean cars

Greywater is water that is reused without being treated to a drinkable standard (e.g. using the water from a sink drain to flush a toilet) that does not contain human waste.

The car wash itself is an eccentric mix of high-tech and classic rock. The wash bays have LED lights, motion sensors and touch-screen displays, and use RFID chips to track payments instead of coin machines. Vinyl records and 8-tracks dot the walls along with fake convertibles, while a disco ball hangs from the ceiling. Elvis Presley greets you from the computer screens.

Blouin says he got into this business two years ago. "I didn't want to be the traditional car wash," he says, so he made a list of everything he didn't like about them – the fog, the tokens, the line-ups, etc. – and made sure his business addressed those items.

The theme came from his love of 1950s cars and rock music, Blouin says. "I wanted people to come in here and have a good fun experience instead of just dreading to wash their cars."

Blouin soon realized that his business would use a lot of water – the auto-wash alone uses almost six bathtubs of it a minute. "When you consume approximately 400 gallons a minute … it makes you think, 'What can I do to recover that volume?'" He researched grey-water technology in the U.S. and decided to bring it to his company.

The system collects all the water used in the car wash and runs it through settling chambers to remove sediment, he explains. Next comes ozone and hydrogen peroxide injections to kill any bacteria, followed by a spinner to whip anything bigger than five microns out of the water. "That's the size of a hair." The treated water is then sent back for use in the wash.

The treated water isn't drinkable, Blouin says, but is still good enough to use in the auto-wash and the fire-hoses in the wash bays.

"We do not use this water for the spot-free rinse," Blouin says –that rinse requires ultra-pure water – and they don't use it for the wand wash. Alberta Health will test the water quarterly, though, and if it stays safe for a year, he might switch the wand wash over to grey water.

The system cost him about $165,000, Blouin says – pricey, but it should reduce his operating costs later. Those savings, plus the savings from the wash's LED lights, let him offer his customers better service.

Legal hurdles

Greywater systems are catching on in water-stressed parts of the world such as Israel, water researchers report, and are seen as a way to reduce water use.

Alberta Municipal Affairs has banned domestic greywater use until it can figure out how to regulate it. It's concerned that chemicals and bacteria in greywater could pose a health or environmental risk. Greywater use is already legal in provinces such as Ontario and B.C.

Blouin says he was surprised to learn that there were no rules in place in Alberta for greywater systems.

"I'm a farm boy," he says, and he knows the importance of natural resources. To him, using greywater is the right thing to do. "We have lots (of water) today. It doesn't mean our children will have lots."

Blouin encouraged all car-wash owners to give greywater a shot, and says he hopes his business will help the province develop greywater regulations.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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