By Kathy Danforth / Published September 2018
Starting in 1948, the United States government began protection of the nation’s waters with the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. Major changes have followed with the addition of more people, more polluting activities, and more understanding of the effects of various chemicals.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Multi-Sector General Permit (MSGP) for Storm-water Discharges Associated with Industrial Activity. Section 18.104.22.168, Allowable Non-Stormwater Dis-charges for All Sectors of Industrial Activity, provides two categories of pressure washing discharge which are included in the general permit:
However, these generally permitted activities may be further restricted by other factors such as the presence of endangered species, lead paint, more restrictive state or local regulations, etc. Bree Belyea, Engineering Tech Specialist with the California County of Santa Barbara’s Project Clean Water, explains, “We have our county discharge ordinance and state regulations. In California, often State regulations mirror the federal, or they can be a little stricter. In general, the NPDES catch phrase is, ‘Only rain down the drain.’ A permit may outline authorized non-storm water discharges, such as incidental runoff from landscaped areas or uncontaminated pumped groundwater; runoff from washing activities is not going to be considered an authorized discharge. We definitely don’t want waste from pressure washing entering the storm drain system. An operator doesn’t necessarily need a permit; we just have to make sure those discharges aren’t happening.”
Bernie Larson with Kärcher’s Water Maze division notes, “The concept of discharging any equipment wash water onto or into the ground (i.e., septic system) should never be considered an option by any equipment rental company [washing equipment on-site]. Even with the BMPs and the best water treatment technology in place, the quality of the discharged water would most likely (99.99 percent of the time) not meet the NPDES requirements.”
Larson explains, “So, the options are to capture the wash water (i.e., a properly designed stationary wash rack or, in the case of a mobile contract cleaner, an effective retention boom) and then either 1) treat and discharge to a POTW (publicly owned treatment works), presuming the POTW will accept the water; or 2) treat and recycle the water for a limited period of time.”
Project Clean Water (www.sbprojectcleanwater.org/business.aspx?id=86) explains, “Discharge of power washing wastewater to the storm drain is prohibited because it contains pollutants from the objects or surfaces being cleaned and/or from the cleaning compounds being used. Even cleaners labeled biodegradable and non-toxic may be harmful to aquatic life, especially after cleaning various surfaces (e.g., dumpster areas, parking lots, equipment, and more) that contain fats, oils, greases, and chemicals (such as herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, solvents, antifreeze, and fertilizers), as well as other substances.”
Belyea notes, “No cleaners of any kind should enter the storm drain system at any time. Degreasers are harsh because they are designed to cut tough grease, and they can be harmful to biological tissues.” Belyea points out, “Even biodegradable products will not necessarily break down in a natural environment. The term ‘biodegradable’ isn’t legally defined, but it generally refers to chemicals that will break down as they go through the blackwater system at a sewage treatment plant—which stormwater does not go through.”
Discharge of pressure washing wastewater to a sanitary sewer system may be an option, but Belyea cautions, “The contractor should be checking with the sanitary provider to see what is allowed. The guidance used to be, ‘Just put it in the sanitary drain, and it will be treated and will be fine;’ but this is no longer advised. Sanitary operators need to know what is being introduced to their systems, which are designed for treating the 3 Ps (pee, poop, and paper). Chemicals and even large amounts of fresh water can disrupt the bacterial action and other processes in the treatment system.”
There are a variety of responses to comply, starting with minimizing the use of chemicals and generation of wastewater. Belyea recommends, “If a site is really dirty, consider dry pre-cleaning. Even using a flat tool to scrape up dirt/oils can help, since the less grime that goes into the waste-water, the easier it will be to dispose of the water at the end of the job.”
Project Clean Water recommends “using absorbents (e.g., kitty litter) on small spots and sweeping up trash/debris/dirt/used absorbent before wet washing.” They note, “It is important to remember, when using dry pre-cleaning methods, to be sure to pick up pre-cleaning debris as soon as possible so the materials do not have a chance to enter the storm drains.”
“I don’t specifically advise how to modify cleaning,” says Belyea. Contractors, though, can plan ahead to use higher pressure, longer dwell times, or other techniques to minimize the amount of water, chemicals, or contaminants that must be dealt with. “If you dry pre-clean and don’t use detergents or degreasers, wastewater may be able to go into a landscape area without issues,” observes Belyea. “If wash water pools on a hard surface and is left to evaporate, the contractor needs to revisit soon and remove any residue, so it isn’t washed down the drain with the next rain storm.”
To capture wastewater, all storm drains or drainage paths should be located and blocked. Drains can be covered using magnetic vinyl mats, PVC drain covers, polyurethane mats, or other means. To direct or collect water, berms may be set up. “It’s not so fancy, but I’ve seen workers use a push broom to divert water into a landscape area so there is no runoff. Purpose built capture equipment is the best solution, but I’ve also seen makeshift berms from sandbags or a roll of black plastic bags,” Belyea recalls. “While these approaches helped prevent discharges, it is not advisable to rely on improvised capture methods for regular cleaning.”
“One effective capture system is a vacuum boom, which sets up a berm and has a pump and suction along the length,” reports Belyea. “Other devices funnel the water to a spot for suction.” Temporary containment pools can be constructed for collection to prevent pollutants from leaving the site before the water is transferred to a mobile holding tank, which can be taken offsite for disposal.
Larson explains that a mobile treatment system for contractors is not a viable option. “The concept of onboard water treatment equipment (mounted on a trailer or inside of a truck) is simply a pipe dream. First, the water treatment technology required to properly treat the full spectrum of wash water characteristics does not exist in a package small enough to fit on a towable trailer. Second, the contract cleaner has a very low budget price. The best option is to collect the water and then transport it to a point of discharge where the water can be properly treated and discharged to a POTW.”
In dealing with pressure washing activities, Belyea states, “For the most part, we try to be educational. Most violations are because equipment failed, the operator didn’t know the regulations, or he did not know of an area drain. The first step is a written notice of violation referencing the code section he is not in compliance with. It may include required remediation—for example, if the violation was due to equipment failure, the equipment must be fixed before the next job. After repeat violations a fine may be issued, which starts at $100 for each day the discharge occurs.”
A notice of violation will go to all involved parties. Belyea explains, “For example, if I am dealing with a restaurant with a dirty dumpster area that had cleaning water enter the storm drain, the notice of violation is sent to the person(s) responsible. In this case, the notice would go to the pressure washing company that did the washing, the restaurant that hired the contractor, and the owner of the property. If the violation notice just went to one party, the others might not be aware, so the restaurant might hire the same cleaner without knowing about the problem.”
It can be advantageous to a pressure washing company to learn and follow regulations and become certified as compliant, if a local program is available. “The City of Santa Barbara began a Clean Creeks Business Program in 2004, which certifies restaurants, automotive services, mobile washers, and contractors that demonstrate voluntary compliance with clean water regulations,” Belyea explains. “I can’t recommend a specific business, but I can say the ones on the Clean Creeks’ list will know the regulations and avoid violations.” Since pressure washers need to comply for a variety of business and ethical reasons, it can bring in some extra referrals to make that level of expertise and compliance official.
When done properly, pressure washing can be environmentally beneficial, so contractors can capitalize on that advantage in dealing with customers. Project Clean Water states, “Power washing is an activity that can help improve the quality of our waters when done properly. By cleaning (power washing) surfaces (e.g., equipment, parking lots, sidewalks, buildings, etc.), collecting the wastes (water and/or debris), and properly disposing of the wastes, there is less chance of pollutants ending up in our waterways. It is through education, proper collection, and disposal that pressure washing can have a positive impact on the environment!”
One of the most important facts Belyea stresses is, “What goes down the storm drain goes directly to the creek, stream, or ocean. I’ve heard pressure washers say, ‘I didn’t know it doesn’t get treated.’ In some places, particularly on the East coast, the storm and sanitary sewers may be combined, but here the sanitary sewer is separate from the storm drains, which are marked that they lead to the ocean.” With this in mind, the actual waterfront begins where a trickle many miles away begins its descent to the ocean, and this is where protecting the waterfront begins.