Mike Libecap says that when he thought about “going green,” rainfall was not necessarily what popped into his mind. In fact, he says that he never gave much thought to his shop’s water usage at all, or where it came from.
However, as clean rainwater falls from the sky and onto the ground, it picks up pollutants from pavement and roofs, which is then carried down the street, through storm drains and eventually ends up in lakes, rivers or expensive treatment facilities.
That’s what Libecap learned when Miami University professor Vincent Hand stopped in Libecap’s shop, CARSTAR of Oxford in Oxford, Ohio, two years ago and inquired about the shop’s wash bay and the water it used.
The inquiry sparked a conversation that led to a partnership
with a team of engineering students from Miami University to not only design a system that would reduce runoff and ensure a more healthy watershed, but also save the shop more than $1,000 a year on its water and sewage bill.
Founded in 1997, Libecap has grown CARSTAR of Oxford from a three- employee, $30,000-per-month business into a $2.4 million, 11-employee shop in the small town of Oxford, Ohio. Libecap says Oxford is truly a college town: It didn’t even exist before the founding of Miami University in the early 1800s. Today, the U.S. census lists the town’s population at roughly 22,000, but without students, the town is about a third that size.
Oxford revolves around the university, Libecap says, and it’s a common occurrence for the shop to work on the vehicles of students and professors, especially given the shop’s involvement in the local chamber of commerce and its location in downtown Oxford.
As “going green” became a more prevalent trend in the collision repair industry, Libecap says he was interested in finding ways to reduce his carbon footprint. He just wasn’t sure how. For many years, the shop was too small to take on a massive environmental project. In fact, that’s exactly what he told Hand when he was in the shop to get his vehicle repaired two years ago.
“He just asked my opinion on the environment and environmental issues,” Libecap says. “I told him it was important to me, but at the same time, I couldn’t spend millions of dollars to save $1,000.”
Hand was a member of the City of Oxford Environmental Commission at the time and was part of a project that involved talking with citizens, developers, business people and city officials about plans for improving stormwater management.
A professor in the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability, he also acted as an advisor for the senior design project, a project that every engineering student must complete to graduate and that involves carrying out a project that the professors design. As he talked with Libecap, Hand recognized the numerous opportunities a body shop had for an environmental design project and pitched Libecap the idea of a rainwater management system for his wash bays that could reduce his sewer and water bill almost immediately.
“We pre-wash and post-wash after the repairs are completed,” Libecap says. “It was a curiosity. It wasn’t a super expensive project. It was under $3,000. It was worth taking the gamble on it and I saw the benefit.”
That’s when Tyler Hammerle and his team of three other Miami University engineer students took over in September 2014 to begin work on the project and act as the “sub-contractors,” as Libecap calls them. Hammerle says the group started out by meeting with Libecap to go over expectations and initial thoughts.
“Some of the restrictions he had was that it had to fit in his garage where the guy washes all the cars,” Hammerle says. “And he wanted a three- to five- year payback period on the system. Those were his two constraints, along without impeding anything or getting in the way of the activities that go on in his body shop.”
The group then began compiling research to come up with a design. Through that research, Hammerle says the students discovered the benefits of harvesting rainwater. Rainwater harvesting is a three-step process involving the collection of rainwater from surfaces (such as roofs), the storage of the rainwater in designated tanks, and the distribution of rainwater for indoor or outdoor use later on. By using rainwater harvesting systems, the reliance on groundwater can be significantly reduced; the rainwater is free from pollutants, including salts, minerals and other contaminants; and ultimately, the size of the water bill can be decreased. The students also discovered rainwater harvesting is easy to maintain and the overall cost of installation and operation is less than water purifying or pumping systems.
Naturally, the biggest disadvantage of rainwater harvesting is unpredictable rainfall and water quality. So, the students also built a prototype to test the water quality. Hammerle says the parameters the students looked at were suspended solids, turbidity and pH. After conducting tests (using filter papers and pH probes), the students found that 90 percent of the water could be saved and used. The students also assembled weather data and made a histogram with rainfall collecting data for the last 20 years. They analyzed rainfall for the last year and, based on that data, found that with a 600-gallon system, there would only be roughly one week per year where there might not be enough water.
After approving the project, Libecap purchased one 350-gallon and one 250-gallon tank (it was cheaper than purchasing one 600-gallon storage tank) and the design was implemented in July 2015. The students hired a plumber to use PVC to divert down- spouts from the building to the garage and catch the rainwater. The garage is the lowest point in the building, Hammerle says, so gravity is able to do most of the work collecting the water. The system collects from a 4,200-square-foot roof and for every inch of rain, 600 gallons per 1,000 square feet of roof could theoretically be collected. The collected water first runs through a smaller plastic barrel, which catches any sediment from the roof. Ninety-grit PVC pipe prevented any sediment or contaminants in the water from entering the storage tanks. Then, the water flows into the storage tanks, which are located in the wash bays and connected to a high-pressure power washer to clean the vehicles. Overall, the project cost under $3,000.
Although it took a couple weeks of fine-tuning the drainage system after installation, Libecap says that the system hit close to the mark nearly from Day 1. The system is recovering the projected amount of water from the roof, and the tanks have never gotten below half full, even with some mild weather in 2015. Hammerle
says that the he takes frequent water samples to analyze the water and found that it consistently exceeds Environmental Protection Agency requirements for clear water. The only work for the shop is to, on occasion, pour some bleach to kill bacteria.
Previous to the implementation of the rainwater system, the shop used 12 gallons of water for each of the five cars the shop washed per day, adding up to 1,200 gallons a month. Furthermore, the employee in charge of the wash bay used a garden hose, which uses 10 gallons per minute. With the new pressure washer, that’s not only down to 2 gallons per minute, but it helps save an hour per day in wash times. With the system, the shop is on pace to save $1,000 annually on their water bill because they are no longer reliant on city water for the wash bays.
Finally, Hammerle notes the benefits of a healthy watershed.
“Instead of the rainwater going down the downspouts and into the sewer system, it’s being used and not collect- ing the oils on the ground,” he says.
Libecap says that the project has been a win-win, overall. Not only is he happy with the result, he says it’s been eye-opening to see some of the significant green efforts that can be made in the shop for little money.
“We worked together on the project as far as what was cost effective for a return rate of under five years,” he says. “We’re definitely interested in other ideas and we’re considering solar panels in the future.”
Furthermore, he says that saying yes to this type of project was another way to get involved with the community and build relationships, particularly with the university.