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Deodorize Clothing Before or After Cleaning?

December 21, 2007
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For years now, I have been asked by cleaning professionals and students whether they should deodorize clothing before or after dry cleaning.

They’re confused about this issue because in 1983 a well-respected expert with a national dry cleaners association wrote an article advocating deodorizing prior to dry cleaning with perchloro-ethylene (the most common dry cleaning solvent).

The author believes that the perchloroethylene or sizing associated therewith, “…tends to lock in smoke and organic odors, making removal more difficult.” When I checked with him, he stated that his researchers had tried deodorizing before cleaning and they got excellent results, so he felt this was the best way to go. When I asked about research data to back up his contentions that perchloroethylene “locks in odor,” he had none, just his experience with deodorizing prior to cleaning.

Well, I can tell you from my experience over many years with three fire restoration companies serving three states (including nine dry cleaning plants) that cleaning prior to deodorizing also produces outstanding results. And forget about sizing in dry cleaning solutions creating a deodorant-resistant barrier! It just doesn’t happen. “So,” you say. “It really doesn’t matter whether we deodorize before dry cleaning or after, right?”  Well, not necessarily, and for some very good reasons.

Soot residues contain oxides of nitrogen from burning organic compounds, or chlorine from burning plastics, which combine with humidity in the air to form dilute nitric or hydrochloric acid. These acids can cause substantial, permanent damage to clothing (especially synthetics) if allowed to remain in contact with fibers too long (days or weeks depending on concentration).

Heavily contaminated clothing is most effectively and efficiently deodorized by exposing it to ozone gas, a somewhat time-consuming process. Sure, ozone deodorization can be assisted by thermal fogging or by adding special deodorants to a dry cleaning machine; but ozone is usually the safest, most effective and most economical agent for deodorizing clothing, particularly when insureds have chemical allergies.

This is an important point, since ozone deodorization is a slower process and may take a day, or even several days, to accomplish, depending on the severity of contamina-tion. If you deodorize clothing prior to cleaning, it takes much longer to complete the process, since you must deodorize excess soot residues along with the fabrics themselves. Meanwhile, those acids just discussed may be causing permanent discoloration!

Further, consider that since all the clothing insureds own is, in all likelihood, covered with soot, they will have nothing to wear. If you go through a time-consuming deodorization procedure prior to cleaning, at best insureds will be inconvenienced, and at worst, they may go out and purchase an entirely new wardrobe for every member of the family! That ought to raise the eyebrows of the insurance adjuster.

Meanwhile, you’ve missed a golden opportunity to make a positive first impression by helping insureds through those trying first few days, and saved the insurance company money in the process. Remember, the way you handle claims during the first day or two can affect insureds’ confidence in you and, consequently, can make claims easier – or more hectic – to process.

Another consideration: if you deodorize prior to cleaning, job processing will be a little messier and more time consuming. First, you take soot-contaminated clothing to your facility for deodorization - assuming your subcontractor doesn’t provide that service. Then you load all that clothing in your van and take it to your dry cleaning subcontractor. Following cleaning you have to go pick it up and transport it back to your facility for touch-up deodorization and storage.

On the other hand, if you clean first, you make one trip to your cleaner to deliver sooty clothing, followed by another to pick up clean, substantially less-odorous clothes. Okay, not a big deal, but one thing you’ll learn in this business is that anything you do to save a little time, handling and confusion will pay off many times over as claims progress to completion.

By the way all this assumes that you, not the dry cleaner, are transporting, deodorizing and storing clothing and fabrics at your facility. If you’re subbing out these added services, you may be missing an opportunity for additional profit. An ozone generator costs just a few hundred dollars and it pays for itself many times over during the first year. Of course, you’ll need clothes racks (easily constructed with pipe, a few fittings and rollers) and a chamber in which to confine deodorizing agents (fog or gas). If you don’t have an ozone vault yet, just cover your clothing rack with a large piece of plastic and pipe ozone under the plastic. Use a small fan under the plastic to encourage circulation and penetration of ozone into all fabrics.

A few words of caution: make sure your ozone chamber is reasonably airtight or make sure that there’s plenty of ventilation in work areas just outside the chamber or run your ozone machine at night when no one’s around. Ozone is potentially hazardous to human health when breathed in concentrations above 0.1 ppm for prolonged periods. Also, have your cleaner leave plastic bags off the garments. This makes penetration of deodorization gases much faster and more effective, it makes sorting of garments easier upon their return to the structure, and most important, it eliminates potential liability in homes with children present.

Income from deodorization, coupled with any storage fees you may charge, will go a long way toward paying for that first/newer/larger/more impressive/more efficient building you’ve been wanting to rent or buy. Every time I moved to a nicer facility, my business volume increased. Frankly, I don’t know if it was because agents, adjusters and insureds are more impressed with us or if it was because my employees sell and process with more confidence and enthusiasm. Probably it’s just that debt motivates! All I know is that it happens.

Now what were we talking about? Oh yes. Restoring clothing and household fabrics can be profitable for both insurance companies and contractors alike. Properly performed, you can achieve excellent results, save insureds a lot of hassle, and save insurance companies loads of money - all at the same time!

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