It may be the hardest-working department that nobody sees — the laundry operation that relentlessly collects, lifts, loads, churns, spins, tumbles, sorts and folds all the fabric in the community. But because it’s in the basement or behind closed doors, it tends to go unnoticed when everything runs smoothly.

Overall, the laundry operation is the nerve center of the senior living community. So much of the material that is critical to environmental hygiene and cleanliness is collected, processed and distributed properly and professionally. Still, laundry specialists say there is more senior living operators can do to optimize process improvement, enhance throughput and increase resident satisfaction.

“Generally speaking, I think laundries in senior living facilities do a quality job and are focused on delivering the best possible results,” notes Bill Brooks, North American sales manager for UniMac. Yet at the same time, he contends that “many managers are severely handicapped by equipment and system limitations. We are all expected to do more with less these days.”

What that means, Brooks says, is that “it is incumbent upon management to employ technology and systems to increase productivity, lower operating costs and maintain high levels of quality.” This is where the new generation of laundry management systems can help, providing over-dry prevention technology, high G-Force extraction and washer-extractor programming flexibility combined to achieve better results and efficiency.

To be sure, a vast amount of technology is available to increase productivity and efficiency in laundry room operations, agrees Nathan Gaubert, manager of research and new product development for Spartan Chemical Co. — so much so, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it.

“Advances in laundry room equipment, from the machines to chemical dispensers, allow laundry room managers to track much more information about their operations than ever before,” he says. “You can monitor virtually everything that is going on with your laundry machines and the chemicals being used with the right equipment. Advances in radio frequency identification tracking can allow laundry operations to know where each piece of linen in a facility is located, when it was laundered, and even help with sorting.”

The biggest challenge to a laundry operation is providing clean, soft and fresh linen in a timely manner, Gaubert says.

“The soil loads and staining in senior living facilities can fluctuate greatly,” he says. “Some items are cleaned easily and quickly, while others are heavily soiled or stained and take a lot of effort to get clean. Proper, diligent sorting is the best way to ensure that your operation is maximizing throughput while maintaining high quality standards. Sorting items and doing necessary pre-treatments will help to prevent rewashing that decreases productivity, decreases linen life, and increases costs.”

‘At home’ feeling

Laundry operations have a direct effect on residents’ quality of life, not unlike caregiving and other support services. And the best way to contribute to that comfort and contentment is by providing residents with an “at home feeling,” Gaubert says.

“Providing your residents with soft, fresh and clean linen should be the number one job of your laundry operation, and it should show you care about their day-to-day quality of life,” he says. “No one wants to sleep on scratchy, rough sheets or eat on stained tablecloths.”

Indeed, “There’s nothing quite as pleasing as fresh, clean linens,” Brooks agrees. “In the senior living environment, this is especially true, where a freshly made bed can improve a resident’s mood.”

Similarly, quality processes in the laundry also ensure resident comfort by helping eliminate pressure ulcers – which can be caused be an inefficient rinsing that leaves chemical residue and high pH level in the linens, Brooks says.

“Having a high percentage of this condition often is a reflection of poor equipment or process breakdowns — undoubtedly contributing to a lower quality of life of these residents, he says.

When purchasing equipment, operators should consider the proper amount of throughput for their operation, determining which items are washed the most and which items are the hardest to wash. 

“You need equipment that can launder your toughest items but will not put a time burden on your operation,” Gaubert says. “The two biggest faults I see in senior living laundry operations is a lack of dryer capacity and trying to get by with household washing machines in the place of commercial or industrial-grade equipment.”

Washing residents’ personal items in a homestyle washer “is perfectly fine,” Gaubert says, but washing bed sheets, bed pads, diapers, table linens and other heavily soiled items requires an industrial-strength machine.

“For these jobs, a homestyle washer or washers, will not suffice,” he says. “The steps needed to ensure that these items are completely clean cannot be accomplished in a standard homestyle washer. Trying to adequately wash these heavily soiled items in homestyle washers often results in several rewashes, decreasing throughput, decreasing linen life and increasing costs.”

Using the right-sized dryer also is paramount for an effective, efficient laundry operation, Gaubert says.

“Undersized dryers, or even dryers that have the same rated capacity as its counterpart washer, can often take too long to dry the washed linen, creating a bottleneck in the wash process,” he says.

“Purchasing dryers that have a rated capacity 10% to 25% higher than your washers will help ensure that the drying times are the same, or ideally, shorter than your wash cycle times. This should help with throughput and prevent a bottleneck in your process,” he adds.

A programmable industrial or commercial-grade washing machine is best, Gaubert says. 

“These machines allow you to control all the variables in the laundry process to ensure that the linen comes out hygienically clean in as efficient of a cycle as possible,” he says. “This maintains or increases throughput, decreases the wear and tear of the linen, and lowers the overall cost of the load of laundry.”

UniMac’s Brooks concurs about the value of having the right equipment in laundry operations.

“Quite simply, the lowest-priced equipment often comes with the highest operating costs,” he says. “It’s important that managers understand the difference between price and cost.”

Process control

In the past, the laundry just operated with no real eye on whether it was running efficiently or even well, Brooks says.

“The only measurement was based solely on daily throughput with occasional quality reviews,” he says. “Today’s technology eliminates that data gap and gives detailed insight into operations. Some of today’s laundry management systems are able to keep managers up to date on operations virtually in real time and provide daily or weekly reports to share with management.” For senior living communities with multiple facilities, Brooks says reports can compare the facilities to identify which ones are operating well and which ones need improvement.

“It’s all about process control,” he says.