To the list of marketing oxymorons -- the sunless tan, cheeseless pizza, soap-free detergent -- add this: the no-water carwash.
Lisa and Jeff Peri have been peddling Green Earth Waterless Car Wash for only five months but already have gotten some traction, gaining a major local hospital and one of California's biggest Lexus dealers as customers for their product, which they describe as environmentally gentle.
The Peris' Inglewood company, which currently goes by the name of its fragrance-free cleaner, also markets a few related products and sometimes will send its employees to wash cars. The entrepreneurs are looking to attract buyers who are sensitive to chemicals in cleaners or concerned about drought, given that washing a car at home uses 80 to 140 gallons of water and running it through a commercial carwash uses 20 to 45 gallons of water.
"We feel like we are doing something life-changing for other people," said Lisa Peri, 36.
It was the Peris' lives that changed shortly after the first birthday of daughter Kayla, who seemed to catch every bug circulating in their neighborhood. They thought she would outgrow it. Instead, her health got worse.
Over one 20-month period, she was prescribed antibiotics 18 times, caught pneumonia twice and suffered dozens of fevers running as high as 105 degrees. They went from doctor to doctor without finding any underlying reasons for the chronic illnesses.
"That's when you go to sleep crying at night, asking what is wrong with our child," Lisa said.
Finally, a pediatrician who was also an allergist and immunologist, Dr. Rita Kachru, figured out that Kayla was suffering from allergic reactions that could take as long as three or four days to surface. The doctor suggested removing all cleaners and other chemicals in the Peris' house. In less than a week, Kayla's symptoms disappeared.
"We finally got to hear her real voice," said Jeff, 39.
The elation was soon followed by another problem: What was the couple going to use for cleaning, particularly for their cars? Carwashes gave their daughter some of her worst episodes.
Lisa remembered thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice if there was a product you could spray on your car to clean it that didn't have any bad chemicals in it?"
Searching the Internet, the Peris found that waterless car-wash products have been used for years by race-car circuits and sports-car enthusiasts, but they used chemicals that would have given their daughter allergic reactions.
In May, the couple found a chemist who could whip up a car-cleaning concoction using organic and hypoallergenic ingredients, and they lined up a factory in Texas to make it. By June, they were selling their product online.
Before this year, the Peris had followed ordinary career paths. She was a social worker specializing in discipline problems among children and teenagers. He was co-owner of Location Junkies, a business that made sure no damage occurred at sites used for movie and television filming.
But for a couple whose environmental activism had been confined to irregular use of the home recycling bin, the invention was an epiphany. There was a market for this product, they thought, backed by the dramatic story of how it had helped their daughter. Lisa sees few clients now, and Jeff took a more limited role in the location business.
From the outset, they decided they didn't want to involve venture capitalists, who might micromanage them and command too much of a share of their business. In one day, they persuaded Lisa's parents to donate a substantial sum, and the Peris raided their own savings, amassing about $100,000.
"I don't know if that's impressive, or just crazy," Lisa said. "We feel an insane amount of responsibility. We have to succeed."
Now their problem is to convince a skeptical public that it is possible to spray a little liquid onto their cars and then wipe the dirt away without scouring off the paint. The liquid acts as a surfactant, lifting, suspending and encapsulating the dirt, which can then be wiped off, leaving a carwash finish and sheen, they said while demonstrating it on a late-model Lexus.
"You're not giving up anything and you're still getting a clean car, and saving the water means it works for people on a number of different levels," Jeff said.
After developing the car cleaner, the Peris looked for other products that met their allergy-free standards. They now market Oopsie Baby, used for cleaning car seats and strollers, and Tire Shine, for cleaning tires.
Water conservation is a key message for the company, bolstered by a serious lack of rain in many parts of the country. The National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., has described 2007 as one of the worst drought years on record, especially in the Deep South.
The lack of rainfall was one reason Lexus of Santa Monica decided to try the Peris' waterless car wash. Every month, the Lexus dealership receives 220 new cars, which, on average, are washed 2 1/2 times during their stay on the lot. At about 40 gallons of water per wash, "that's a lot of water," said Alan MacLoughlin, the dealership's general sales manager.
"Our customers are going to get a care kit with the Green Earth Waterless Car Wash in it, and we will promote its use. We think it will go over well with our clients," he said.
Childrens Hospital Los Angeles pays for 20 car washings a week as part of an incentive plan for employees, said Miguel Gonzalez, manager of security and parking services. Green Earth "came out and did a demonstration and we loved it," he said.
Chayah Masters owns a business called Gittel on the Go that hires out a roving band of temporary assistants. She pays the Peris' business to wash her employees' cars during training seminars.
"No one wants to go to training, so the least I can do is clean their car," Masters said. "The eco-friendly aspect of it was huge for me."
Green Earth has six full-time and 15 part-time employees and a goal of reaching $1 million in sales in its first year of operation. A 32-ounce bottle of the product costs $23, including shipping and handling, and is good for seven to 10 washes, Jeff said. The company charges $25 to $40 a car for washing services, depending on the size of the vehicle. (Hybrid cars get a $5 discount.)
Several competitors have announced similar products, including Eco Touch, a waterless car-care company in Portsmouth, N.H., and No-Wet Waterless Concepts Ltd. in Spotswood, N.J.
Lisa Peri said she thought the competition might be beneficial.
"The skepticism diminishes when people see that there are competitors also doing it," she said. "When there are others out there, people tend to think, 'Which one am I going to buy?' instead of whether they are going to buy. Then it comes down to marketing, price and quality."