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The laundry room: Room for savings?

October 24, 2012
by Gina LaVecchia Ragone
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Operators of long-term care facilities looking to save money ought to make sure that excess dollars are not being sent down their laundry room drains. Laundry operations incur many expenses—labor, equipment, chemicals, water, gas and electricity, and there are many ways to reduce these costs. Even administrators who rent linens or rely on a contractor to do their laundry can find ways to save.

New technologies can help operations save money in some rather unexpected and exciting ways. As with many departments in LTC facilities, labor is the greatest expense in the laundry operation, followed by utilities. It’s not surprising, therefore, that advances in technology have been geared toward reducing the time, water and energy used in a laundry operation.

Innovations such as powerful extractors and dryers with moisture sensors can reduce labor and utility costs dramatically. However, due largely to their higher price tags, only about half of LTC facilities utilize such equipment. While it is true that time- and energy-saving upgrades can add up to $2,000 to the cost of a new washer or dryer, they tend to pay off in the long run.

Good extractors, for example, are particularly helpful in reducing drying time. A high G-force extractor (versus the low- to mid-force extractors commonly found in long-term care) reduces the drying time of an average load by 10 minutes, allowing operators to reduce hours and improve efficiency. What’s more, this reduction in drying time saves an average of $2,000 in natural gas costs per washer/dryer set. Healthcare laundry expert Bill Smith, director of operations, South Central Region, Aramark, says, “High-tech [equipment] is a good investment. A 600-rpm (revolutions per minute) machine will have 40 percent moisture retention, and an extra 200 rpm’s will save even more. You will pull more electricity, but the cost is offset in gas savings.”

The newest washing equipment can also help LTC facilities save water. LTC operators know that a typical load of laundry in healthcare requires about seven fills. However, some newer machines offer a spray rinse option for the final rinse cycle. Like a shower versus a bath, a spray rinse reduces water usage by 11 percent per cycle, claims Bill Brooks, North American sales manager, UniMac.

Dryers equipped with moisture sensors—an upgrade that costs just a few hundred dollars—are also a big cost-saver. Relying on timers or touch almost always results in several minutes (eight, according to Brooks) of over-drying. Assuming an operation has a 75-pound dryer, eliminating those eight minutes will save nearly $900 in utility costs and nearly $5,000 in labor costs over the course of a year, says Brooks.

Aramark's Smith says, “Moisture sensors in dryers are great. There is the energy component, of course, but also, there is less damage to garments and linens if over-drying is eliminated.”

High-tech controls on washers and dryers can also help reduce laundry costs. The newest equipment records data and creates reports so managers can operate their washers and dryers as efficiently as possible. Such machinery shares data via an infrared scanner and comes with PC software to show information such as utility usages, water temperatures, load times, even the size of a load.  

Smith says, “There are some very good new technologies, but there’s also a lot of puffery. You need to ask yourself if there is a real value to your operation or not, and demand data from the vendor.”

Finally, laundry managers can save their operations thousands of dollars through routine maintenance. You’ve heard it before but it bears repeating. Obstructed airflow means longer drying times, so empty lint screens on dryers (and extractors) at least once a day and clean dryer vents and ducts regularly. Thousands of dollars can be saved in washer repair if the most commonly overlooked task—bearing maintenance—is performed according to manufacturer directions.

SEND IT OUT?

When does it make sense to contract out your facility’s laundry needs? Some say the rule of thumb is: If a facility is greater than 60 beds, sending out the laundry will be more cost-effective than cleaning it in-house, but there are exceptions. Smith tells the story of a smaller operator who spent $1,800 monthly on laundry personnel costs alone (to say nothing of utilities, equipment and chemicals). Aramark was able to provide linen service for a total cost of $1,500 monthly.  Smith says having accurate numbers is essential to making a good decision. However, determining items such as benefits, gas, electricity and water (as these are not separated from the rest of the facility’s budget) might be difficult. “It requires this kind of detail if you are going to accurately figure out how much you are going to save.” Smith adds, “You have to check [a contractor’s] estimates line item by line item and examine the contractual terms. What will you be charged for lost linen, for example? This can add up to thousands of dollars.”

Rick Kislia, chief operating officer for Crescent Laundry in Davenport, Iowa, specializes in healthcare laundry contracts. “Technology allows large scale commercial laundries water and energy savings and economies of scale, so it can end up being vastly cheaper.”

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