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Three Major Factors Driving Laundering Changes

Steven J. Tinker |

Doing the laundry is one of the oldest chores that mankind has faced, next to gathering food and tending to the children. You would think that the science and technology of the laundry process would be well set and unchanged.
But in the last few decades, the laundry process has changed greatly, requiring more knowledge and expertise, as technology continues to rapidly evolve.
Three major factors have had immense impact, driving the changes that now affect everyone in the laundry industry.‘SYNTHETIC REVOLUTION’
The first of these is the “Synthetic Revolution” of the 1970s when polyester-blended fabrics were introduced into the institutional market.
The replacement of cotton in textiles with polyester forced major changes in washing processes and processing chemicals or detergents. Unlike the cotton fibers that they replaced, polyester textiles have a high affinity for oily soils, so this required a new class of detergents that can more effectively emulsify those soils.
Cottons could be processed at very high temperatures (180 F or higher), but polyesters reacted best when processed at “medium” temperatures (140-160 F). And polyester fabrics had a “permanent-press” finish that changed the need for ironing sheets and pressing shirts and pants.PROCESS AUTOMATION
Next was the move to automation in all aspects of the process.
Perhaps what drove automation most was the problem associated with the labor requirements of laundering. Managing labor costs while hiring and training the labor force are problems that many laundry operations still face. But the move to automation has decreased the numbers of employees and driven up the productivity of today’s modern facilities.
Two main automation innovations have had the biggest impact.
First is the introduction of tunnel or continuous-batch washers. Tunnel washers have increased productivity while decreasing the use of water and energy by as much as two-thirds compared to old-style batch washers. With the changes in water usage, and the continuous process, the chemistry has also changed to keep the quality of the processed textiles at the highest level.
This brings up a second major automation innovation: the use of and the automatic injection of liquid laundry chemicals.
Just 30 years ago, most laundry chemicals were powdered and hand-fed into washers. Worker safety concerns, along with the desire to improve consistency and reliability, drove the move to automatic injection systems. Today, utilizing the benefits that Silicon Valley developed, microprocessor controls can accurately mix and inject the right amount of detergent at the right time, every time, making this part of the laundry operation completely “hands-off.”GOVERNMENT REGULATION
One of the driving factors behind automatic chemical-injection systems was the concern for worker safety, and the desire to reduce workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals. And this leads to the third major impact on the industry: Government regulation.
From the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), publicly owned treatment works (POTWs), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to local public health departments, laundries have been increasingly required to respond to government regulations or standards.
Now the government regulates the handling of the chemicals, the soiled textiles, the wastewater that the laundry generates and the overall safety of the operation.
These major factors cover all the primary aspects of the laundry operation: the textiles, the work force, the equipment and the environment. Examining the evolution of the impact of these key issues can help us look ahead at what the future may hold.
First, there are continuing changes with the textiles we process. More and more polyester is being used, and now spun polyester is the primary textile that is used in restaurant linens.
This 100% polyester fabric is durable and can be easier to process. However, spun poly has to be treated with a special chemical finish in the textile mill to provide stain release and water absorbency. This brings up another major issue in the textile area.
Most of the U.S. textile mills have closed, and now we source our textiles from all over the world, primarily Asia. Our laboratory has encountered numerous issues with variously sourced textiles that have been produced with improper or inadequate finishing, making stain release more difficult.
We have also encountered issues with unusual finishes, such as permanent-press finishes that have a high degree of chlorine-retentive properties. This retention can create significant quality issues and potentially cause skin irritation.
Due to these potential issues, it makes it much more important that launderers be involved in the textiles purchasing process. Dealing with manufacturers that stand behind the quality of their products can be more important than the lowest price, in the long run.
The next major factor, labor efficiency, will continue to be an issue, as an increasing number of smaller and less efficient laundry operations close, to be replaced by newer, high-tech, high-production operations.
The most pressing factor in the drive to improve efficiency has focused on the conservation of resources and the reduction of energy usage. The temporary increase in energy costs created by Hurricane Katrina has become a fact of life. Oil and natural gas prices remain at all-time highs.
The industry is reacting with low-temperature washing processes, and with water conservation and reuse technology. Reusing water and the heat energy in the water has a much greater return, and the newest technology is more reliable and efficient than ever before.
The last factor, government regulations and their impact, is becoming an even greater issue.
For example, if you decide to install a water-reuse system, you may face an increase in the amount of pollutants that you discharge to your local POTW. In fact, you will be discharging the same poundage of pollutants; you will just be concentrating them into less water. But that problem can usually be explained and handled without too much trouble.
The latest regulatory issue that the industry faces is the move by the EPA to encourage a transition from the synthetic detergents used by all of the major chemical suppliers to alternative detergents deemed friendlier to the environment.
The technical issue is complicated, but the brief explanation is that detergents called “APEs” have some potential long-term effects on the streams and lakes we ultimately discharge our wastewater into. The alternatives called “AEs” break down in the environment more quickly and have not shown the same potential impact. Eventually, if this transition is either man-dated or voluntarily made, the industry will have to adjust its washing processes to offset the changes in the detergents.
But the biggest impact will be an increase in your costs. The newer, more eco-friendly detergents are more expensive to make, and you may need to use more to achieve the same soil-removal quality you currently produce.
As the year progresses, consider these major issues: the quality and sourcing of your textiles, the conservation of energy and water, and the potential changes in your detergents. Each can impact your entire operation. If you are proactive, the impact can be met head-on and your operation can be better, more efficient and more environmentally responsible.
 

About the author

Steven J. Tinker

Gurtler Industries

Director of Research and Development

Steven J. Tinker is the director of research and development for Gurtler Industries, South Holland, Ill. He has more than 35 years experience in technical service, product development and marketing.Gurtler Industries is a privately held, family-owned and -operated business that has grown into one of the largest specialists in the laundry chemical supply industry, offering a full line of processing chemicals, injection systems and personalized service across the nation.

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