When he started the Classic Car Wash chain 50 years ago, owner Frank Dorsa actually posted a sheet at his Lark Avenue location in Los Gatos, bragging about all the raw materials customers were getting for their $1.25.
"The more soap, more horsepower, more water, more everything you got blasted at your car," Dorsa says, recalling the reasoning that prevailed then:, "the more you got your money's worth. Ecology wasn't invented yet."
The first time he ever heard anyone use that word was during a meeting at the San Jose Art League, where he and other water profligates -- accustomed to subjecting cars to a liquid fusillade worthy of Esther Williams -- got their first taste of recycled wash water.
"We thought the guy was crazy," Dorsa says. "In 1964, we just couldn't believe there would be shortages of anything."
The current California drought is about to make believers of just about everybody, not least of all carwash operators, who are urgently trying to figure out how they can control their water use -- in ways ranging from recycling to reinventing what a carwash is. Lathering up your Hyundai has become a surprisingly entrepreneurial activity, in one instance even attracting interest from Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
As water became an increasingly precious resource, carwashes like Classic's chain of four South Bay locations began implementing rigorous recycling systems in the early 1970s.
Even those efficiencies, which have reduced the industry's water usage to a comparative drop in the water bucket -- an estimated one-tenth of 1 percent of the 350 billion gallons of fresh water used daily by Americans -- pale by comparison to the plans of a scrappy startup to use California's worst drought in 150 years as a marketing tool for its "waterless carwash ."
A number of car cleaning solvents and sprays that function as "quick detailers" -- using much less water than traditional detergents -- have come to market in recent years. And conventional tunnel carwashes have been recapturing as much as 85 percent of their runoff, making them far more efficient than their driveway counterparts, which sometimes squander up to 100 gallons of fresh water, all the while sending soap and other residues down storm drains and into the bay.
Classic, for instance, began recycling water in 1970 and while it definitely reduces usage at the chain's four locations, Dorsa doesn't know by how much or even what his monthly fresh-water bill is. Cars are rinsed in pure water, then the runoff from that is reclaimed, filtered in a large tank and reused in the wash cycle.
"We watch that all the time to make sure the reclaimed water is clean," says Dorsa.
But until a carwash with no hoses, no spray nozzles and no water opened last year on El Camino Real in Redwood City, no one had attempted to galvanize a rheumy revolution, Silicon Valley startup style. "My mission is to save a lot of water," Dinesh Gauba, co-owner of Eco Green Auto Clean, says dryly. "In the U.S., we're using 100 billion gallons of water a year just on car washing."
Google and Tesla both use Eco Green, according to co-founders Guaba and Anton Van Happen. The two companies declined to confirm that, though one of Google's former facility managers enthusiastically endorsed the waterless cleaner after setting it up as an employee perk on the tech giant's Mountain View campus.
"I would challenge any car detailing service to top what Eco Green Auto Clean can do," Leanne Martin wrote in 2012, concluding that her two personal vehicles had "never looked so showroom perfect."
Hertz recently switched to waterless washing at 220 non-airport locations in the United States, using a nontoxic, biodegradable solution. The car rental giant expects to save 130 million gallons of water this year. It plans to expand the service to 3,700 facilities in the U.S. and Europe in 2014.
When Club Sportiva, which rents exotic cars in San Jose and Menlo Park, had to give up washing its Ferraris and Lamborghinis with soap and water to comply with waste water ordinances, it switched to Optimum No Rinse Wash & Shine, one of Eco Green's competitors. "So far, so good," says the club's co-owner, Sia Bani. Despite initial concerns that a nearly waterless spray-on sounded too good to be true and might leave swirls in the paint jobs of its $300,000 McLaren supercar, Bani says the technology works perfectly.
Eco Green's spray -- and competing products such as Meguiar's Ultimate Quik Detailer and Optimum -- essentially surround dirt molecules, break them down through a process of emulsification, then lift the whole mess from the car's painted surface before it's wiped away with a microfiber towel.
If this sounds like just the sort of thing that might be supported by local water agencies -- which have already begun urging the public to take shorter showers and collect water in rain barrels -- they have made little or no effort to test them as an alternative to the conventional 40- to 50-gallon tunnel wash.
A spokeswoman for the Zone 7 Water Agency, which covers Pleasanton, Livermore and Dublin, had to have the term "waterless carwash" explained to her three times and said no one at Zone 7 had anything to say about it.
Marty Grimes, spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, wouldn't say if anyone there was familiar with the waterless wash.
"While we support innovative ideas to use water more efficiently, we have seen that the consumer feedback on these products is a mixed bag," he said in a statement. "We continue to recommend people go to commercial carwashes, which are required to recirculate their water."
Actually, as long as high-quality waterless washes are done with clean towels, the car's finish is not harmed. People who wash their own cars using a bucket and sponge are far likelier to create swirls in the paint.
The public's lack of familiarity with the idea is what prompted the Eco Green guys to open a demonstration showroom carwash a year and a half ago on El Camino Real, almost directly across the street from Silicon Valley Ferrari.
"No one's ever heard of it," says Gauba. "It's like somebody telling somebody they can have a shower with no water. It's a mind-blowing concept. Once people see it, there's a mental shift that occurs."
Van Happen had been washing cars for money since he was 10 and had tried other waterless products while working in Europe. "Some were actually scratching the car," he says. Others had so much of the wax that protects the car's surface that they took forever to dry.
He worked with a chemist to develop a formula that used plant-derived surfactants to clean and wax the car, but could be wiped away instantly.
Eco Green expects to open four new locations this year, including one in San Jose and another in Los Gatos that will compete head-to-head with Classic. Possibly because of its location, across the street from Ferrari of Silicon Valley, the dry wash in Redwood City has attracted a number of customers who work at nearby venture capital firms -- and have inquired about funding the company if it attempts to scale up its business.
If the drought continues, and particularly if water restrictions are imposed, the waterless carwash could move from novelty to the mainstream.
"We don't hope for a drought," Gauba says, "but it's not a bad thing for us."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit