Nationwide, a number of professional cleaners have completely and successfully converted from using traditional drycleaning methods to using modern wetcleaning methods. A much larger group have found that wetcleaning, in combination with drycleaning, is more efficient and economical to implement. These shops utilize either a perc or petroleum machine along with wetcleaning equipment, or send their non-wetcleaned items off-site to either another company-owned shop or to a wholesaler. Each individual shop owner must evaluate his or her operational and financial issues to determine the level of wetcleaning that is most appropriate. By offering some degree of wetcleaning, the professional cleaner is able to provide more cleaning options, adjust their operations to the greatest cost efficiency, and contribute to a cleaner environment.
The effectiveness of wetcleaning is a much debated question in the professional cleaning industry. Studies indicate, however, that wetcleaning usually performs as well as drycleaning or better for some garments. A study, conducted in 1997 by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), estimates that the percentage of garments that can be wetcleaned using state-of-the-art wetcleaning technologies ranges from 30 percent to 100 percent of all garments that are typically drycleaned. The percentage varies according to geographic location, customer type, and operator. Moreover, in 1998, the International Fabricare Institute (IFI) stated that most garment care establishments-using their existing equipment and procedures-can wetclean from 30 to 40 percent of all customers' garments with minimal difficulty. IFI further stated that 60 to 80 percent of all customers' garments can be wetcleaned using specialized equipment, specialized detergents, and trained and skilled labor.
One aspect of wetcleaning, generally agreed upon, is that the relative proportion of garments that can be successfully wetcleaned is increasing over time as professional cleaners gain experience with this new technology. Future studies and changes in care labels will help determine the percentage of clothes that can be routinely wetcleaned. On a nationwide basis, wetcleaning is not a complete replacement for drycleaning processes at this time. At present, drycleaning in perc remains the most widely-used method of large-scale garment cleaning. However, a number of professional cleaners have found that they can clean up to 100 percent of all garments (that used to be drycleaned) using automated, state-of-the-art wetcleaning techniques and adequately trained personnel.
Garments cleaned by traditional drycleaning methods are not subjected to the same conditions as those garments that are immersed and agitated in water. Although modern wetcleaning machines have eliminated most of the problems that can stem from immersion in water, certain fabrics can shrink, certain dyes can bleed, and fabric texture can be altered just as they can in traditional solvents; neither method is perfect. The primary difference between the two technologies is that drycleaning relies on solvents such as perc and specialized detergents to clean clothes, while wetcleaning uses water and environmentally-preferable detergents that present less risk to human health and the environment than do perc and other traditional solvents.
Customer Acceptance and Satisfaction
Consumer demand for environmentally-preferable cleaning methods is on the rise. This increase is evidenced by the rising number of facilities offering wetcleaning services, the growing number of wetcleaning machines sold during the past several years, and the growing number of new wetcleaning products on the market.
Several studies have addressed consumer attitudes towards wetcleaning. In a 1996 study, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) found that 83 percent of customers reacted very positively or somewhat positively upon hearing about wetcleaning and that 87 percent rated the quality of the process as good or excellent. The UCLA study reveals that more than 91 percent of customers found wetcleaning to produce excellent or good cleaning results.
As public concern regarding exposures to traditional drycleaning solvents continues to grow, customers will see cleaners who offer wetcleaning as responsible businesses that are concerned about the environment. Several states now offer pollution prevention recognition programs that in part help to promote cleaners who wetclean. Various states are also developing professional wetcleaning certification programs and other incentives for cleaners to adopt environmentally-preferable processes.
Environmental, Safety, and Health Impacts
The EPA Cleaner Technologies Substitutes Assessment for Professional Fabricare Processes, published in June of 1998, concludes that the environmental, safety, and health impacts associated with modern machine wetcleaning are less than those associated with traditional drycleaning solvents. Wetcleaning chemicals are biodegradable and generally benign. As a basis of comparison, the impacts associated with wetcleaning are essentially identical to the environmental, health, and safety impacts associated with laundering.
The cleaning agents in wetcleaning wastewater--if left untreated and discharged directly into a waste, river, or stream--could pose risks to aquatic life. However, wetcleaning wastewater is normally discharged into a public sewer system and treated at the local wastewater treatment facility in accordance with water quality standards established under the Federal Clean Water Act. Under these normal circumstances, risks to aquatic life are minimized.
The wetcleaning process does not generate hazardous waste, air emissions, greenhouse gases, or ozone depleting substances; therefore, compliance with Federal and state hazardous waste regulations is eliminated. As a result, the environmental regulatory burden associated with wetcleaning is much less than the regulatory burden associated with the use of other traditional drycleaning solvents.
Potential human health and safety impacts are limited to minor skin and eye irritation should excess contact occur. Skin and eye exposure to cleaning agents can be eliminated or minimized through adherence to proper operational procedures.
The volume of water used for wetcleaning is greater than that required for traditional drycleaning processes. Wetcleaning consumes from two to six gallons of water per pound of clothes cleaned. Advances in wetcleaning machine technology, such as washers with water reuse tanks, are expected to result in even lesser amounts of water consumption. In general, wetcleaning machines use less water per gallon than conventional laundry equipment.
Several studies have examined water and energy consumption associated with wetcleaning. The most comprehensive study, conducted by UCLA, found that wetcleaning has only a minor impact on water use and that it uses slightly less electricity and slightly more natural gas than drycleaning.
Capital and Operating Costs
Capital and operating costs associated with wetcleaning vary by establishment due to differences in operations, such as daily cleaning load. The costs for modern wetcleaning machines range from approximately $12,000 to $37,000 for a washer and dryer (30 to 50 pound capacity). In comparison, the costs for a perc washer/dryer of comparable capacity range from approximately $32,000 to $47,000 and the costs for a comparable petroleum machine range from approximately $35,000 to $52,000.
In 1999, CNT reported that specialized finishing (tensioning) equipment is increasingly recognized as an essential component of the wetcleaning process. Finishing equipment is not necessary if the cleaner has well-trained hand-finishing personnel. In addition, some manufacturers claim that traditional drycleaning pressing equipment works satisfactorily on wetcleaned garments. However, an investment in specialized wetcleaning finishing equipment will reduce labor costs associated with the finishing process. There are two basic types of wetcleaning finishing equipment, form finishers and pants toppers. The costs of each of the two equipment types range from approximately $6,000 to $12,000. This price range is comparable to that of traditional drycleaning pressing equipment.
Staff training represents an additional cost which can vary significantly depending upon several factors, such as whether the equipment manufacturer provides training and whether training is conducted in-shop or off-site.