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New technology has enabled laundry workers to produce higher volume in less time than before. Easier-to-use controls are partly responsible for the rise.
New technology has enabled laundry workers to produce higher volume in less time than before. Easier-to-use controls are partly responsible for the rise.

Some stakeholders note that laundry and housekeeping staff are believed to be among the most contented employees in long-term care — a view that may seem inexplicable to those who don't work in nursing homes and other senior living settings. After all, many employees in those departments work in conditions with high humidity, noise and various other unpleasantries.

It's a complex thing trying to explain just what makes this bunch frequently long lasting at their jobs, but there's often one undeniable reason: quality, reliable tools of the trade. The biggest of those: washers and dryers.

In some ways, these mechanical behemoths bear little resemblance to predecessors from even a decade ago, thanks in part to the rise of smart technology. Like so many machines flooding the consumer market, they boast colorful touch screens, intuitive passive and active controls, and lots of shiny glass and metallic finishes.

Make no mistake: Behind the beauty is an unsurpassed brawn that saves time, energy, premature linen replacement, and — key to the hearts of so many owner-operators — is more labor friendly than ever.

The spaces where these machines work are also getting more than just facelifts, including better lighting, improved air filtration and ventilation, and ergonomic features like shock-absorbing flooring and user-adjustable folding tables.

There are sound financial arguments why experts say owner-operators may do well to consider replacing their aging machines with new models.

The most notable difference in this new generation of washer-extractors and dryers is user control. And the learning curve for laundry staff — from novice to tenured — is very short.

What's new?

“In general, the controls are now more intuitive, customizable and programmable. They do more and provide more information than ever before,” says Ricky Munch, on-premise laundry sales manager for Pellerin Milnor. “They've gotten much easier for the operator. Anyone who uses smartphones or tablets will feel right at home.”

Thanks to the extensive amount of human engineering that has gone into them, these controls have a host of energy- and water-saving functions that take a great deal of guesswork out of the process, which companies like Pellerin Milnor argue translates into lower utility bills, total ownership costs and longer lifespans for linens, which are becoming costlier by the minute.

For example, the company's V-series washer-extractor uses an inverter-driven motor that reaches maximum extraction speed more gradually and efficiently, reducing peak electricity amperage draw compared to multi-speed motor machines, a new mechanism that reduces water consumption by up to 0.4 gallons per pound of linen washed with no compromise in wash quality.

Manufacturers of machines and chemistry alike have been hard at work engineering better methods to mitigate the spread of multi-drug resistant pathogens.

“Reducing healthcare-acquired infections is critical,” says Jeff Tinkey, vice president-soft services framework at Sodexo. The company's anti-pathogen program, for example, “used extensive chemical testing to identify the best-in-class germicidal solutions,” he adds. “We've identified each chemical's optimal effectiveness to reduce the bioload and to create the safest environment for residents and staff.”

Tinkey says facilities using their “full-scale” technology have dramatically reduced rates of healthcare-acquired infections.

Arid advice

Other recent innovations have targeted an age-old issue with small healthcare laundries typical of SNF operations — over-drying. Unimac, for example has developed so-called “over-dry prevention technologies” for tumble dryers and laundry management systems. The system “enables the operation to dry loads to a set moisture level and shut the tumble dryer off,” says Bill Brooks, North American sales manager. “It essentially eliminates over-drying, which wastes labor, and gas and degrades linen, which reduces their useful life.”

Leading machine manufacturers all claim to help facilities with compliance issues, many of which deal with sorting and segregation, as well as proper cleaning and drying temperatures. For example, UniMac's washer extractors document each cycle and highest water temperature with date and time stamps to help facilities remain compliant.

Promising new developments in information technology may soon give small nursing home laundries a valuable tool enjoyed for years by large commercial laundries: a simple and powerful tracking device called RFID tags embedded in linens that allow facilities to track the number of washing and drying cycles, as well as loss due to shrinkage. Jeremy Spradlin, CEO of Care-Serv, recently told McKnight's that laundry, security and dietary services join housekeeping as the next IT frontier because, even today, “most facilities' direct care staff don't have the technology they need, or enough of it.”

Must-have features

What facilities are looking for in their laundry equipment varies. But there are fundamentally common needs.

What most administrators seek more than anything are efficient and effective machines.

“Getting personal clothing as well as additional linen through the laundry operation is key,” says Bob Bruce, regional sales manager at Alliance Laundry Systems LLC. “It's also critical to be able to prove that the wash load hit a specific temperature to ensure the bacteria has been diminished.”

Also big on the list of “must-have” features are energy- and water-saving options.

“I would not operate a laundry without high G-force [300 G-force or higher], over-dry prevention and a laundry management system,” says Brooks. High G-force removes more water from loads and reduces drying times. Over-dry prevention takes the dry time a step further by drying to a predetermined dryness level. This takes operator error out of the equation and saves time, labor and utilities, in addition to extending linen life. Again, laundry management systems offer the laundry manager a view of all elements of the operation and help them uncover machine issues, labor inefficiencies and process breakdowns that are costing money.”

Munch emphasizes the need for linen-specific controls.

“When they're in the market for new equipment, I'd encourage people to consider what they are processing,” he says. “Nursing and assisted living facilities may also process personal items, which may need to be washed differently than towels and linens. Each manufacturer has machines that vary in how well they perform different tasks.”

Pellerin Milnor advises buyers to look for washer-extractors with large cylinders, and dryers rated at a slightly larger capacity than the washer-extractor, in order to provide faster drying times and less wrinkling, especially for non-cotton fabrics.

Why buy now?

Even if existing equipment has some life left, it may behoove you to consider taking the plunge now.

One compelling reason comes from the recently passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which allows facilities to fully depreciate their laundry equipment purchases, according to Munch. The law, which applies to purchases through 2022, could incite owner-operators to make what some would call a wise financial decision. Of course, Munch strongly advises anyone in the market to seek the counsel of their accountants before making this type of decision.

Brooks says the urgency to act “now rather than waiting is quite simply savings. If you have old, inefficient equipment and processes, this combination is costing you money,” he notes. “Those are real dollars and money you cannot recoup. The other part of the equation is that without a laundry management system monitoring operations, managers do not have the data to effectively adapt processes. You can't manage what you can't measure.”

Some stakeholders say there has been a noticeable increase in skilled nursing facilities bringing laundry operations back in house — presumably to save money and gain better control over the quality of their cleaning processes and integrity of the linens they provide residents.

“Residents want clean, quality linen delivered on time,” Munch says. “An on-premises laundry gives the operator full control of the linen and the amount of inventory they have on hand to meet their residents' expectations.”

“On-premises laundries are a big deal,” adds Brooks. “There's a reason that facilities hire their own nursing and care staff and devote resources to training. It's about quality and ensuring that quality service is always delivered to residents.

“The same is true of the laundry. Processing laundry in-house not only is less costly than outsourcing, but perhaps more importantly, nobody will be more focused on the quality of finished linens than in-house staff.”