Flying Pants are an Energy Efficiency Opportunity

March 22, 2011

Projects, Technologies

I want to tell you about an industry I recently discovered that can totally benefit from some wicked energy efficiency measures.

Welcome to my pretty little world, textile rental. Textile rental companies supply laundered products such as uniforms, linens, floor mats, garments, and towels. These types of goods can be provided to a wide-array of businesses from hospitals (you know those robes they give you that leave your rump hanging out for all to see?) to hotels, dental offices to automotive repair shops (sexy coveralls don’t clean themselves, you know).  These textile companies are pretty elaborate, large scale laundry mats with some pretty awesome stuff going on inside them.

When I recently visited one, I felt like I had just walked into some sort of magical foreign land: there were pairs of pants flying around the room at high speeds (on zip lines, of course – pants do not fly). Zip lines were assembled all around the facility, some high above my head and others close enough for danger bells to ring in my ears as rugs whizzed by my dome. There were automated racks like you’d see at a dry cleaner’s moving uniforms steadily down a line of workers and making cachink-cachink noises with each robotic push forward. It was all Nanny McPhee goes Steampunk. So many motors pushing and pulling the textiles around the facility – I fell in love at first sight.

Then… I saw more.

Giant washing machines larger than my kitchen and bathroom combined lined up next to one another like huge sentinel robots on a mission to clean the world. They were so loud I could barely hear myself say “holy $%&#” when I saw them. I took a long gander at the hot water and tempered water supply pipes – a small child could swim through them. The lights were huge globes of inefficient ugliness hung 40 feet in the air – and they were everywhere. This place was an energy efficiency junkie’s proverbial crack house, for sure. I could hardly contain myself.

So, let’s get away from my seemingly obsessive, potentially problematic addiction to energy efficiency and instead talk about the HUGE potential these textile places for efficiency upgrades.

Motors: Motors spin through these places like crazy. There are automated pulley systems that chug linens and uniforms up zip lines all throughout the facilities – kind of like how a rollercoaster car chugs up the incline and then (weeeeeeeee!) flies down the decline at high speeds ensuring imminent death. These motors run, chugging the hangers up and up and up regardless of whether or not anything is hung on said hangers. And these motors suck up electricity while doing so. This is a total waste. Adding variable frequency drives (VFD) to the motors can adjust the motor speed according to the load, or weight on the line: no clothes = no motor, few clothes = some motor speed, lots of clothes =  full motor speed. Using a VFD in this application could reduce the amount of electricity those motors are using drastically.

Water Pumps: Can you even imagine how much water is used in a facility whose sole purpose is to wash massive amounts of textiles at quick speeds? If a butt ton were a legitimate form of measurement, I’d say it would apply here. I’ve seen a monthly water bill for one of these textile rental companies and let’s just say my annual salary pales in comparison. VFDs are great for places that pump a bunch of water. The water pumps essentially move the water from the underground pipes into the building and around the building for different uses. It takes a lot of energy to move water so these pumps work really hard. When a pump has a VFD installed, the VFD will modulate the pump speed to adjust according to the demand or needed water. When all 4 Transformer-looking washing machines need water, the pump will blast at full speed but if only one machine is in use, it will blast at 25% speed… thus saving a significant amount of electricity on pumping costs.

Lighting: Lighting is always a no-brainer for me. Old, ugly, inefficient lighting in places like this typically utilizes 1080 watts of electricity every hour. New, pretty, high efficiency replacements run about 365 watts hourly. That’s almost a 60% reduction in energy. Projects replacing lighting like this generally pay themselves off in energy bill savings well under 2 years. Plus, everything looks nicer because new lighting technology allows for so much more true-to-life color.

Water Heating: With all the washing that is done in textile rental companies, of course they are going to have high water bills but they also have high heating bills because the water they use is typically hot. Hot water helps loosen up set-in stains – I know this only because I’ve seen laundry detergent commercials, not because I have the worst stain-to-shirt ratio of any adult human on Earth. Really. So, it costs money to heat this water up; a LOT of money. By replacing old inefficient water heaters with newer technology, textile rental houses can automatically inherit energy savings thanks to newer efficiency standards. They can also try to capture exhaust heat from the dryers and use that to pre-heat tempered water. This will allow the water heaters a little bit of a break which results in energy savings.

This is really just the tip of the opportunity ice berg for the textile rental industry. I could go on for another 3 or 4 hours discussing other more technically involved solutions they could utilize, but I don’t want you to get bored with me. Just please do not ever turn down an opportunity to get inside one of these plants because they are amazingly cool. If not for their energy efficiency opportunities, at least to see the flying pants and Megatron washing machines.

Photo from Microsoft Images

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4 Comments on “Flying Pants are an Energy Efficiency Opportunity”

  1. Mark W. Says:

    Interesting article Megan. If changes are made to this facility, a follow-up article would be appreciated.
    You wrote – “Old, ugly, inefficient lighting in places like this typically utilizes 1080 watts of electricity every hour. New, pretty, high efficiency replacements run about 365 watts hourly. That’s almost a 60% reduction in energy. Projects replacing lighting like this generally pay themselves off in energy bill savings well under 2 years.” Which lighting is currently running at 1080 W/hr. and what would be the replacement lighting that would run at 365 W/hr. ? A payoff of two years is a no brainer so my guess is most companies will implement changes. How about longer term payoff periods – what’s typically the ‘cutoff’ – 3,5, ? years? My guess is other factors are involved as well such as cost of maintenance and performance of equipment. Old equipment will at some point just need to be replaced. Also new equipment may pay for itself by automating the workplace and require less workers on a given line.
    I checked out the web address of the first photo. I’m pretty sure it should be a .org domain rather than a .com domain.


    • Madam Energy Says:

      Mark… I love the questions you ask! I was afraid to get into too much “jargon” stuff in the technical part of the post so I am way happy you asked.

      1080 watt reference: This is typically a 1000 watt high intensity discharge fixture. There are three main types – mercury vapor (bluish light), metal halide (warm light similar to what you’d have in a home), and high pressure sodium (awful orange-ish light). All three high intensity discharge lights were used at very high ceiling heights (35 feet or higher) because of their light output. They’re a single-bulb screwed into a fixture like an incandescent lamp – but hooked up to a magnetic ballast that pulls in that additional 80 watts.
      365 watt reference: This is a linear fluorescent fixture like you would see in an office… but hung from the same high ceiling heights mentioned above. This specific fixture reference is a 6-lamp T5 high output fixture. There are 6 linear fluorescent T5 HO tubes in a single fixture with a metal reflector to amplify the light downward.

      You would think a pay back of 2 years is a no-brainer, but so many business owners still resist! From my experience, businesses aim at a payback under 2 years typically (some under 1! which is sometimes tough) and rarely do projects over 4 years. Depending on the equipment, they could go as high as 7 years – this would be for HVAC equipment, process equipment, etc that is getting toward the end of its life anyway so that helps to justify a higher simple payback.

      And most efficiency upgrades don’t eliminate human interaction outside of lighting controls turning lights on and off or the thermostat up and down – so it doesn’t often eliminate manpower needs or costs unless for maintenance like you mentioned.

      Lastly, I will adjust that link right away! 🙂 Thanks for the heads up there.


  2. Ben Says:

    At first blush, I would think that a new water heating system would have a longer time horizon to see returns than the lighting.


    • Madam Energy Says:

      Ben, you’re right. Lighting is typically the best for quick pay back periods. Water heating in a facility like this would have a much better pay back than water heating in an office building – just because of the huge amount of hot water needed in textile laundering – but it would be more in the 3-8 year range.

      The general rule of thumb for simple pay back is that the more hours the equipment is used, the better the pay back period. There are other factors considered, but the hours of use is the most diverse from one building to another and can change the pay back the most drastically.


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