November 18, 2010

Dry Cleaning

The drycleaning process uses solvents to remove soil and stains from fabric. The term “drycleaning” is in reference to the solvent which contains little or no water and does not penetrate the fibers as water does; the term itself can be somewhat misleading because the overall process is not dry.

Among the advantages of drycleaning is the ability to dissolve grease and oil that water cannot. Natural fibers such as wool and silks dryclean beautifully, but can shrink, distort or lose color when washed in water. Synthetic fibers such as polyester also respond well to drycleaning, whereas traditional washing can retain oil stains. Drycleaning helps to restore garments to “like new” condition using precautions to prevent shrinkage, loss of color, and fabric distortion. A professional drycleaner needs to study the clothing industry to keep up on fashion trends that may require greater cleaning care.

The drycleaning process begins with the sorting and inspection of the garments to be cleaned. Sorting is done by fabric colors (light and dark) as well as fabric type and items with spots or stains are set aside for pretreatments using special cleaning agents. It takes training and experience to know how each spotting agent will react to stains and also the fabrics they are used on. Garments are then loaded into a front-loading cleaning machine. The garments are cleaned and dried through the course of the cycle and the solvent is filtered and distilled during and after each cycle so that each load is processed with clean solvent.

The drycleaning process and the solvents used have evolved over the years. Today, the solvent used by 75-85% of all drycleaners is perchlorethylene, commonly known as perc. Perc’s popularity is due to the fact that it is an aggressive cleaning agent, completely non-combustible, and can be effectively reused and recycled. More and more, drycleaners are moving away from per due to environmental concerns and state regulations. Some cleaners are voluntarily switching in order to market themselves as “greener cleaners” and others are being forced to switch by landlords concerned over the contamination of their properties. Perc is heavier then water, so if a spill occurs, it leaches into the ground (even through concrete) contaminating the soil and potentially ground water.

Alternative Solvents
What makes alternative solvents more environmentally friendly is that they are lighter than water so if a spill occurs, the solvent will “float” on the surface and evaporate before the ground becomes contaminated. Petroleum and synthetic petroleum-based solvents are becoming the first choice for drycleaners looking for alternative solvents. Other alternative solvents include silicon-based GreenEarth and liquid carbon dioxide (CO2). Alternative solvents tend to be less aggressive a cleaner than perc, so greater attention to pre-spotting is necessary. Alternative solvents are actually gentler on delicate trims on some garments and lessen the possibility of color bleed.

Just about every garment that can be dry cleaned can be processed by wetcleaning. Professional wetcleaning is a safe, energy-efficient method of cleaning “Dry Clean Only” clothes using water as a solvent (rather than chemicals) with a combination of special soaps and conditioners. Sorting by color and fabric type, inspecting and pre-spotting is probably more important than with drycleaning. The key to successful wetcleaning lies in knowing the pH level of the stain and treating it accordingly. Water-based stains, which make up the majority of the stains cleaners see, generally come out with the standard wetcleaning process. The remaining stains are oil-based and can be removed using specialized water-based pre-spotting solutions.

When you have your garments professionally wetcleaned, they are laundered in a computer-controlled washer and dried in a humidity controlled dryer. These special machines can be programmed for variables such as time, temperature, mechanical action and which and how much cleaning and conditioning chemicals are used. The wetcleaning equipment must have controls that allow cleaners to tailor the wash and dry cycles according to the type of fabric. The washer and dryer are separate but equal partners in the process. While clothes can be damaged if not properly washed more damage to clothing happens in the dryer. Controlled temperature and moisture content will make finishing the garments to a “like new” look simpler and less time consuming. Cleaners well-versed in proper wetcleaning techniques can easily exceed their customer’s expectations.

Whether the garments are cleaned in a dry cleaning machine or a wetcleaning machine, they are going to need to be finished. “Finishing” is done with hot head or steam presses, tensioning equipment, form finishers, automated buck units, steam tunnels, puff irons or hand irons. Visit our drycleaning equipment page for more information on the options available.

Finishing is the last but still a very important piece of the puzzle to return your customers clothes to the “like new” condition. It’s the first thing the customer notices when they pick up their order. This is the most labor intensive part of the business and requires some skill. Just as cleaning methods have evolved over the years, so have the methods of finishing. A basic pressing bay consisting of a utility press, form finisher, puff iron and hand iron can finish just about everything that comes through the door. However, using specialized finishing equipment will increase the quality of the finished goods and greatly increase production. Increased quality = more customers and increased production = higher profits.

After cleaning and finishing, everything needs to be matched either physically or with automation. Automated systems are best suited for large facilities where the piece count makes physical matching too labor-intensive. After bagging everything is either going to be stored long term, short term or will be delivered. Long term storage can be accomplished with standard floor conveyors, up & down conveyors, double deck conveyors or custom shaped conveyors. Short term storage is also done with conveyor systems but also can be done with rail systems and mobile racks.