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The Art & Science Of Linen Handling - More To Consider Than One Might Think

Linen handling is a subject that frequently comes up in healthcare applications, and even on occasion in the hospitality industry. Managers and department heads often depend on the chemical supplier for answers, even when it may be outside their area of expertise.

Tim W. Laughlin, my colleague and Technical Services Manager for Sunburst Chemicals, has researched the linen handling process and put together a collection of valuable information for linen managers, as well as the employees who handle and distribute those linens. This article is a summation of his efforts.
Handling laundry at home is far different than handling it in a professional laundry setting. There is a right way and a wrong way to process and handle linens in hotels and other industrial laundering applications. This article will provide time-tested and field-proven procedures for problem-free linen handling and washing.

Soiled Linen Handling
Does your housekeeping team have procedures in place for handling soiled laundry and dirty linens? Do the procedures provide maximum linen life while reducing the risk of spreading germs, bacteria and other contaminants? In other words, are they the right procedures?

Collecting Soiled Linen
Removing soiled linens should be performed with as little agitation as possible, with sheets rolled from the corners and other miscellaneous soiled items wrapped in the bundle. These linens should never be sorted in patient rooms or hallways, or used for any room cleaning procedures such as wiping down a sink or counter top.

Once removed, all soiled items should be placed in a lined, cleanable container or cart that is outfitted with a cover for storage in a designated soiled utility area.

Transporting Soiled Linen
Does your operation use one cart or two? Mixing heavily soiled items with lightly soiled items will add to the overall costs laundry operation because in such instances all of the items should be washed with a heavy-soil formula. For that reason alone it makes sense to have two carts – one for heavily soiled linens, and another for lightly soiled linens.

One should also consider sorting separately the towels used for cleaning by the housekeeping team, as they often develop stains that are not easily removed. Dirty and damaged carts should be avoided so as not to expose housekeeping personnel to potential hazards, and to reduce as much as possible extra wear and soiling of linens.

Sorting Soiled Linen
First, laundry washing personnel should consistently wash their hands after handling soiled linen to prevent spread or cross-contamination.

The second point to note is soil classification - the process whereby incoming garments are sorted according to specific laundering needs. This is the first step in preparing garments for specific laundering processes. Note that even though this step is known generally as soil classification or soil sorting, not all classifications are related to soil. The general criteria used for sorting is Soil and Fabric.

Sorting by Soils
Linens need to be sorted by type and degree of soil. Without good sorting procedures, all the formulas would need to be designed for the heaviest soils encountered. Lightly soiled items would be over processed, wasting machine time and energy as well as increasing operation costs that include chemicals, utilities and labor. Soil Classifications are normally defined by wash formulas designated by the Laundry Supervisor and Laundry Chemical Technician.

Sorting by Fabric Type
Fabric classifications include fiber content, weave and color. Manufacturer’s washing procedures should be followed when washing linens with different fiber content. Examples of fabric classifications would include colors, spreads and blankets, sheets, terry, etc.

Efficient washing operations will have documented procedures in place for proper loading, wash steps, basic cleaning requirements and finishing.

Proper Loading Procedures
Following proper loading procedures is important in maintaining the cost and quality of laundry operations. The following sections discuss the perils of overloading and underloading followed by guidelines for different sized machines. Overloading a machine is a relatively common problem that can result in poor quality due to redeposition or lack of suds in the wash wheel. Overloading also may result in chlorine carryover and improper pH balance at the end of the cycle. Underloading is a less frequent problem that results in excessive chemical usage (per pound of linen processed) which adds to operation costs. Underloading also causes excessive mechanical action which will cause greater wear on the fabric and increase linen replacement costs.

Industry standard guidelines call for 5.25 pounds of clean, dry cotton textiles per cubic foot of space in the wash wheel. A 65/35Polyester/Cotton blend weighs approximately 60% of the same amount of 100% cotton. Therefore, proper loading would be 3.15 pounds per cubic foot.

Wash Steps
Following are general rules laundry operations can follow to optimally clean linens and prolong their use-life.

Flushing is the utilization of plain water for 1-2 minutes, which serves a number of functions. First, it removes excessive debris and particulate soil, and at 100 degrees prevents blood and albuminous stains from setting. This step also raises the temperature of linen in the wheel and conditions textiles for subsequent operations.

This is the first chemical supply operation--alkali and detergent. Light and medium soil classification will be cleaned in one break cycle. In heavier soil classifications, up to 70% of the soil will be removed and suspended during this operation. The break cycle typically uses the greatest volume of alkali and detergent in low water levels, operates at the highest temperature, and is the longest cycle.

Sudsing generally follows the break cycle and removes and suspends remaining soils from textiles by the addition of more detergent.

The carryover step removes and suspends leftover soils from either break or suds cycles without additional chemicals or detergents being added. This step is also used to lower titration readings to a level where bleaching can most effectively be performed.

Water conditions must be correct for the bleach bath to work effectively, and this step should never include the use of live steam. After the textile has been cleaned, it is bleached white and is also sterilized due to the anti-microbial properties found in the bleach.

The purpose of the rinse cycle is to reduce and loosen soil and laundering chemicals, and to gradually drop the temperature of the textiles. Temperature drops should NOT exceed 20 degrees in succeeding operations with Poly/Cotton blends.

The sour step neutralizes any residual alkali and bicarbonate in the water and linen. It prepares fabric for finishing process by achieving the proper pH reading (5.5 to 6.5), and may be combined with a fabric softener. Note that when using a Sunburst Chemicals non-caustic product, a sour step is not required - final pH will be equal to pH of tap water.

Basic Cleaning Requirements
There are four basic factors in any good wash formulation: Time, Temperature, Mechanical Action and Chemistry. If one of these factors is decreased the other factors must be increased to maintain a good cleaning operation. A facility’s Laundry Chemical Technician should use these four principles to develop laundry formulas specific their needs.

Time is the total contact time with chemical solutions, rinse and flush steps.

Ideal temperature range varies according to soil, fabric, chemistry and energy savings requirements. Typically 140°-160°F is best for suds and bleaching in medium to heavy soil classifications. 100°-120°F is adequate for light soil classifications and with chemistry designed for low temperature washing. 80°-110°F is used for flush and rinse steps. Chemical reactions are accelerated with higher temperatures thus enhancing the cleaning operation.

Mechanical Action
The dropping and pounding action in the wash wheel. The degree of mechanical action is directly related to the loading and water levels of the wash wheel. Overloading reduces mechanical action. Mechanical action is optimized at water levels between 5-7 inches. For a gentler wash – raise the water level.

Chemistry refers to the interaction of soils and fabrics with the various types and concentrations of chemicals used in the wash wheel. Your chemical supply company should be able to help determine the best chemistry combination for your operation.

Laundry Formulas
Laundry formulas are written by the Laundry Chemical Technician with consideration of Handling Procedures, Soil Classification and the available Time, Temperature, Mechanical Action and Chemistry. Proper formula selection is very important in maintaining linen quality and operation costs.

The finishing process includes the complete removal of water and usually provides a smooth “finished” surface. Finishing equipment includes but is not limited to dryers and ironers.

Dryers vary in size and typically use gas heat (although steam and electric dryers are also used). The most common problems for dryers include: clogged lint traps, gas pressure out of adjustment, and inadequate airflow. Any of these problems will cause slow drying and high energy use. These problems also cause incomplete gas combustion, which results in soot depositing on the linen. This causes graying of the linen. This graying can be lightened by repeat washings but never totally removed.

Ironers are sometimes used to finish flat work like sheets, pillowcases and napery. Ironers vary greatly in size and speed and degrees of automation. Ironers typically use steam heat although some use gas and electricity.

Clean Linen Handling
So the soiled linens have been properly collected and washed, so now what? Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle these freshly cleaned linens!

After the laundry is “finished” it is folded. While smaller laundries fold manually, automated folders are available. Folding is very labor intensive and is typically the bottleneck of the laundry operation. One of the most important, yet most often overlooked step in the folding process is this - always wash hands before handling clean linen! The folding operation is typically where stains are identified. Stained linen should be pre-spotted and sorted for a re-wash formula.

After the linen has been folded some goes into storage and some goes directly to use. Approximately 50% should be in storage, 25% in use and 25% being processed.

Clean linens should never be stored in open carts, nor should they be placed in potentially contaminated areas, such as near air conditioners or on chairs. Shelves used for clean linen storage should be free of dust and dirt, and out of the main traffic flow at least 8” above the floor. It is also vitally important that the clean storage area be separate from the soiled linen, and kept clean. The clean linen storage area can be used for a quick evaluation of the laundry operation. Poor lighting and off-shade coloring in the storage room will affect the appearance of the linen. Using a prop like a white business card as a base line for evaluation is helpful.

Transferring of clean linen is usually done in linen carts. The carts should be covered or enclosed to prevent airborne and direct contamination of linen. Linen carts must be kept sanitary, and daily cleaning procedures should be established. It is also important to avoid overloading carts and using temporary storage areas where clean linen may be the subject of misuse and pilferage.

Normal use of linen is obvious; sheets for bedding, tablecloths for tables, etc. However, these items are convenient for other applications and misused. Some examples of misuse include sheets for floor coverings, bathroom towels for mops or kitchen rags. Misuse creates serious laundry problems and often results in damaged linen.

This article originally published in the June 2003 issue of Executive Housekeeping Today. Reprinted with permission.

Quick Rinse - News From Around The World

Charged For A Fire That Killed 2 Firefighters

CHICAGO, Ill. — The owner of an abandoned laundry in which two firefighters died during a fatal fire was charged with criminal contempt because it was alleged that he ignored a court order to secure the laundry building and repair the roof which collapsed during the fire. In addition to the death of two firefighters, 15 other firefighters were injured when the roof collapsed.