Laundry: saving money through new laundry technology and maintenance

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With senior housing operators having to stretch their already limited budgets and stay more narrowly focused on direct resident care functions, it's safe to say that laundry operations aren't typically positioned at the top of administrators' priority lists.

But putting laundry services on the back burner can wind up costing facilities far more than they might realize. Outdated laundry equipment, inefficient design layouts and processes, and inadequate staffing, among other factors, can all translate to a bleeding bottom line. Perhaps even more importantly, they can lead to dissatisfied residents and staff.

“Laundry operations are typically located in the back of the facility, so, unfortunately, there can be a bit of an ‘out of sight, out of mind' aspect that comes [into play],” reasons Kim Shady, vice president of distributor sales for UniMac, a Ripon, WI-based provider of industrial laundry equipment. But he assures that if administrators start taking a closer look at the laundry function, they'll likely find their laundry operation is awash in savings- and satisfaction-boosting opportunities.
Extracting value

Technology and innovation are largely considered a cornerstone of quality healthcare, so it's a bit ironic that many long-term care laundries are relying on outdated, poorly functioning equipment that is a drain on resources and might barely meet the needs of the facility.

It's no surprise that operators on a shoestring capital-equipment budget are allocating most of their available funds on products that will most directly impact resident care. But industry experts stress the importance of factoring laundry operations into budgetary planning.

“Laundry is often an afterthought in some facilities, but it is a very important part of resident care. You don't always realize how much you rely on it—until something goes wrong and it's not there when and where you need it,” notes Luna Barkley-Williams, environmental service manager for Baltimore-based Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, a 292-bed facility that provides both long-term and sub-acute care.

Replacing antiquated and neglected equipment with more efficient models is one good way to achieve performance. Although investing in new washers and dryers may seem like a costly endeavor, facilities should consider that today's more efficient and feature-rich machines can translate into a rapid return on investment. This can even generate significant savings that then can be shifted to other resident care functions.

The latest commercial laundry equipment allows staff to wash and dry more loads in less time, using substantially less water, detergent, electricity and gas. Today's washers, for example, feature higher extraction speeds—ideal for durable cotton items, such as towels (yet not for personal items and other more delicate fabrics)—which minimize drying times, and can result in increased staff productivity and lower energy bills. Fast-fill inlet valves and rapid rinse capabilities further maximize operational efficiencies, as do mechanical detergent feeds that automatically dispense the precise amount of detergent for each load of laundry.

On the dryer side, more manu­fac­turers offer moisture-sensing machines that automatically adjust cycle times to prevent excessive utility consumption and damaged fabric caused by over-drying.

Perhaps the biggest advancement to make its way onto the laundry equipment scene, however, is the addition of programmable “smart” controls that take the guesswork out of processing virtually every type of laundry load, provide digital readouts and user instructions, and track key parameters of each cycle, such as cycle times, load weights and downtime between cycles.

Given that labor accounts for roughly 50% of laundry operation costs, “having the ability to retrieve, calculate, and automatically record vital data and operating costs is invaluable,” says Dan Goldman, national sales manager of Wascomat Laundry Equipment, Inwood, NY.

While a typical washer used in the long-term care setting may cost upward of $10,000, Shady says high-efficiency models (such as a 300 G-force machine with advanced controls) could realistically shave off two to three hours a day in labor alone—with annual financial savings far surpassing equipment costs.

That's not to say existing equipment can't offer some of the same modern amenities of newer models, however. Levindale's laundry operation, which also serves two affiliated adult day care centers and processes more than 5,700 pieces of linens daily (excluding personal items), has increased the efficiency of its four existing 125-pound capacity washers by incorporating an add-on mechanical detergent feed from Ecolab.

Each time the vendor representative visits the facility, a load count is tabulated from the mechanical feed, which gives a snapshot of detergent use versus actual cycles run. It's a simple, yet effective, function that even helps identify process inefficiencies—such as loads not being run to capacity.

“If I'm buying more chemicals, that will prompt me to explore why,” notes Barkley-Williams. In the absence of brand-new equipment with electronic controls, Levindale also maintains manual logs for each load laundered and folded by the facility's five full-time employees. Each month, the log data is turned over to the accounting department, resulting in a generated internal report that helps identify true usage costs and serves as an ongoing reference and benchmarking tool.

Space-saving solutions

Laundry equipment manufacturers are also becoming more sensitive to facilities' space and design constraints by offering larger capacity machines in a space-saving footprint, as well as models that allow for greater installation flexibility.

Most skilled nursing facilities will require at least two to three washers and dryers with 40- to 50-pound load capacity, according to Randy Karn, Whirlpool Commercial Laundry's national sales manager. Unlike traditional bolt-down models that must be mounted into ten to twelve inches of concrete, new “soft-mount” models can be bolted down into a mere four inches of concrete, which means they aren't limited just to ground-floor installation.
The advent of small barrier washers is another benefit for infection control-focused, yet space-constrained, facilities.

“Keeping linen clean requires discipline and consistent practices often impossible in laundry rooms designed years ago,” Goldman of Wascomat says.

Whereas other barrier washers in production today are true side loaders with an opening on either side of the cylinder and the secondary opening on the other side, Goldman noted that the new Wascomat models are front loaders with the primary door cut to the depth of the washer and the unloading (clean side) opening at a right angle.

To further aid installation, high-efficiency front-loading washers—which can cut overall water consumption by 60% or more and hot water usage by two-thirds versus standard top-loaders ­—can be installed via the same hook-ups as the old top loaders.

Upkeep essentials

Whether a facility has recently purchased new laundry equipment or is looking to extend the life of its existing machines, the surest way to maximize the investment is through proactive preventive maintenance. This should be an ongoing effort, with facilities scheduling more comprehensive maintenance service at least several times a year.

“Many laundry equipment dealers will offer this service periodically for free, just to introduce their company to the manager of the facility,” Goldman said.

Although it's important to maintain equipment throughout its life cycle, Karn explains that practicing due diligence over the course of the first five years of ownership is particularly important.

“If you're doing preventive maintenance over that time, you're going to be in good shape,” he says, adding that Whirpool has witnessed four- and five-year equipment that looks decades old.

Likewise, they've seen older equipment that looks and operates like newer models.

Levindale's maintenance staff visits the laundry facility daily to check lint filters for safety. Laundry personnel maintain their own filter log, ensuring that they've been checked three times daily. The facility also has a preventive maintenance contract with Ecolab, which conducts more in-depth monthly service checks.

Wascomat's Goldman stresses that rubber and material components found in drain valves, lint filters, water inlet valves, door gaskets, pinch tubes from peristaltic pumps, and drive belts often are overlooked, assuring they are typically inexpensive to replace and can greatly impact utility consumption. Bearings also are commonly overlooked, adds Shady.

“Bearings should be lubricated every 200 hours. Many facilities aren't doing this and it's a costly mistake,” he warns.

Aside from diligent equipment maintenance and proactive problem solving, Barkley-Williams credits the success of Levindale's laundry operation to a facility-wide appreciation of the function, and even more importantly, of the five staff members in charge of it. Joining forces with frontline staff to identify evolving needs and opportunities for improvement has gone a long way toward setting and achieving more accurate par levels and improving resident and staff satisfaction.

Improved morale also has kept the laundry operation staffed with satisfied “career” employees, she says. While many long-term care laundries are plagued by high turnover rates, Levindale's laundry staff boasts a combined 60 years of service. Two dedicated laundry folders, for example, have been in their roles for at least 25 years each.

“By working together, [caregivers'] needs are better met and our laundry staff can feel confident that their efforts aren't being wasted,” Barkley-Williams says. “Our laundry staff takes pride in what they do, and it shows.”