Breaking Bylaws: The Illegal Car Wash

Breaking Bylaws: The Illegal Car Wash
By Melissa Wilson
OpenFile Toronto (Blog)
April 16, 2012

As the temperature inches higher, and the sun teases Torontonians with the possibility of an early summer, visions of warm-weather pleasures are sure to run through heads: Popsicles, flip-flops, and maybe even a water balloon fight. And for the car owners among us, the time is coming when we start actually making a point of keeping our wheels clean, since in warm weather, they might actually stay that way for more than an hour and a half.

If the idea of a sudsy lady or gent washing a Mustang across the street excites you, you might now also be wondering why you haven’t seen such a thing in a while. Here’s the answer: Thanks to a little-known bylaw in the City of Toronto Municipal Code, washing your car in your driveway in Toronto is functionally illegal.

Richard Noehammer, director of business operations management of Toronto Water, clarifies that Toronto “does not have a car-washing bylaw, but a sewers bylaw.” There is, indeed, no decree about car washing in the Municipal Code, but Chapter 681 states that:

“No person shall discharge directly or indirectly or deposit or cause to permit the discharge or deposit of sewage into the sanitary sewer, combined sewer, municipal or private sewer connection to any sanitary sewer or combined sewer in circumstances where: (1) To do so may cause or result in: … (b) An offence under the Ontario Water Resources Act or the Environmental Protection Act …”

There are numerous other restrictions regarding what can’t be dumped, but that one in particular covers just about anything you might wash your car with or be washing off your car.

(Disturbingly, Chapter 681 also makes a point of specifying that it’s illegal to deposit human blood into the city’s water supply. Take note, Dexter.)

So let’s call a spade a spade. If you wash your car in your own driveway in Toronto, you’re almost certainly breaking the law. And the maximum fine for doing so is—no joke—$50,000.

The bylaw isn’t new. Noehammer estimates some sort of sewer bylaw has been in place in Toronto since the 1950s, and the current bylaw was introduced in 2000. The point, he says, isn’t to restrict car owners’ choices with regards to washing their vehicles, but just to keep harmful chemicals out of the sewers. “You can imagine that if you had an old paint can or some pesticides, you would understand that you couldn’t pour that into the storm sewers, because the chemicals would eventually make their way into the rivers and Lake Ontario,” he says. “This is the same principle.”

To underscore the importance of the bylaw, it has to be explained that Toronto has two distinct sewer systems: One, the sanitary system, takes used (and dirtied) water from homes and businesses to a plant for treatment. The second, the storm sewer system (i.e., what’s at the bottom of your driveway), takes run-off straight into streams, rivers and Lake Ontario. When thought about this way, the issue sounds a bit less silly than a simple car-washing bylaw, though the reality is an annoyance nonetheless.

Despite the hefty maximum penalty, Noehammer says it’s never been imposed, and the City’s focus is more on educating the public about proper sewer behaviour, rather than punishing. As it is, the fee is so high because the same bylaw that restricts car washes also fights against companies looking to unsafely dispose of large quantities of hazardous chemicals, in a sort of Erin Brockovich–type situation.

But car-owning Torontonians need not despair! There are still a few options available to you to keep your car spiffy and clean.

– Take your car to a commercial car washing facility (Admit it: That rainbow soap sure is fun.)
– Take your car to a coin-operated car wash, where you can wash it by hand, but the water will be collected for treating (Here’s a list of a few.)
– Wash your car somewhere where the run-off will not make it into the sewers, like your front lawn. (Seriously.)
– Use a very small amount of water in a bucket, skip the soap, and dispose of the water into the sanitary sewer system, via your laundry sink or a bathtub.
– Use a car wash spray that doesn’t require any water (and thus, no run-off), like this one that was featured on Dragon’s Den.

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