Sharpen Senses to Detect Subtle Signs of Laundry in Distress

Eric Frederick |

One must be ready to use all of one’s senses in trying to head off an equipment breakdown. Many parts that fail are not easily visible while a machine is in operation, so we need to teach ourselves and our employees the skills needed to identify trouble spots and thus avoid major breakdowns.
Many of us are not mechanically inclined and have a hard time changing a flat tire let alone trying to fix a piece of complicate laundry machinery. This should not discourage managers from learning the signs of pending equipment failure.
Bill Webb, a good friend and former business partner, always said the best maintenance tools were the senses of touch, sight, hearing and smell, combined with the ability to think. The best maintenance program is based upon these tools.
I visited a large number of laundries when I worked as an operational consultant. One of my favorite things to do was to go into a laundry after the employees had gone home for the day and just sit and listen.
In the quiet, I could easily hear the hissss of an air leak. It might have been coming from a hose with a hole in it, or from a loose fitting. Either way, it was costing the laundry money and productivity and potentially affecting the quality of the finished product.
I would stand in the wash room and listen to how the drain valve was working. By running one washer at a time, I could hear the water valves engage and then try to detect the excessive noise of a drive bearing.
To tell if something is wrong, you must be familiar with the sounds that a piece of equipment makes in normal operation. This is so important that I do not allow music in my laundry, and I discourage the use of portable music devices with headphones.
Employees can tell when a machine sounds “different.” They represent your first line of defense against a serious breakdown.
I am also a person who likes to touch equipment. As I walk through my laundry, I like to put my hand on a machine. Excessive vibration or a different quiver than you’re accustomed to is a sure sign that a piece of equipment is about to break down. Once again, you must take the time to learn how a piece of equipment feels when all is in proper working order.
A change in product quality from a particular piece of equipment can signal potential failure. Perhaps a bearing is going out on a folder, or a key belt is missing. Either would have an effect.
Perhaps the linen is damp after ironing. This could be caused by a number of problems, including poor boiler performance, a malfunctioning water valve on a washer, a broken door seal on a dryer, an incorrectly sized ironer pad roll or malfunctioning steam traps.
I also use my sense of smell to detect potential problems. A motor that is beginning to overheat has a distinctive smell, as does a load of kitchen linen about to burst into flames. These are trouble signs that must not be ignored.
Finally, the eyes can be trained to detect telltale signs of trouble such as frayed belts, piles of black dust, or shiny metal fragments underneath a piece of equipment. Such fragments are often caused by excessive wear at a bearing or sprocket.
By training our employees and ourselves how to use our senses while on the job, we can avoid costly breakdowns.

About the author

Eric Frederick

Carilion Laundry Service

Director of Laundry Services

Eric Frederick is director of laundry services for Carilion Laundry Service, Roanoke, Va., and past president of the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM), now called the Association for Linen Management (ALM). He’s a two-time association manager of the year. You can reach him by e-mail at


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