Washed up: Car wash owner defies water ban

On Thursday, September 19, the day the City of Charlottesville and the Albemarle County Service Authority ordered all car washes to close down, the sprays were still spraying in the bays of at least one local car wash.

Express Car Wash stayed open that day while its owner's lawyers investigated the constitutionality of the City's ruling.

"It is discriminatory that's clear," says Henry Weinschenk, owner of Express Car Wash on Seminole Trail within city limits.

Weinschenk says all the area car washes combined account for just 1/3 of one percent of the area's water use far less than other types of businesses. He believes his industry has been scapegoated for political purposes.

"If we were using 10 percent of the water, I could understand," Weinschenk says. "But to single us out for near extinction is patently unfair and un-American."

Dave Bascom, general manager at Clean Machine on Pantops in Albemarle County, agrees that the recent water restriction ordinances passed have elevated symbolism over substance.

Several months ago before any mandatory restrictions were put into place, Clean Machine spent $20,000 on new water recycling equipment, which enabled the business to increase its water recycling to "70-80 percent," according to Bascom. "We got to use it for about three weeks," he says.

"We know we're in a serious situation," he says. But closing car washes, he claims, "is a political thing."

City spokesperson Maurice Jones, however, says the decision was based on need. "It's not political at all," says Jones. "Car washes are something most people can do without."

Weinschenk, however, says he needs to keep his staff employed. With a monthly payroll of approximately $50,000, Express is known for its legion of yellow-shirted workers who swarm over cars like worker bees. Weinshenk says he plans to keep his long-term employees on including paying their health care and child care benefits– even if business drops precipitously.

But as a City business owner for the past 19 years with a wall of civic awards and letters of thanks to prove it Weinschenk says he considers the City's decision "a slap in the face." He points to hard numbers to make his case.

According to data from the City's data, Golden Corral, the buffet a few blocks away from Express Car Wash, used 525,030 cubic feet of water in 2001, compared to Express Car Wash's 410,080 cubic feet during the same period.

So what do people need more: all-u-can-eat or wash-n-wax? Weinschenk says the government shouldn't be making that decision.

"This is like the Soviet economy," he rages. "Eventually," he says, "somebody will have to decide whether it's better to make shoes than hats."

The alternative Weinschenk proposes? Rationing, in which all businesses and individuals are subject to harsh but equal cutbacks. It is the system used in Orange County where the drought conditions are even more severe than here in Charlottesville. "Rationing would work," says Weinschenk, "if there was true management in the city."

But Jones disagrees. "It's much more complicated to do it that way," he says. "The thing to remember is the rationing system would have a much more damaging effect on the economy."

For now, both Express Car Wash and Clean Machine have come up with ways to stay in business.

Weinshenk and his crew have come up with an alternative to traditional "wet washes." By Saturday, September 21, Express Car Wash had switched over completely to a "dry wash," in which just three quarts of bottled water which Weinschenk purchases from nearby K-Mart– are mixed with two ounces of a cleaning chemical.

Weinschenk estimates the cost of this process is approximately 35-50 percent higher than the wet wash method, and as a result Express has eliminated its lowest-priced cost wash. The cheapest is now $14.95, compared to $11.95 a week ago, and it's not suitable for heavily soiled cars.

Clean Machine began shipping in water on Tuesday, September 24, something Bascom says is possible only because of the efficiency of the new recycling equipment. But, he explains, he'll probably have to raise costs to cover the increased expenses. To his customers, he fears, "it will make us look bad."

The city, Jones says, is more than happy to see the car washes stay in business. "We not only encourage them [to find alternative methods]; we applaud them."

Whether the car washes will take any further legal steps to protect their business remains to be seen.

Bascom says he's not aware of immediate plans to sue the County, though he has heard some talk of it. And Weinschenk says it's unlikely that he would initiate a lawsuit. "At this time, no," he says. "Personally, it would bankrupt me." But, he qualifies, "If the [car wash] trade association decides to make this an issue, then maybe it will happen."

One thing is certain right now: If the drought doesn't end, car washes won't be alone in their suffering. As Albemarle County spokesperson Lee Catlin says, "This is not the end of the pain that the community is going to feel."


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