Sales of tumble dryers have risen by 30% for JLA since late last year when the company started supplying machines featuring the S.A.F.E., Sensor Activated Fire Extinguishing, system.
The dramatic increase is seen as a clear indication that more and more businesses - from launderettes and drycleaners to all those with on-premise laundries - are keen to take steps to avoid falling victim to the growing number of blazes in commercial dryers in the UK.
A dryer fire is a nightmare for any laundry operator. At best the machine is badly damaged and at worst a business can be razed to the ground. The scenario in between is usually one of extensive damage to premises and equipment by fire, smoke or flooding while the fire is put out.
The blaze is invariably followed by tremendous inconvenience and significant loss of revenue - a sorry situation which can now be a thing of the past according to JLA, the world's largest independent distributor of commercial laundry equipment.
JLA says the potential for a system which could put out fires in the drums of commercial dryers fast and effectively was recognised over a year ago after an approach to the company's partner in the USA, American Dryer Corporation.
ADC was asked by a customer to adapt a basic sprinkler system already used in large industrial dryers for smaller machines. Intense development ensued and resulted in a far more sophisticated system than was originally requested.
Last year, a prototype system underwent rigorous trials at the Fall River, Massachusetts, headquarters of ADC, which is the biggest dryer manufacturer in the world. And as the trials took place, thorough research was being carried out on the other side of the Atlantic at JLA's offices in Ripponden, West Yorkshire.
"The problem of fires in tumble dryers is as old as the hills," says Peter Thompson, JLA commercial director. "They are rarely caused by a fault with the machine and are invariably caused by either spontaneous combustion or user misuse.
"People often try to dry totally unsuitable items such as plastics or materials impregnated with chemicals. I know of one instance when a painter and decorator at a care home threw overalls soaked in turps straight into a dryer with dramatic consequences!
"Although the dryer fire problem is common knowledge in the laundry industry, no one had apparently decided to take the trouble to find out just how widespread it was. We decided to do just that."
By examining service records and quizzing its 50-strong team of engineers, JLA discovered that dryer fires were occurring on a remarkably regular basis.
Wider checks within the industry confirmed that dryer fires were commonplace. As Laundry and Cleaning News recently reported: "As an industry, we still burn down two laundries a year… Action is called for now."
Checks with fire services throughout Britain underlined the prevalence of such fires. But it was the unearthing of official Government figures which proved the most disturbing.
"We asked the Home Office to analyse their statistics," says Mr Thompson. "We requested the latest figures available and those for the previous year. It took some time for Home Office officials to break them down, but when they did they provided us with a real eye-opener."
Over one dryer fire a day
The Home Office disclosed that in 1998, there were 342 tumble dryer fires in commercial premises in the UK. In 1999 - the latest year with available figures - the number had risen almost 10% to 370. This represented, of course, more than one a day.
JLA noted the Home Office figures could only comprise reported fires and that numerous others would have gone unreported. It was also acutely aware that most commercial dryers are found in premises with dense populations, such as hotels and hospitals.
It was this array of information that convinced the company there was a massive market in Britain for ADC's unique system. Exclusive rights to the product were promptly secured and JLA branded it S.A.F.E. - the Sensor Activated Fire Extinguishing - system.
As well as literally spelling out that safety is assured with the system, the name goes some way to explaining how it actually works.
Two sensors are utilised and are located above and below the dryer drum. When a blaze starts in the drum, they detect a change in temperature and activate a sophisticated water vapour mechanism.
The vapour douses flames within seconds and starves the drum of oxygen. Then the drum rotates, exposing and soaking all laundry to ensure that the fire is completely extinguished. The entire process takes just three minutes and if the fire restarts for any reason, the vapour system reactivates.
A great advantage of S.A.F.E. is that unlike sprinkler systems installed in many laundries, it uses a minimal amount of water to put out fires and the water is confined in the machine. So flooding of premises - and subsequent disruption to business - is eliminated.
When S.A.F.E. was launched late last year, it was welcomed by a number of organisations, including the Institute of Fire Prevention Officers and the National Association of Hospital Fire Officers.
Praise for the system was all very well, but it was not until S.A.F.E. went into action in a frightening real-life situation that its effectiveness was fully appreciated.
This happened in extraordinarily coincidental circumstances several months ago at two neighbouring care homes in Norwich.
A blaze broke out in the laundry room of Mary Chapman Court as 34 elderly residents slept. Night staff were alerted by an explosion which blew out the glass of a tumble dryer door.
Faced by flames and dense smoke, they made sure fire doors were closed and called the fire service. Fireman raced to the scene and evacuated the home before putting out the blaze, which had been started by spontaneous combustion.
The dryer was wrecked and two washing machines and the laundry decor were badly smoke-damaged. "The laundry was a write-off and was completely out of action," recalls Garry Nightingale, deputy manager of Mary Chapman Court. "For a care home the size of ours, it was a nightmare."
Three days after the Mary Chapman Court blaze, a fire, also caused by spontaneous combustion, started next door in Dussindale Park Nursing Home's laundry room. But unlike the Mary Chapman Court incident, there was little drama - thanks to S.A.F.E.
"Because S.A.F.E. was so efficient, there isn't much of a story to tell," says Ruth Kelly, manager of the home. "Two members of the night staff were taking laundry into the laundry room when they briefly saw flames and smoke in the dryer drum.
"But then the S.A.F.E. vapour system activated almost immediately. It was all over within seconds and just one garment was damaged - there was no damage to the machine and no flooding at all."
For Mary Chapman Court, the story was far from over. Poor response by suppliers left the home without a laundry for two weeks, making elderly residents upset and staff angry and frustrated.
But JLA, which prides itself on the speed and quality of its service, saved the day. The company fitted the laundry with a S.A.F.E. dryer, two washers and an ironer within 48 hours of hearing about the plight of the home.
"The terrible inconvenience suffered by Mary Chapman Court graphically emphasises the true value of S.A.F.E.," says Stuart Wilkinson, JLA managing director. "For 14 days, laundry had to go next door to Dussindale Park and to a local launderette.
"Staff even took residents' personal items home to wash in their own machines. Such a situation is clearly totally unacceptable and could so easily have been prevented.
"More than anything else, S.A.F.E. gives anyone who has an on-premise laundry complete peace of mind. They can rest easy with the knowledge that their dryers are protected from fire and their businesses safe from the aftermath of a blaze."
Mr Wilkinson's view was shared by Glenn Tomkins, Editor of Laundry and Cleaning News, in a recent comment piece in this magazine. Mr Tomkins wrote: "If you buy a new tumble dryer with a fire suppression system it will undoubtedly have a cost implication, but it makes good business sense." He added: "I won't lecture you about the moral duty to your workforce. But I will ask: for how much longer are lives, livelihoods and businesses going to be risked?"
JLA has just launched its new "D" range of dryers, with capacities from 30lb to 170lb. Each dryer has latest technological features such as microprocessor controls and, naturally, the S.A.F.E. system.
S.A.F.E. machines were unveiled to drycleaners and launderette owners at the recent successful Clean London exhibition, staged in Croydon by JLA in conjunction with laundry accessory suppliers Alex Reid, financial experts Admiral Leasing and insurance specialists Spa Brokers.
One drycleaner who has already invested in the system is Ashok Prajapati. He has just had two 50lb and two 30lb S.A.F.E. dryers installed at his Express Drycleaners shop in Oxford Road, Reading - with good reason.
He says: "Two months ago I experienced a dryer fire and the consequences were terrible. The fire may have been caused by spontaneous combustion and the result was that the dryer and one alongside it were totally gutted and another was damaged beyond repair. There was also extensive smoke damage throughout my premises.It was horrendously inconvenient and costly and after such an experience, S.A.F.E. dryers were the natural choice." n