New forces in laundry rooms
While fancier controls and advanced technology may have made washing and drying a bit easier in recent years, there has still been no rest for those who manage the laundry at nursing homes. Sicker residents and high incontinence rates have led to at least 50% more laundry loads per resident over the last 15 years. That often has led to space crunches at facilities, as well as general funding and utilities angst.
Laundry, while more automated than ever before, cannot recede far on management's priority list. As at least one observer sees it, laundry equipment may equal less than one-tenth of a facility's budget, but it winds up touching about 90% of all operations in one way or another.
"In the 1970s, we had some automation and technology," explained Joel Jorgensen, a veteran vendor in the market. "In combining laundry volume with water and chemistry, beyond that, the process simply took as long as it took. There was not a lot we could do to affect that process. Today's, that's all changed."
There are some who are trying to induce what would be one of the most dramatic changes in long-term care laundry, promoting ozone-aided cleaning. The key to the ozone method is it uses cold water, thus saving water-heating costs. It also reduces the need for cleaning chemicals. Proponents of ozone claim it is a better bacteria killer than chlorine bleach.
"The one thing that is starting to take root is ozone," said Kim Shady, national sales manager for UniMac, Ripon, WI. "Ozone has shown it can reduce the amount of hot water needed, cycle times and even, in some cases, labor in the laundry room. It's probably the trend that has the most upside."
The ozone method works by forcing unstable oxygen into the wash cabin to energize cleaning chemicals.
But if there is a real market jolt from it, it's coming somewhere down the road, Shady acknowledged. He estimated that fewer than 2% of long-term care facilities in the U.S. currently use ozone. There has been just a "very gradual" up tick in usage over the last 15 years, he said, adding that some major provider chains have experimented with it. Some vendors promote ozone outright, while others sell machinery compatible with both the traditional and ozone processes.
"The laundry industry has been slow to accept it," Shady said. "Quite honestly, in the beginning, ozone overpromised and underperformed. Over the last five years, it now performs to where it's acceptable, but because it got a bad reputation when it first started out, it's had a hard time growing."
Dick Strub, a 30-year veteran of running long-term care maintenance and laundry departments with national provider chains, casts a skeptical eye on the ozone method.
"Ozone works to a degree, but I don't think it will do everything people say it will do. It comes under the heading of smoke-and-mirrors, in my opinion," he said, acknowledging former business ties with a laundry soap vendor. He is now an operations consultant based in Chattanooga, TN. "I could be wrong about ozone, but I need to see it in 25 to 30 percent of facilities. You have to ask why they're not getting on board. How many will there be five years from now?"
While the speed of ozone adoption is open to question, there is little doubt that the speed of extraction has soared lately. Many manufacturers have increased the G-forces possible in their washers, resulting in shorter drying times.
"The higher extract speeds allow you to drain a lot more water and decreases drying time, increasing labor efficiency and lowering energy consumption," Strub pointed out.
The growing use of soft-mount washers has coincided with the rise in extraction speeds. Soft mounts don't require the extensive concrete underpinning that rigid mounts do and therefore can be put in a wider variety of locations, advocates say. Installation takes just a fraction of the time of rigid mounts, though soft-mounts can be more expensive and require a larger footprint – significant considerations for many space- and funding-strapped facilities.
Speaking the same language
Providers who haven't been laundry shopping lately also will get a lot to consider about control panels on today's equipment.
Microprocessors have greatly enhanced the way loads can be preprogrammed to become a single push-button experience. Instructions and feedback to help diagnose problems also can be found in full word form, rather than as simple flashing lights or numbers as in the past.