The six inch Mountain

Tony Shelton

BS Detector, Esquire
The Six Inch Mountain

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By Tony Shelton

You've all seen them. They are located on every street in every city and town in America. If you aren't looking you could trip over one of them, without realizing how an entire industry has been changed for the worse by this mere six inches. What used to be a simple task, that once stopped the black plague in Europe, has now become an expensive, regulation ridden ordeal that strikes fear in the hearts of professionals and amateurs alike.

This all powerful hindrance on cleanliness is the lowly curb.

In the 1980's the nation was growing fast. Construction was booming, millionaires were being made, and equipment to clean the public spaces we walk upon was becoming more reliable and affordable. The ability to keep our public spaces clean sparked a growing industry of professional power washing.

It wasn't long before gas stations, shopping centers, restaurants, and industry realized that leaving cleaning to professionals was cheaper and more effective than sending employees out with a hose and some soap. Professional cleaning was also conservation friendly, using 58 times less water than the hose. For a reasonable cost, the restaurant manager could leave his place dirty from foot traffic at night, and return to a freshly cleaned storefront the next morning.

By 1987 the most recent changes to the Clean Water Act found that the overall goals of the act had been nearly reached. Most of our waters passed the fishable/swimmable test and industry had cleaned up their act. The days of rivers catching on fire were over.

By the 1990's Stormwater Authorities began looking for more ways to clean the already successfully cleaned waterways. Because their hands were tied, and they were unable to go after the big money "permitted" polluters who had learned to play the political system, they began focusing on smaller and smaller sources of potential pollution.

One can't blame environmental employees for having a passion and wanting to continue to make the world a better place, even if it is on an ever diminishing scale. It just needed to be balanced with the the intent of the Clean Water Act which required regulations to be "practicable" or economically feasible.

Enter the Power Washing Equipment Manufacturers and Suppliers.

When the first hints of regulation of the industry began to emerge there were two paths that could have been taken.

1) One path was to stand up for contractors and fight for common sense regulations, like the construction industry and street sweeping industry did. To this day these industries have gained acceptance and have a strong influence on any legislation, rules, or regulations that affect their contractors. They proposed common sense methods of keeping runoff from their activities from polluting the waters and have proven that common sense works.

2) The other path was to take advantage of the situation, paint cleaning contractors as polluters, and try to build a brand new industry based on vacuum equipment to suck up cleaning runoff.

Some of the Power Washing Industry suppliers chose path #2. One of the manufacturers coined the slogan - "nothing down the drain but rain" - a motto that was quickly picked up by the regulators as a potential rule, to stop the dumbest of our society from pouring used oil down the storm drain. Unfortunately this motto stuck and expanded to professionals, (except the construction and street sweeping industry) and almost destroyed the up and coming Power Washing Industry.

Power Washing Manufacturers sent amateur lobbyists to large Metropolitan areas to direct lawmakers and regulators on how to write regulations to require the equipment they now manufactured.

They put their eggs in the water reclamation basket, and left Power Washing Contractors with stagnant pressure equipment development that hasn't seen any real advances in the thirty years since they changed their focus. Power Washing Contractors are still using 30 year old pump technology because the focus was taken off development and advances in that equipment, and switched to focus on the idea that contractors would now be FORCED, by regulation, to buy this "new" cash cow called reclaim equipment.

Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for reclaim equipment. Some of the finest manufacturers in the industry had no part in this forced movement and provide much needed equipment. Every Power Washing Contractor should have the equipment and the ability to pick up truly contaminated water and truck it away if needed. It just isn't always needed. It is just a much more expensive process and simply isn't necessary in most cleaning situations. The power washing industry should have broken off into specialties by now. But by requiring this equipment for ALL professionals, in ALL situations, the industry has been forced to become a melting pot of jacks-of-all-trades just to operate legally and HOPE for enough work to pay for the equipment.

What does all this have to do with the six inches?

Without that six inches of curb on the street there would be no need for all the extra equipment.

Nature provides the greatest water filter known to man. It is called the landscape. The landscape can filter everything from acid rain to raw sewage in a septic tank. If all the runoff from cleaning our sidewalks and public areas could JUMP over that six inches and go into the landscape via gravity, there would be no need for additional equipment. All the runoff would be kept out of the storm drains and our waterways, and the world would be a much safer and cleaner place.

How is the world a safer place with regular, frequent, cleaning? It goes all the way back to Nostradamus. Most of us know Nostradamus as a prophet of some sort, who may, or may not, have predicted the future. Most do not know he was a (questionably) failed doctor. He determined that cleaning streets and public spaces would eliminate the cause of the black plague that had devastated Europe in the 1500's. After his street cleaning was implemented the plague was decimated and life went back to normal.

His theories hold true today. Regular cleaning of commercial spaces limits disease, germs, rodents and other causes of sickness. In more humid climates cleaning eliminates broken bones from slips and falls on algae infested walkways. Roof cleaning adds decades on to the life of millions of roofs by removing algae and saves billions in replacement costs and resources. The list of benefits is endless.

Our public spaces could be cleaned affordably before the six inches of curb became a political issue.

Cleaning of public spaces moved from an environmentally friendly Best Management Practice (BMP) to a cumbersome and expensive process. This has caused the process of cleaning to increase in cost by as much as 14 times in some areas of the country. Fear of fines alone has caused many companies to go out of business.

The resulting strict regulations have caused a dramatic decrease in the frequency of cleaning in many places. Many streets in large cities have begun to look like third world countries out of fear of violating the many codes that were pushed as Best Management Practices to sell more equipment.

To make matters worse, while Stormwater Authorities require extra equipment to pick up heavy water, Air Quality Authorities attack the use of the mobile engines now required to power that equipment.

The Power Washing industry has been reduced to infighting. Websites have become a contest to see who can denigrate their competition the most by posting the latest reclaim equipment they have been forced to go into long term debt to own. Much of this equipment goes unused most of the time because it is just not economically feasible to clean a $125 storefront for $400 two times per month just to pay for the cost of reclaim.

Not only does reclaim equipment break down frequently, but it requires frequent filter changes resulting in more and more environmental waste in our landfills. It requires more motors to power the equipment, doubling the exhaust emissions. The weight of all this extra equipment and water wears on our roads. Transported waste water disposal sometimes costs three or four times the cost of the cleaning itself!

We've actually been to large cities and seen vacuum equipment on city trucks that was not hooked up and had SPIDER WEBS ON IT - while the city employee washed down the sidewalk and let all the water run directly, unfiltered, into the storm drain. Some pressure washing companies have $30,000 vacuum systems that are as clean as the day they were new, from a lack of use. Craigslist is filled, nationwide, with nearly new reclaim systems that never paid for itself.

"All this for an increase in water quality that is so insignificant that it can't be measured."

I might also mention that the reclaim industry has now reached the same stagnant spot as pressure washing pump equipment did 30 years ago. Now, for the most part, it is the same old regurgitated equipment on the market year after year with little to no improvements. One improvement many years ago was coagulation equipment, that separated contaminants from the water. The inventor of that equipment made it so expensive that no one could afford to use it, and subsequently litigated themselves into extinction trying to maintain a patent so no one else could benefit from that technology. All these contentious issues for an increase in water quality that is so insignificant that it can't be measured.

The Gulf oil spill, in 2010 brought on an explosion of new inventions to clean oil and other contaminants out of waterways. Some of these inventions are actually used TODAY directly inside storm drain vaults to clean oils, heavy metals and other contaminants that come off the streets in rainstorms.

This technology is used BELOW that six inch mountain, but because of old, outdated Best Management Practices, there are few Municipalities that expressly allow for the same type of filtration to be used by power washing contractors BEFORE the water gets to the storm drain.

It's time for Cities and States to recognize that the laws and regulations they have today came directly from input from trade associations with the sole purpose of selling more equipment.

These are tainted laws. It is time to take a look at new technology that was born from the tragedy of an oil spill that spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. This technology, along with the training that national Power Washing Organizations offer could result in REAL and measurable protection for our waters - all while encouraging, through economic feasibility, the cleaning of our public spaces on a more frequent timeline. Power Washing professionals already clean up tons of garbage out of the curbs and gutters when they service property. The little bit of water that is left when cleaning could be filtered with new technology rather than picked up and trucked all over the cities.

The six inch jump over the curb, and the regulations surrounding it, has cost Americans millions in unnecessary health costs, and has left our city streets looking shameful.

It's time to re-evaluate the environmental impact of forcing water over that curb rather than using effective, filtration that captures pollutants. Otherwise all the efforts are in vain - because every bit of garbage, feces, spills, oils, heavy metals and other pollution that isn't cleaned responsibly and frequently by professional power washing contractors ENDS UP IN OUR WATERWAYS ANYWAY when it rains.

We have robbed small business, industry, sanitation, air quality, and our national dignity (Peter), in order to pay for a questionable decrease in contaminants in our waterways (Paul).

It's time to weigh the costs, utilize modern filtration technology, and make changes in our regulations and start cleaning our cities again, without fear that doing so will break laws.

Tony Shelton is the Former National Environmental Director of the United Association of Mobile Contract Cleaners and former Policy Advisor for the 2015 Nevada Legislature Conservative Caucus He can be reached at