CHICAGO — “So this boiler goes into a bar …”
Describe the back-of-the-house workhorse of your drycleaning plant at your next cocktail party.
You love ’em, sure. We get that. In the drycleaning business, they are the heart of your plant’s operation.
“It seems like there are more and more boiler issues than ever,” says Brian Cass, who, along with brother Dave Cass, co-owns Martinizing Metro Milwaukee, a second-generation company that has been in the drycleaning industry 50 years.
Their operation consists of two package plants, a main central plant, 14 drop stores, five routes, and a restoration business within the Certified Restoration Drycleaning Network (CRDN).
“We just had one of our 50-horsepower boilers go down permanently and the second was close behind,” Brian Cass relates. “They were both about 8 years old. We replaced them with a 125-horsepower boiler.”
The brothers take their family business personally, and every cost is critical, including, and especially, the big ones like replacing a boiler. It’s likely the same with any drycleaning business owner.
To keep up with the changing fabricare world we live in, two words affect drycleaning plants. They are “efficiencies” and “advancements.” And boilers are in their sights.
HOW EFFICIENT? HOW ADVANCED?
Boilers have a new champion. It’s called “efficiency.”
To explain, enter Monika Manter, vice president at Balfurd Cleaners in State College, Pa. It’s a full-service dry cleaner in its 90th year of business, and also part of CRDN.
“Like all things, boilers are becoming more technologically advanced. At our linen plant, we have a brand-new boiler with trackable components to more easily see the boiler’s functionality and diagnose problems.”
She says the new system has created a huge efficiency savings because it’s able to function based on the plant’s demand and doesn’t ramp up and down.
But she admits that Balfurd would “love to get all these bells and whistles in a smaller footprint for our drycleaning facility” at some point.
“The biggest challenge we face, since we’re not in a big city, is getting a boiler repair company here when we have an issue. Like many rural cleaners, our closest option is two hours away, which means when we’re down, it’s always for two-plus hours. Servicing is a huge problem for us.”
Water in central Pennsylvania is extremely hard, Manter points out, so her business is forced to soften its water, which costs money.
Have a reputable, knowledgeable service organization check the boiler/burner setup at least once per year, suggests Steve Junge, president of Lattner Boiler Manufacturing Co. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With 40 years of service with Lattner under his belt, he represents the fourth generation of family ownership.
“It’s good for the pocketbook, and it’s good for the environment,” Junge notes. “Even though fuel costs are relatively stable right now, I would like to see plant operators be more conscientious about the operating efficiency of their boilers.”
“An issue we’re facing is that our return water to our condensate tank is too hot and (is) wearing out our condensate pump,” Manter explains.
“For us, this is a double-edge sword in that we want our return water to be hot enough in order to keep the boiler running at its most efficient level, but we also want our pumps functioning for their entire estimated lifespan.”
It’s hard to determine which is more cost-effective: keeping water temperature high or having the pumps last longer, she says. “We’re currently looking into different avenues to fix this issue.”
Most drycleaning operators look at cost first, especially with the advancements in today’s boiler systems.
“Boiler technology is growing and becoming more advanced, but the needs of the fabricare industry have changed little over the years,” says Mike McLean, national sales manager in the Laundry and Drycleaning Division at Fulton Boiler Works in Pulaski, N.Y.
McLean has been in the industry for 23 years, all with Fulton. During that time, he’s worked in all facets of the business, including equipment sales, management, technical support and more.
“A compact, cost-effective, and reliable product is still the primary need for dry cleaners,” he says. “Avoiding overengineered products, and finding boilers that operate safely and reliably at a reasonable cost are still the toughest boxes to check.”
While the drycleaning industry has been shrinking over the last few years, the boiler business has remained fairly constant, according to McLean.
He identifies a trend today: “We are seeing a larger number of industrial laundries. Larger boilers and bigger plants are still the majority of installations, but they are increasing in number and becoming a larger part of our business.”
The boiler is the key to successful drycleaning operation. That’s why it’s your plant’s true heart. As it goes, so goes the business. Managing issues such as moisture, water use and maintenance are critically important to owners.
OUT OF THE DARK
One thing is pretty clear. Boilers have come a long way.
Their physical footprint has been reduced, their moisture control is more technologically advanced, and the need for regularly scheduled maintenance is all too obvious.
“The boiler room is the dark, sometimes damp, area that seems to get forgotten about,” says Cass.
He shares this tale: “In our case, we just built a new boiler room next to the old one, but our new feed tank was not ready, so we used the old one in its old location.
“We took down the old boiler room walls and put an overhead door in where the old wall vents were. We quickly realized how bad the ‘blow by’ of the steam traps was by the amount of moisture in our plant.
“I didn’t put it high on the priority list to take care of, and what a mistake that was. Once we fixed our trap problem, our moisture problem went away. What a lesson it was.”
In Southern California, rain can be scarce, Sajid Veera, owner of Los Angeles-based Door To Door Valet Cleaners, says he has to watch water bills closely.
“After doing a lot of research on water and gas consumption, we settled on buying a 48-horsepower (boiler) and a 25-horsepower boiler for our new plant, built in 2014.”
His operation focuses on pickup and delivery from client homes. In addition to the routes, his business operates 10 retail locations in greater Los Angeles.
Veera notes that the challenges he faces also come from “Strict rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), which, according to its website, is the air pollution control agency for all of Orange County.”
These agencies, he explains, dictate the amount of nitrogen oxide (NOx) that can be exhausted in the air after combustion from the burner flame.
“All our boilers in Los Angeles County have to have a Low NOx add-on package, which is yet another mechanism that has to be dealt with in addition to just the regular boiler parts.”
As mentioned, water savings is paramount.
“The price of water in Manhattan Beach, where our previous plant was located, is set to quadruple in the next three years. This was a factor in us moving our main production plant inland about four miles away from Manhattan Beach to Hawthorne.”
Veera has a boiler tip for an owner planning to build a new plant or remodel an existing one: “Do not put your compressor and vacuum in the boiler room!” The heat from the boiler puts extra wear and tear on other equipment, he explains.
“We visited probably about 15 plants nationwide when we were designing our plant, and we were surprised to see that a lot of dry cleaners still have their compressors and vacuums in the heat of the boiler room.”
Not to forget the importance of maintaining the boiler, Manter shares a final observation: “We are fortunate in that we have a maintenance person who is very knowledgeable about boilers and does consistent preventative maintenance on ours. It’s tough to find those people.”
Boilers aren’t always conversation starters at parties. But the boilers of today are part of your “business conversation” — and of maintaining your profitable bottom line.
So what happened when the boiler went into the bar? The bartender asked, “Blowing off steam?” To which the boiler replied, “Only just exactly the right amount, ’cause I’m feeling great.”
“The industry seems to be on a bit of an upswing,” says Junge, “and there is certainly more interest in replacing those out-of-date presses, drycleaning machines and boilers than there was even three years ago.”
Cass has the final word for fellow dry cleaners: “Efficiency definitely is important to us. Our plant is pretty big and we need all the steam getting to the presses that we can.”
To read Part 1, go HERE.