Ideas for protecting the environment from all the nasty solvent chemicals used to clean engines.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 1996

Dear Tom and Ray:

After years of reading your most excellent, entertaining, informative
column, I'm faced with a dilemma of potentially profound environmental
significance. Although my problem vehicle is a motorcycle, the solution
should certainly apply to any car owners who clean the grease and oil off
of their engines.

For years, my motorcycle engine has gotten covered with oil due to a number
of leaky gaskets. I used to deal with this problem by using one of the de-
greasing solvents sold at auto parts stores. This stuff is sprayed on the
offending grease and oil spots, and then is hosed off with water, leaving
the engine clean and shiny. Unfortunately, this petrochemical soup of
grease, oil and the solvents is then washed right down the storm drain and
out into the ocean.

At the risk of alienating better than half the population, I'll say that
nobody with a brain or a conscience would even dream of dumping their used
oil down the storm drains anymore, but few people seem to think twice about
these spray-on degreasing solvents, which can't be doing our already
beleaguered waterways any good.

Now, back when big oceanic oil spills first started happening, much was
said about a type of "oil-eating bacteria" that broke up the oil slicks. My
question is obvious: Why can't an effective de-greasing agent be made of
this same bacteria? The little bugs could be sprayed on a cool engine at
night, then rinsed off the next day after they've stuffed themselves on a
sumptuous repast of baked 10W-40 Pennzoil. Such an engine cleaner could
even improve the overall aquatic environment, since these bacteria probably
do what comes naturally to most organisms after a night of culinary
indulgence; mate and reproduce, thus creating legions of oil-eating progeny
who might make their way into the oil-soaked storm drains of America,
eating, cleaning and reproducing their way to the ocean. It sounds perfect,
which means, of course, there must be something wrong with the idea. Please
tell me. -- Michael

TOM: It's people like you and me who make America great, Michael; people
who think about solutions to the real, pressing problems of this country.
In fact, remind me to tell you about the combination portable telephone/ear
wax remover I'm working on in my spare time!

RAY: Actually, Michael, I've never heard of oil-eating bacteria being used
for commercial cleaners, but maybe some of our readers have. I'm not sure
why they haven't been applied that way. I can only imagine that it may have
something to do with them eating through the seals and chowing down on
other important parts of your engine.

TOM: Not to mention all the lubricated parts of the city sewage-treatment
plant further down the pipe.

RAY: My guess is that most of the de-greasing products are solvent-based.
And you're right, neither the solvents nor the grease and oil that they
remove is good for the local water supply.

TOM: So what do you do? If you want to be environmentally considerate, the
best thing to do is to clean your engine at a car wash. In most states, car
washes are required to have grease traps, which trap the grease and oil
that comes off of cars.

RAY: And a lot of car washes have do-it-yourself bays. If those bays are
tied into the facility's grease trap -- which they ought to be -- then you
can use the solvent there. Then, rather than washing it down your driveway,
into the sewer system, and into the ocean, the runoff will be collected in
the grease trap and disposed of properly.

TOM: That is, pumped out of the grease trap, loaded into a tanker truck,
and dumped in the ocean all at once!

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