Less is More: The Greening of an Industry

By Bob Nieman, CLA Member posted 01-29-2015 11:28


think green

Originally posted - Jun 26, 2014

Morgan Gary recently received an MBA in sustainable business.

Not coincidentally, she also just opened her very own sustainable business – Spin Laundry Lounge, which is described as an eco-friendly laundromat within a “retro-mod” café and bar environment in Portland, Ore.

“It was very important for me that Spin was as environmentally conscious and socially responsible as possible, because my business decisions have a direct effect on the world we live in,” Gary said. “By equipping my store with high G-force machines, I allow our customers the ability to drastically reduce their own personal water and energy consumption, which I believe can make a large impact. It’s also very important that we sell only eco-friendly soaps, since many conventional detergents are petroleum-based and can cause extreme environmental damage to rivers and aquatic life, as well as release chemicals and toxins into our bodies after being absorbed into the clothing we wear.”

Gary is certainly not the first and far from the only self-service laundry owner to show concern for our natural resources. However, the industry’s concern for the planet is not – and probably never was – completely altruistic.

After all, store owners are in business, first and foremost, to make money – and they make that money, essentially, by “vending” water, electricity and natural gas to their customers. As a result, utilities comprise the single greatest expense in the operation of a self-service laundry. So who’s going to care more about energy efficiency and protecting our Earth’s natural resources that a laundromat operator?

In fact, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, all small-business owners in the United States spend more than $60 billion a year on their utility bills. And with electricity and natural gas prices expected to increase by approximately 2 percent and 12 percent, respectively, this year alone, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, those expenses are going to grow.

Given the high costs of energy, it should come as no surprise that small-business owners – especially laundry operators – are big fans of energy efficiency. Recently, the National Federation of Independent Business released its Small Business Problems & Priorities report, which found that 17 percent of business owners find electricity costs to be a critical problem – with other energy costs, including the cost of natural gas, propane, gasoline, diesel and fuel oil, being the third most serious problem for small-business owners, with 35 percent saying the problem is critical.

What’s more, according to the U.S. EIA, the price of oil – including crude oil, gasoline, diesel and heating oil – is expected to fall in 2014 and 2015, while the prices of natural gas and electricity are expected to go up.

“Energy costs are going to be relatively high,” explained NFIB Chief Economist Dr. Bill Dunkelberg. “Governments of all sizes are short on revenue and have deficits, and they’re looking for ways to tax.”

So, whatever the motivation – a desire to leave a healthy planet for generations to come… a cold, calculating look at the bottom line… or (most likely) a combination of the two – it just makes sense for laundry owners to be mindful of the environment.

“Everything you can do to decrease the number of dimes you send out the door helps your profit margin,” said Andrea Nocito, a sustainability consultant and owner of EcoStrategies, a firm in San Antonio that helps small businesses lower their operating costs via energy efficiency. “For some businesses, that’s an opportunity to stay in the black.”

What does it actually mean to be a “green laundry” today?

“It means doing everything possible to address all of the environmental and social aspects of the laundry industry, as well as being transparent about what you are actually doing to be green,” Gary explained. “This includes reducing utility and water use and waste; limiting toxins and chemicals that make their way onto our clothing and into the water system; and helping the community thrive by creating lasting partnerships with local neighbors, schools and businesses.”

Massachusetts laundry owner and the chairman of the Coin Laundry Association’s “Shades of Green” Committee Jim Whitmore offered a similar definition.

“Operating a green laundry means being the best steward of natural resources and the environment as possible with current technology – using the least water, electricity and gas to wash, and the least gas and electricity to dry,” he said. “It means managing in-store waste streams to maximize recycling, encouraging the use of plant-based cleaning agents in washing and store cleaning, and having the most up-to-date lighting inside and out.

“Laundry production requires the use of a lot of utilities,” he added. “We are big consumers… and polluters. I feel it’s important to do my best to minimize our impact ‘footprint.’ It’s also imperative to be current and relevant in the marketplace, to be a leader or at minimum keep pace with global trending.”

For Louise Mann, who owns three Wash Day Laundry facilities in the Austin, Texas, area, she believes it’s important to support any initiatives that define her marketplace.

“Because we are in a city that actively practices sustainability, we have support, recognition and customer interest,” Mann noted. “In our view, it is also a responsible business practice. Texas continues to be drought-stricken, so we are continually reminded of the importance of conserving water.”

And, during times of resource allocation or rationing, those green initiatives may help guarantee your store’s continuity, according to Ted Ristaino of Yankee Equipment in Barrington, N.H.

“Owners can deal with increased costs, but what if water or energy is rationed at some point?” Ristaino asked. “California is in the midst of a severe drought. If water is rationed, those who use less are in a better position to survive than those who use more.”

Of course, even small initiatives can have a large impact.

“Energy efficiency is typically the quickest and easiest way to make an environmental difference in your business, and it is also the most cost-effective,” Nocito said. “It gives the biggest bang for your buck.”

Best Practices

Going green for more profit at your laundry doesn’t necessarily mandate an equipment overhaul. First, gain energy efficiency and reduced utility consumption from the little things, like scheduled preventative maintenance and equipment installation improvements.

Consistent maintenance according to a regimented schedule is the key to the safe and efficient operation of every piece of equipment at a self-service laundry – from water heaters, washers and air conditioning/heating systems, to dryers. Ensure that you follow manufacturers’ recommendations found in the back of almost every installation manual for regular preventative maintenance. Regularly maintain or replace filters, and thoroughly clean dryer lint screens, blower fan blades, air intake louvers/screens and burner manifolds. Check belt tensioning, inspect water valve and drain devices for slow leaks, and pay attention to vent system clean-outs and main manifold trunks.

Often, the reason regular equipment maintenance is not performed is because equipment hasn’t been installed to allow easy access or visibility of many of these items. If equipment is hard to access for maintenance, that maintenance is often ignored. When it is ignored or delayed, a laundry will waste gas, water and electricity – and in the end – pay considerably more for utilities that could have been saved as profit.

Simple changes, including removable bulkhead covers and lighting behind dryers, make the task easier and more conducive to frequent visits. Also, ensure dryers get adequate combustion air from the outside, not from the inside of your store. If there isn’t enough intake air available based on dryer combustion air requirements, increase it. If intake inlets are clogged with lint from years of neglect, start a regular cleaning routine. When there is inadequate combustion intake air, dryers will suck in the (heated or cooled) air from the inside of your store. In this case, the dryers use the air reserved for your customer’s comfort – air you’ve already paid to condition to either be cooler or warmer, depending on the time of year. That wastes loads of energy.

Similarly, air conditioning units should have air intakes well away from dryer vent outlets; and don’t forget to consider prevailing wind. Be sure all intakes are free of lint. If screens are clogged, equipment doesn’t operate as efficiently and you lose money. While you are reviewing the inlet and outlet mechanics of your store, also ensure your dryers’ vent outlets have no screens or caps that may restrict airflow. A simple “gooseneck” with the proper clearance from the roof wall or ground will allow a free flow of outlet air. If this isn’t the case, consider reconfiguring your venting system. If venting cannot be adjusted, look for ways to shield air intakes from blowing lint and increase your cleaning frequency. You will notice the improvement with your bills and your customers will notice that the dryers work better.

Of course, although preventative maintenance and proper installation of equipment are important to drive down utility costs, nothing impacts a laundry’s utility bill more than its equipment – washers, dryers, water heaters and HVAC systems. So, if you are replacing old equipment, ensure you install new, properly sized, energy-efficient replacements. If you are just entering the self-service laundry market, be careful to understand how laundry equipment differs; where equipment saves water, electricity and gas; and how equipment can boost profitability.

“Manufacturers are constantly striving to improve the energy efficiency of their equipment and, for us, this means continually updating our stores with newer, more efficient washers and dryers,” said John Stuckey of J.H. Stuckey Distributing, who owns three Washworld laundries in and around Omaha, Neb. “Older washers – those more than seven years old – can use up to twice as much water as newer ones, and older washers and dryers can use up to 30 percent more electricity and gas. Not only is this a financial burden to the store owner, it means resources are being unnecessarily tapped.

“We install only high-efficiency, large-capacity soft-mount washers in our stores,” he continued. “In addition to remarkable water savings, these washers are able to reach high extract speeds, which allow significantly more water to be removed from the items before drying. And this means far less time is spent in the dryers, which reduces our natural gas usage, as well as ‘wear and tear’ on customers’ clothing.”

Lighting is another area that should never be overlooked. Not surprisingly, lighting systems are responsible for large percentage of the electricity costs in typical commercial buildings – and self-service laundries are no exception.

“In addition to making sure you have energy-efficient lighting, store owners should install motion-sensor lighting in any area not occupied at all times, such as restrooms, offices, behind the dryers, storage rooms and so on,” Stuckey suggested. “This ensures that lights won’t remain on when unnecessary. Your employees can forget to turn off the lights more often than not. In any store, unnecessary light usage can add up quickly in both higher electrical costs and replacement costs.”

Beyond the Basics

After you’ve done the basics – updated your store’s equipment, set up an aggressive maintenance schedule and modernized your lighting – what’s next? What’s beyond that “low-hanging fruit,” so to speak?

For Whitmore, he suggested laundry owners investigate on-demand water heating, residual moisture-sensing dryers, insulated dryer cabinets with individually controlled makeup air to each dryer, and ozone technology.

“Ozone is interesting not only for its cleaning properties, but also the reduction in hot water requirements, and decreased use of polluting detergents and softeners,” he explained.

“Adding ozone to our water allows us to use lower temperatures, while ensuring an even better cleaning capacity,” Stuckey said. “This saves on utility bills and also reduces the wear on fabrics so that our customers’ items last longer. It also allows us to reduce chemical usage, as less detergent is needed with the infusion of ozone.”

Mann suggested a number of areas in which laundry owners can up their environmental game:

• Consider replacing old water heaters with right-sized, more efficient models.
• Set store thermostats to save on utilities.
• Install ceiling fans.
• Ask customers to recycle hangers and magazines.
• Have window film and blinds installed to keep out the heat.
• Consider solar panels.
• Provide recycle bins in your stores.
• Use low-VOC paint when renovating or touching up your store.
• Place your customer's wash-dry-fold orders in reusable bags, rather than plastic bags.
• Increase SEER efficiency in your air conditioning system.
• Keep an eye on utility bills. Determine what percentage of your gross income is a reasonable target for water, gas and electricity. If that target is exceeded in any month, look at your thermostats.

“We purchase our detergent in large quantities,” Mann added. “And, when a customer needs detergent, we use a measuring cup to add it to their wash, rather than purchasing individually packaged detergents. We also encourage customers to wash in cold or warm water.

She also finds it helpful to take an inventory of the smaller items – minimizing printing, setting computers on sleep mode, recycling printer paper, cutting up paper that has only been used on one side and using the other side for note paper, unplugging cords and turning out lights.

“It's amazing how many small items contribute to large waste,” she marveled. “Also, look into rebates that may be offered through your city. There is often a good financial incentive to upgrade to more energy-efficiency equipment.”

At the Spin Laundry Lounge, everything has been designed with the environment and the community in mind, according to Gary. Here is some of what she offers:

• Only environmentally friendly laundry products, free of harsh chemicals and fragrances.
• Eco laundry accessories like dryer balls, versus dryer sheets.
• Clothing donations. Spin washes and donates unwanted clothing to local area shelters and non-profit groups.
• Energy-efficient kitchen appliances.
• Local, organic, vegan and gluten-free food and drinks.
• Compostable to-go containers, cups, cutlery, bags and paper products.
• A minimal waste/recycling model.
• Environmentally friendly cleaners, with no toxic chemicals or irritants.
• Low-flow sinks and toilets.
• Reuse of lint by partnering with local artists.
• The promotion of line drying, especially during sunny summer days.
• Buying soap in bulk (not using vending machine) to cut down on packaging waste.
• Using and selling powdered detergent, rather than liquid detergent, which are heavier and more expensive to ship.
• Recycling clothes that are too worn to be donated. Clothing fibers, as well as zippers and buttons, all can be recycled.

In addition, Gary explained that her store’s attendants play a key role in her business’ green mission.

“They focus on educating customers about our green initiatives and why these initiatives and sustainable practices are important,” she noted. “It’s great to share with customers why doing laundry at Spin is not only the best option for them and their wallet, but the best option for the environment.”

Down the road, Ristaino sees water reclamation and dryer heat exchange as two technologies with possibly huge upsides for laundromats of the future.

“Water reuse is on owner's minds,” he said. “It works in large commercial enterprises but hasn’t been made financially viable for retail, self-service laundries yet. However, at some point, some company will figure it out.

“As for dryers, they still emit a lot of heat up the vents. No efficient method to capture most of it has been successfully introduced yet. Some type of heat exchange system for either preheating incoming water or other use may be in the future. As with water reuse, heat exchange systems have worked well in large commercial settings but not in the self-service laundry setting yet.”

Marketing Your Green Laundry

Of course, to truly maximize your store’s green initiatives, it’s important to also promote to your customers the fact that you’ve incorporated these initiatives into your business plan – and to actively market the positive steps you’re taking to conserve our natural resources, reduce your business’ environmental footprint and be a better neighbor within the community you serve.

“I believe the appetite for green stores varies with demographics,” Whitmore surmised. “Students are typically more responsive than others. Areas that were hotbeds of the green movement during the ’70s are more responsive. And, in my area, people respond well. The CLA will be offering green marketing mailers and door hangers this fall – and I plan to use them.”

“Our mission is to be environmentally responsible and an asset to the community,” Mann said. “We use this phrase when we talk about our business to customers and the community. We also are gold members of the City of Austin's Green Business Leaders program – so we receive recognition and ongoing tips and ideas from the Office of Sustainability.

Mann also asks her business’ more than 800 Facebook followers to bring in old hangers and to donate used magazines to her stores.

“We continually remind customers that ‘less is more,’ as our attendants explain how to use our equipment,” she said.

Surprisingly, Gary has decided not to include “eco” or “green” in the name of her business.

“This was a deliberate choice,” she said. “So many businesses are calling themselves green just by adding it into their names – even when they’re not truly sustainable.”

Instead, she has focused on a three-pronged marketing attack: (1) social media – interacting with other like-minded people and businesses; (2) a local coupon book, which features coupons from Spin and other sustainable businesses in the Portland area; and (3) creating lasting partnerships and relationships with other local, sustainable businesses in the neighborhood – and cross-marketing with many of the area green shops and restaurants.

“I also want to share with the community exactly what we are doing to be green,” Gary said. “I am working on publishing an annual Sustainability Report to give the public a transparent glimpse of our sustainable practices, efforts to reduce our overall footprint, and the ways we’re giving back to the environment and our community. While we can’t do everything, we sure try! The Sustainability Report is a way we can show what areas we are still working on and what areas we are actively improving.”

‘A Lifestyle, Not a Trend’

Can today’s laundry owners expect to maximize their profits and enjoy long-term success without going green?

“Green is synonymous with efficient,” Whitmore reasoned. “Why would you want to be anything less? If you can attract the 3 percent, 7 percent or 15 percent of customers in your area that care about the environment, every dollar added to the top line after breakeven is 80 percent profit. That works for me.”

“First, determine how committed you are to the green cause,” Ristaino advised. “Is your decision driven by economics, marketing or concern for the environment? How much time, effort and money you will devote to greening your store will be driven by how you answer that question.”

Mann suggested laundry owners make a list of the eco-friendly actions they wish to take, along with the timeframe in which they want those actions completed.

“This should be a brainstorming list at first,” she said. “Don’t worry about cost at this point. Next, calculate the cost, and then calculate your ROI. Then, prioritize the actions as is financially feasible.”

“Being ‘green’ is important, but you don’t have to tackle it all at once,” Gary agreed. “I recommend picking a few things to change right away, making a list of green practices you’d like to initiate in the next few months, and some large plans you’d like to accomplish in the next few years. I have implemented most of my green initiatives, but the larger projects like solar panels and a water recycling system are still on my radar to add in the next few years. By splitting it all up, it makes taking the first step to go green much more manageable and attainable.

“Being green is a lifestyle, not a trend.”

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