Just how good a launderer are you?

17 May 2017

Richard Neale provides a series of benchmarks to measure the factors that differentiate between rental suppliers in the market place, with some tips which could help move many up towards the more profitable end of the quality spectrum

A glance at the average car park will reveal a wide mixture of vehicles with the odd Bentley, a sprinkling of Fords, VW’s, amongst others including an increasing number of electric models. The wide-ranging number of models is a reflection of how well each car manufacturer has succeeded in differentiating their models from the competition.

Even amongst the same models of one car, there is a considerable range of price, comfort and performance, which is only hinted at by the subtle differences in trim to denote the supercharged 250 PS engine from the 100 PS commuter version.

This differentiation too often by-passes the laundering and rental sector, where the focus becomes the price – how cheaply can the job be done? This is a sorry state of affairs when there is such a wide range of fabrics available to rent, varying in colour from bright white to pale grey. There are 200 thread count percales competing with 130TCs. There are 100% cotton sheets, which breathe to give comfort on the bed right through the hottest of summers, competing with 80:20 cotton rich fabrics which are holding their own with 50:50 polycotton offerings still available.

Some launderers use processes which achieve implied thermal disinfection, perhaps wary of the day when a serial infection outbreak will occur in the London hotel market and hoteliers will suddenly wake up to their duty of care and look for someone to blame. Others use low temperature washing to meet their carbon emissions targets, but reinforce the process with chemical disinfection in the last rinse. Britain is a proud trading nation, well able to sell its wares and differentiate its products to sell on performance and quality and not on price alone. These skills are desperately needed in the rental market.

One could argue with justification that the customer is a hard-nosed negotiator, who cannot see beyond the end of their nose, but this calls for customer education and not chasing price in a downward spiral, which has led to some of the lowest financial returns of any market sector.

Rental customers need the drip feed of education at every opportunity, to open eyes to the complete rental offering, so that price becomes only one of the parameters. Perhaps this should start not with the executive housekeepers but with the financial controllers.

This month we look at the factors which do actually differentiate rental suppliers in the market place, with some tips which could help move many up towards the more profitable end of the quality spectrum.

Product quality

Most customers expect to get white articles which stay white and which do not look like a zebra when stacked in the hotel bathroom, for example. Modern detergents have suspending agents which are very effective at total prevention of greying – all they need is dosing correctly into a batch of the correct weight with the right dips or water flows. Basic whiteness is backed up by brightness – that is the ability of the detergent to dye the fabric surface with an optical brightening agent which reacts with the UV part of the daylight spectrum to create additional brilliant white light, making the fabric look twice as white as it really is. Here there is a wide variation between the detergents, with cheaper ones having less of the vital OBA ingredient.

The customer does not expect stock which is holed, torn or frayed, which means controlling the use of bleach (especially chlorine bleach) so that it is dosed in sufficient amounts to de-colour vegetable dye stains only, whilst not diminishing textile life. This control on minimising chemical damage is essential to ensure that the allowance in the price for textile replacements does not become insufficient and what should be a profitable operation becomes a loss maker. More and more laundries are now running 25-wash test-pieces on regular basis to measure accurately the chemical damage imposed on their stock, preferring to find out and correct this now, rather than producing a disappointing P & L account and wondering what went wrong when it is too late.

The customer expects work which is dry and odour-free, because damp work tends to breed mildew (and accompanying dank smells) and food residues or human body fluids provide nutrient for bacteria which seem unfailingly to emit foul-smelling excrement (as a quick sniff at a poorly washed shirt armpit during ironing will reveal). Spa towels present a particular problem to the launderer, because traditional laundry emulsifiers do not work very well on many spa oils. They need a product with an HLB range down around HLB 6 – HLB 9. The best way of monitoring success is to sniff every load of spa towels as it comes out of the dryer. This is also the optimum way of controlling fires started in the middle of the night by spontaneous combustion of un-removed spa oils.

The customer expects seams that do not split open and edges which are not frayed, which calls for care when buying textiles (looking for the right number of stitches per inch and double seams to secure towel hems). Fraying is frequently a consequence of over-drying or incorrect bleaching or both and should be easily avoided. Removing over-drying (by the use of infra-red terminators) will also improve the long-term greying of towels (which seem to lose their whiteness before sheets or pillowcases of the same age).

Measuring the power of the wash

EMPA pre-soiled test swatches are used to rate the power of the wash. They are washed once in the target process and then the reflectance is read using a standard laundry reflectometer. The fabric is calibrated so that the reflectance can be used to describe the power of the process with respect to removal of:

¦  Vegetable dye

¦  Vegetable oil

¦  Blood

¦  Mixed protein (blood and dairy)

¦  Mineral oil

The test swatches also include one for measuring one-wash greying and brightness (gained from the OBA in the detergent). The mixed protein swatch is good for revealing an incorrect pre-wash temperature; if this is too high then protein stains become ‘set’ and almost impossible to remove, however good the main wash. 

Over-bleaching is revealed by the result for the vegetable dye swatch. This is a common fault, which often results from a knee-jerk reaction to residual staining, especially if the problem is failure to remove protein stains (which need a lot of bleach if they become ’set’ because of incorrect washing). The financial reason for avoiding over-bleaching at all costs is because it causes loss of cotton, fabric weakness (and consequent tears) and greatly increased linen injection costs. In the presence of iron, it also causes irreversible overall yellowing/browning on polyester.

Textile life

Textile life can be estimated very accurately for circulating stocks of rental items by dividing the total issues over say a twelve-month period by the number of injections required to maintain the service, classification by classification. (For example, 5,000,000 issues of double duvets over 12 months, requiring a total injection of 50,000 new ones, gives a mean textile life of 5,000,000 ÷ 50,000 = 100 wash and use cycles.) 

A typical value achieved in practice should be at least 120 wash and use cycles, with the main exceptions being table napkins (40 cycles), hand towels (70 cycles) and super-king duvets (90 cycles). In order to achieve these figures, the damage from wash chemicals must be controlled so that it is low enough to give at least 200 wash and use cycles. When theft and abuse are factored in, the net outcome will still be at least 120 cycles. 

The most common causes of reduced textile life are too high a dosage of chlorine bleach, normal dosages of bleach in the presence of iron and frequent use of very high alkalinities.

The best laundries check chemical damage in the wash on a regular basis, using a test piece which carries three EMPA test swatches.

One swatch is used to monitor chemical degradation of cotton fibres, the second monitors long-term greying (usually caused by re-deposition of soiling from the wash liquor back onto the clean cloth) and the third monitors the progressive build-up of iron on fabric.

The best detergents will capture and retain any iron in the laundry water (which comes either from the raw water or from rusty pipes and tanks), using a ‘chelating agent’, so the results for iron can vary considerably. Superior detergents will also prevent re-deposition (and consequent greying) with an appropriate suspending agent.


Most laundries can still improve their product quality, not by throwing money at the washhouse but by washing smarter and taking a critical approach to current quality, comparing their performance to others and to international standards.


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