By Bob Nieman | May 09, 2012
Industry manufacturers have always faced the challenge of producing commercial equipment that would clean and dry clothes, while not breaking the bank when it came to energy and water consumption – a mandate set forth by their customer, the bottom-line-conscious laundry owner.
However, these days that push-pull between saving on water and natural gas and producing the perfectly laundered garment has been dialed up, thanks to increasingly stringent government standards created to protect the environment through energy conservation. In fact, last year, the Energy Star program for residential-sized commercial washers was revised to include the most aggressive standard to date.
At the same time, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) – a nonprofit organization that works with efficiency programs administrator members in the U.S. and Canada to promote energy-efficient products, technologies and services – changed the tier structure for this same type of product. The CEE clothes washer tier structure specifications are intended to recognize the most energy-efficient models on the market, deliver enough energy savings to justify energy-efficiency program investments (rebates), and spur the development of new and even more efficient products.
In January 2013, standards will change again. They not only will be more aggressive but will split the market into two categories: topload washers and frontload washers.
What does all of this mean for the industry’s manufacturers – and, in turn, today’s laundry owners? We posed this topic to a panel consisting of some of industry’s leading manufacturers. Our expert panel includes:
Gary Gauthier, National Sales Manager, Vended Laundries
Milnor Laundry Systems
Kevin Hietpas, Vice President of Sales and Marketing
Joel Jorgensen, Vice President of Sales and Customer Services
Jay McDonald, Vice President, Distributor Sales
Alliance Laundry Systems
Neal Milch, CEO
Tony Regan, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing
American Dryer Corp.
Kent Walters, National Sales Manager
Maytag Commercial Laundry
With regard to commercial laundry equipment for self-service laundries, how difficult has it become to strike a balance between superior energy efficiency and maximum cleaning/drying ability?
Jay McDonald: We feel that getting the optimum balance of speed and energy consumption is critical, especially during the busy weekend time periods where many owners generate 60 percent to 75 percent of their revenue. Owners need speed to maximize their turns per day and revenue, which is why they’re in business. At the same time, you want to ensure that your energy costs are kept in check. Some manufacturers put all of their focus on energy use, but the cycle time can be as much as 10 minutes longer, decreasing the amount of turns available. This is unacceptable to many customers and can cost owners lost turns per day in not only dryers, but washers, too.
Saving a few pennies of natural gas sounds good, but not if it costs the business one to three turns per day. When shopping for dryers, look not only at average cycle time, but also at factory data on the number of BTUs per pound it takes to dry the load. That's how you maximize your revenue and profit.
Joel Jorgensen: Store owners can install high-efficiency, high-speed machines that deliver a great clean. But programmability is the key to how clean laundry gets. It’s up to the store owner to set programs to fit customer needs and appropriately market and merchandise the cycle configuration to their respective customer base. The store owner needs to guide the customer to the right load capacity and program based on his or her laundry type and soil level. There are efficient machines out there, and it’s up to the owner to decide between efficiency, G-force extract speeds, options for automatic chemical injection for washers, dryer load capacity, time and performance differences in equipment.
As the industry is right now, it’s challenging. You can install high-efficiency machines that deliver a great clean, but again the programmability is the key. I don’t see a lot of stores that, for instance, offer one bulkhead that has a wash and two rinses, and another that offers a pre-wash, wash and three rinses. They keep it consistent, and they keep it at that threshold of what the consumer will accept, and that is sort of the way the industry has gone.
It is a tenuous balance, but you can invest in machines that can save you on the dry side, but then maybe you need to adjust water levels because customers tend to over-soap smaller-capacity washers, just as an example.
The industry and the market have to be driven through standards that right now aren’t acceptable. If you ask any of the reclamation companies out there, it’s not difficult technology – but it’s not commonplace in laundromats because there is not enough return for the value. You can reuse heat energy easily; we do it in industrial laundries now. The other technology is water reclamation. The problem is the consumer won’t accept somebody else’s water. And, from a technology standpoint, they’ll tell you – because there are all these different types and quantities of chemistry going into each load – they’re really challenged to properly find a filtration process that could affordably be applied to self-service laundries.
This would assist in driving down water and gas consumption. All of those efficiencies could be gained if the industry would evolve. And, someday, it may be more of a full-service type of application, like in Europe. That’s probably the evolution of our industry, more so than the consumer accepting reclamation systems and auto-injection. Perhaps the evolution will be more toward a commercial, full-service model, as opposed to the “self-service” laundry.
Tony Regan: Both are paramount. With specific regard to dryers, we focus on performance first and then find a way to make them operate more efficiently. The laundry patron doesn't really care how efficient they are, as they want get in and get out as quickly as possible. However, the laundry owner wants both.
Kent Walters: We offer the best of both worlds – maximum cleaning performance and superior energy efficiency. We’ve perfected the balance, and our lineup provides vended laundry customers energy- and water-saving equipment that promises great cleaning performance.
Our commercial laundry-testing lab positions us to stay ahead of industry technology and eco-friendly advances. Continual testing also allows us to maintain and even raise the bar for cleaning performance, ensuring that eco-efficiency and excellent “cleanability” do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Kevin Hietpas: Our industry has always been so far ahead of the curve that I think the government regulations are unnecessary. In a lot of ways, the vended laundry business is a utility reseller – it rents time on the machines and repackages utilities to allow customers to do laundry. Utilities have always been a significant operating cost, so it’s always been in every manufacturer’s interest to do as good a job as possible with as little investment in utilities as possible.
We’re green because it makes sense for our owners, and this will just continue. It’s so engrained in the thinking of manufacturers that we’re already so far down that path that the rest of the world is trying to catch up to us.
However, I think a lot of the government regulations are a little ahead of themselves. They want to use less, and the interest in using less is to a certain extent trumping the interest in doing a good job for the customer. Most of our customers really don’t care what our utility costs are. They come to us for clean clothes. You can have a really “green” laundry. But, at the end of the day, I’m not going to go back there if it doesn’t get my clothes clean.
We can use the example of the earliest versions of low-flow toilets. We saved a lot of water, but everybody flushed five times.
I’d like to see a bit more of a balance. If they’re going to set standards of usage, they should also set standards of performance. There’s no performance metric, either in washing or drying.
Neal Milch: As a practical matter, the only difficulty comes from energy-efficiency standards embraced by the government, such as Tier III CEE [Consortium for Energy Efficiency] standards. These results are ludicrously low water levels that force manufacturers to ship small washers with wash formulas that are not optimal for cleaning and detergent removal. This is another area where the government should let market forces govern, not rule-making.
Apart from government mandates, the goals are not opposing but there are diminishing returns as technical limits are approached.
What types of initiatives are currently being worked on to balance out these two factors of energy efficiency and washing/drying ability?
Tony Regan: For dryers, axial airflow was developed to deliver the same performance as older-style radial airflow. The axial airflow pattern doesn't allow as much air to "skirt" around the load. We are now seeing this taken a step further, as most manufacturers are using residual moisture control and auto dry functions. This lowers the heat when clothes are dry.
Gary Gauthier: You can only remove so much water and/or heat from laundry processes before quality suffers. Further gains in energy efficiency will be dependent upon machine design. For instance, washers with greater mechanical action will allow reduction in water use and formula times. Dryers with axial airflow and insulated doors can deliver gas savings over and above traditional designs.
Kent Walters: A number of factors play into superior cleaning/drying ability and energy efficiency, including higher washer-extractor spin speed, or G-force, which helps remove water from clothes in the washer. The more water extracted during the spin cycle, the less time and energy is needed to dry a load of laundry.
Another factor is meeting and exceeding Modified Energy Factor, or MFE, standards. MFE takes into account the energy used to run and heat the washer and run the dryer. And we’re working to meet and exceed Energy Star standards.
A final factor is decreasing the gallons of water needed per cubic foot to properly clean clothes – the lower the Water Factor, the more efficient the washer.
Joel Jorgensen: There’s an increasing push toward energy-efficiency from the Department of Energy and state agencies. You see this in some grants and awards for laundry equipment efficiency, although most are focused on and gauged toward residential laundry equipment.
Jay McDonald: We continually run a large amount of washers and tumbler dryers in our engineering labs and experiment with different ideas to gain more efficiency without adversely affecting drying time and turns per day.
Kevin Hietpas: We appreciate how competitive many areas have become. We are constantly working to develop products that will offer laundry users better performance and provide laundry owners with optimal energy efficiency. Our goal is to offer products that give stores a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining more customers.
What effect will the Department of Energy standards, such as the CEE Tier III standards, have on the industry and the equipment that’s available to laundry owners?
Neal Milch: It doesn’t affect manufacturing, per se. It’s really more programming the cycles that are embedded in the machine, not the manufactured product itself.
First of all, the Tier III requirements are so stringent that one can only program machines up to a certain size capacity that would ever qualify. So, it becomes more and more difficult for a range of model sizes to qualify.
The second thing is they compromise washability – the actual results of the consumer experience – because what is prevalent in North America is that the average customer tends to use significantly more detergent and chemicals than is required. It’s just the nature of the market, and our role is not to psychoanalyze why that is. It is what it is.
So – given that consumers tend to use habitually far more chemicals than is recommended by the washer manufacturer or, more importantly, the textile manufacturer, or even by the detergent manufacturer on their own labeling – when you don’t have an adequate number of rinses to remove chemicals and reduce the pH of the final garments coming out of the washer to a pH neutral condition, you get skin irritations and other problems because of that.
Getting back to the issue of Tier III, it can only be achieved ultimately by eliminating rinses and lowering water levels. These impair the ability of anyone’s product to remove excess chemicals. So, in the name of achieving lower energy factors and resource consumption, we increase the likelihood that the consumer is going to have adverse reactions to excess chemicals left in the garments.
There is not much a manufacturer can do about that, except make a choice between complying with Tier III and doing what’s right for the consumer and the textiles, which is to remove the chemicals and have a properly finished garment. That is the dilemma that all manufacturers face.
Jay McDonald: We think it’s being over-regulated. There is definitely a balance between washability and energy usage. We’ll continue to hit the government regulation levels as best we can, or we’ll exit the category.
The sacrifice is for the vended laundry sector is time, which is pretty significant. A lot of the frontload washers require significantly longer cycle times for washability. With residential units, often it’s not uncommon to have a cycle that’s 40 minutes to 60 minutes long, just in order to hit the standards and still provide good washability. We can still provide good washability, but it has required us to put extra cycles on machines or to add a free wash or to add an extra rinse.
Also, the government regulations are probably OK for a standard soil load. But that doesn’t apply to everybody. This may applies to 80 percent of the load; however, for the rest of the population who may get their clothes very dirty, they may find that they have to wash them twice in a conventional machine, which kind of defeats the purpose of using less water per cycle anyway.
Now, in looking purely at the commercial side of it, I think with the nature of our industry, the market dictates the energy efficiency – and we’re constantly striving to make it even better than it is, without unnecessary government regulation.
Joel Jorgensen: First of all, we still are stuck in the doldrums of residential specifications. Because of that, they take the common denominator down to per-cubic-foot. Why limit it to a cubic foot capacity?
Secondly, they have absolutely no consideration for different application uses. This is established for household washers. Again, they take this standard, delivered blindly by the DOE, in my opinion, and they apply that standard into other applications, including vended laundry.
Efficient washing and proper cleaning requires four elements: time, temperature, mechanical action and chemistry. You can’t take away one without making up more in another area. But the government keeps driving toward unrealistic numbers.
I wish the DOE make a distinction between household equipment and commercial equipment. And, if they want to apply these standards, then consider all of the different elements that come into play, like customers bringing in their own soap products. Again, the technology exists for auto injection, but the market doesn’t support it because you’ve got consumers who aren’t educated in the fact that they don’t need all of these suds in the load to make clothes clean.
In my opinion, the government’s first role is to understand the application. Number two, assist in educating the consumer, rather than driving standards that are unrealistic without education.
What's the future of energy efficiency? How low can we go without adversely affecting the equipment's ability to produce clean/dry garments?
Joel Jorgensen: Energy-efficient laundry equipment and products will continue to evolve. There’s an increasing interest in the process of renewing resources using methods such as reclamation systems for heat and water, chemistry control via automatic chemical injection, ozone, and so on. This will continue. New technologies will develop to improve efficiency, and simultaneously, deliver a more efficient clean.
Again, the government could help drive consumer education – helping the market to understand how to harness an effective balance between efficiency and getting items clean.
I know there are people on both sides of this. Some say you can talk all day about efficient laundries, but the real world is that my customer base won’t accept these low water levels and high-efficiency machines. There is a happy balance. We need to have a common understanding of what some of the established goals are, and we’re stronger together than we are independently.
Jay McDonald: Most of us have enjoyed lower natural gas costs with the economic downturn, but energy efficiency will always be a driver in the purchasing market. One way to consume less energy in the dryer is by using a faster or longer spin in the washer to extract more water. You can maximize dryer energy efficiency by turning off the heat, but you sacrifice turns per day, which affects revenue and is not a realistic business option. For our industry, we want to maximize profitability and you do that with the best balance of speed and utility usage.
Kevin Hietpas: We see product innovation as a never-ending process. Sometimes improvements in efficiency or performance will come in small increments and sometimes in significant breakthroughs, but the search for the next great idea is part of what makes our industry exciting and challenging.
Tony Regan: Again, for dryers, the answer really goes back to how much can we reduce the gas consumption without affecting performance. Even a slight drop off in dry times will potentially have a negative effect on the customer's experience in the laundry.
Kent Walters: The future of energy efficiency is open. The Department of Energy continues to set higher standards, and we continue to meet and exceed them. Energy-efficiency is not a trend, it’s a necessity – and the need for energy-efficient equipment will continue to be a focus as natural-resource depletion remains a pertinent topic. It is also one of the few controllable overhead expenses, and it directly affects the bottom line – the profit an owner takes home.
With regard to the increasingly aggressive government standards, are we reaching a breaking point?
Jay McDonald: We think we’re at the edge.
Kevin Hietpas: Every time you think you’re there, somebody comes up with a breakthrough. There are certainly going to be new technological developments that are going to allow us to continue to do more with less, which is good and bad. It’s great to have access to what the new technology will deliver, but ours as an industry is a pretty basic one – and our owners own a fleet of equipment. The one thing they don’t want to do is a lot of maintenance. There is a balance – it can be technologically advanced, but it better be reliable, too. Any technology in its infancy is not necessarily the most reliable.
Above all, I think the one thing you want to make sure doesn’t get lost is the impact on the customer. At the end of the day, the customer has the ultimate choice in where he wants to go. You can have the most efficient place on earth, but if the product you’re delivering isn’t what the customer wants, he’s going to go to the older, less-efficient place.
We’ve got to find ways to maintain or improve performance while improving efficiency. The customer, the ultimate laundry user, doesn’t want to go backward on performance. I can sell you the most efficient dryer you’d ever want, it doesn’t use any gas at all – and it looks like a clothes line. But I don’t think customers will come into your store and want to hang up their clothes. So, somewhere between a clothes line and a blow torch is what the customer finds acceptable for a dryer.
Neal Milch: I think we’ve already reached that point because, in the quest to comply with Tier III regulations, water levels have been reduced to the point where the consumer objects, saying “I’m paying money for this wash cycle, and you, Mr. Store Owner, are not giving me what I’ve paid for. I want to see a lot of water, and I want to see a lot of bubbles. And if you’re not giving me a lot of water and a lot of bubbles, I’m not happy.”
Of course, the store owner counters by saying he’s trying to be environmentally responsible. And the manufacturers are trying to be responsive to all of these conflicting demands. What do you do?