Mark Reynolds looks at the controversy surrounding the new water regulations, but finds that OPL managers have other priorities for choosing equipment.

The buzz over the last few months wherever machinery agents and distributors gather together has been, “Type ‘A’ Air Gaps.” But what are they and why should they interest laundry managers? It’s a good question, but the answer is surrounded by controversy and not even the distributors can agree on what is the right answer.


According to a recent mailshot from John Laithwaite Associates (JLA), the water regulations introduced last July to replace local water authority byelaws mean that thousands of laundry installations should be be outlawed unless the machinery is “fitted with a Type ‘A’ Air Gap” or “connected to a dedicated hot and cold water supply via a suitable break tank.” At the time, JLA had just launched the Laithwaite-Ipso ‘A’ series and was promoting it with the message:“The only commercial front-load washer that complies with all water byelaws and regulations and is approved for direct connection to mains water.” It accompanied the text with graphics that attempted to persuade launderers that alternative solutions to meeting the new regulations would be complicated and costly.

This initiative was not greeted with enthusiasm by competitors and the publicity material was variously described as “highly inflammatory” and “a bit of a red herring.” The Society of Laundry Engineers and Allied Trades (SLEAT), a body representing most of the regular suppliers to the industry (including JLA) even prepared a statement to the effect that, “Some of the information circulated [by JLA] is incorrect and some is misleading.” However the matter remains controversial and determining exactly which part, if any, misleads is not a simple matter.

Going on-line

The new Water Supply (Water Fittings) Regulations 1999 as they are called, are not an easy read, and direct communication with officials of the Water Regulations Advisory Scheme (Wras) appears to have confused the issue rather than illuminated it. The best way to gather further information may be to visit the Wras website. At least the information on-line is laid out in easy-to-digest form with some pretty pictures as a diversion. Just point your browser at .

In a nutshell, the new regulations provide consistent national standards to replace the old Water Authority byelaws which varied from authority to authority and were frequently open to local interpretation and implementation. Guidelines explaining the new regulations will not be available before May 2000, but in the context of the current debate, the critical aspect is how to prevent contaminated water from appliances, such as washing machines, in commercial operations from siphoning or backflushing into the mains water supply.

Risk category

How this is best achieved varies according to the category of risk on the premises where the equipment is used. The danger to public health from backflushing into the mains would be much higher in a Category 5 hospital or nursing home processing foul or contaminated linen than it would in, say, a Category 3 private house.

Before the advent of machinery with inbuilt “Type ‘A’ Air Gaps,” backflushing was typically prevented with break tanks or reduced pressure zone (RPZ) valves, although it is a sad reflection on the effectiveness of the old byelaws that upwards of 50% of existing OPL washer-extractor installations are still thought to be illegally connected directly to the mains.

That is something that will change says Dick Cardis, marketing manager at JLA, “The new regulations are actually owned by the DETR (The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions) and will be actively policed by them.” SLEAT points out that, “The new Regulations,which came into force on 1 July 1999, are not applied retrospectively. Therefore these regulations do not apply to any installations that complied with the byelaws and were connected before 1 July 1999. These installations remain acceptable to the water supply industry today.” While Dick Cardis does not disagree with this statement of fact, he emphasises that, the fact that an installation was completed before the new regulations came into force, does not automatically mean that it is exempt from the new rules. “If it was illegal before, it is still illegal now,” he warns, “and the DETR is more likely to do something about enforcing the rules in the future.” There is also general agreement with SLEAT’s advice that “The kind of backflow prevention required will depend upon the backflow risk attached to the type of establishment where the washing machine is to be installed.”


JLA’s position seems to be that while there may be several different ways of meeting the new requirements, installing equipment with an integral backflow prevention device is the quickest, cheapest and most convenient way of doing so.

The company obviously did its homework before launching the ‘A’ Series and claims to have visited every water authority in the country for an opinion. It even prints WRAS and WBS approval marks on its advertising material. Never slow to spot a creative marketing opportunity nor afraid to be different , JLA has once again positioned itself apart from other suppliers, a state of affairs that will surprise no one in the industry.

In spite of the controversy and arguments little of the debate seems to have permeated down to the sector most likely to be affected, the end-user. Indeed, in a straw poll among OPL managers, few seemed to have much idea of what a “type A air gap” was. Their priorities when buying new equipment took the argument in quite a different direction and surprisingly the focus seems to have moved away from price.

Instead, quality and service seem to be the decision drivers. Richard Ball, general manager at the Calcot Manor Hotel in Tetbury and Mal Sagoo, maintenance manager for the ExtraCare Charitable Trust’s 31 OPLs both cite maintaining quality standards and reliable service as significant factors in their choice of Electrolux as a partner in installing and upgrading OPLs in their operations.


Electrolux fields a team of more than 60 engineers and typically offers extended warranty contracts of 3 or 5 years to meet the specific maintenance needs of hotels or nursing homes.

For the third time, Andrew and Nasim England of Walton Cottage Hotel in Maidenhead chose Warner Howard to supply Primus, Cissell and Miele equipment for their expanding laundry facility. Their attitude was, “Never mind the widgets, it’s the service that matters.” They declared themselves so satisfied with Warner Howard’s “partnership” approach that that they had no hesitation in re-appointing the company when the current contract came to an end.

Half the time

John Guy, manager of the Hollington House Hotel in Newbury has been running his own OPL ever since the hotel opened in 1992 and his decision to stay with an OPL operation is again governed by quality. He has yet to find a contract laundry that can do as good a job as he can. “I like to control as many goods and services as I can,” he explains, “it’s the only way to maintain quality.” He describes his new 6kg, Swiss-built, Schulthess washer-extractor, supplied by James Armstrong, as a “little Rolls-Royce” and says: “We took it to test, but ended up buying it. It takes only half the load of our existing machine, but it does the job in half the time – my girls think it’s fabulous!” Asked whether it was cheaper to do the work himself, his frank reply was “I don’t know and I don’t care. Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.” Armstrong was specified as the supplier because, “their service is excellent, usually on site, the same day. I can’t fault them and I find them to be real gentlemen to deal with.” How refreshing to know that, while the marketing men engage in their war of words to increase the distance between themselves and the competition, the credibility gap between the promise of quality and its actual delivery may be getting smaller.