Fire-damaged textiles are usually smoky-smelling and damp or wet through. The chances of successful recovery depend on how quickly they can be brought to the laundry after the incident, and how skilfully they are tackled by the professional launderer.
Flood-damaged textiles usually pose a significant infection risk and might also display extensively watermarking. Again, speed is of the essence for successful recovery of a high percentage of the goods.
Launderers who offer to recover textiles damaged in these ways use specialist processes to achieve the best results possible. This month we look at what is needed to enter this sometimes volatile market and how to manage the expectations of distressed customers (and infuriatingly slow insurers).
This market is not for the faint-hearted, but the volumes available at critical times can make it very attractive to those prepared to put in the time & effort and respond flexibly.
Fires tend to occur at random intervals, so the laundry needs to have suitable transport and storage facilities, with trained staff available to spring into action when the need arises. They may need to work overtime in the first instance, to uplift textiles from the affected premises, ideally as soon as the Chief Fire Officer permits entry.
In practice the Insurance Assessor could well delay things whilst liability and other matters are negotiated and the claim for damaged textiles is agreed. This could well be followed by requests for a quotation from the launderer before recovery work can start.
At this point, often after many delays, the launderer could well come under pressure from the Insurance Company to get on with it and deliver back the cleaned goods on a very short time scale! In practice, the affected owner of the textiles will probably need only some of the clothing and bedding and it is well worth discussing a realistic timetable for the priorities. This should give enough time to do the job properly.
It is important to get this part right and not to be stampeded into rushing the job - with the associated poor results. It is equally important to give realistic expectations – even the most skilled launderer is unlikely to be able to recover 100% of the affected goods.
A fire attended by the fire service tends to create water damage from the hoses, and general dampness and fungal odours - which vary with the length of time between the incident and the goods reaching the laundry. A good insurance company will probably offer new for old on curtains, suite covers and throws, but a poor one (or an uninsured customer) will need expert help.
If there is no (or very little) smoke contamination, then washing is the first stage. You will need a premium detergent with low foaming properties and very good low-temperature emulsification, to get general dirt and grime away. Fungal growths will be contributing to any fusty, musty odours, and this will need either an oxidising agent or other fungicide to kill these.
Even a trace of smoke contamination will give rise to residual smells unless you can get the fine smoke and tar particles off. This demands a broad range emulsifier to solubilise the tarry chemicals and a strong suspending agent to hold these in the wash liquor until they can be discharged to drain. Both of these must be designed to work at around 40C, in order to minimise shrinkage and colour change of natural fibres such as cotton, and protein fibres such as wool and silk.
A machine design such as the HydrofinityTM should do this particularly well, because of the oil- and tar-attracting properties of the polymer XOrbsTM in its drum.
Shrinkage of curtains, throws and suite covers is an inevitable problem, of which the customer should be clearly warned, in writing, and asked to acknowledge with a signature. Loss of length in curtains can be partially reversed by finishing them from damp, under tension, with tension maintained until the items are completely dry.
The best device for achieving this is a vertical curtain finishing machine of the Sandershade type, which enables steaming, drying and maintenance of tension overnight if need be. A free-steam press with good vacuum will often correct enough of the shrinkage of suite covers to enable them to be put back onto the suite.
The secret is to press them under firm hand tension, especially down the long seams, and then to maintain the vacuum until the covers are completely dry and set. When tension is finally released it will be found that most of the stretched dimension is retained.
Bacterial growth is always a problem with textiles from a damp, fire-damaged property. This produces a much fouler stench, quite different from the fusty, musty smell of mildew and other fungal growths. There are plenty of wash processes now available with chemical disinfection that is effective at low temperature and one of these should be used.
Colour change can be minimised by using a well-designed low-temperature system that does the best job possible first-time. Unless the textiles are all pure white, then it is vital to use a detergent that has no optical brightening agent in it. Optical brighteners can do a brilliant job on white work, but they usually make pastels and colours look significantly paler and should be avoided for this reason.
Some chemicals suppliers offer a ‘smoke soap’ for fire-damage goods. If this is based on a formulation that offers all of the attributes described here, then it should work well. If it is based on masking the residual odours with a ‘fragrance’ then it should be treated with caution, unless you have well-proven acceptance by your customer for the product.
If you are helping an uninsured customer who is financially unable to immediately replace all of the damaged textiles, then they may will be prepared to accept some residual shrinkage and fading if it means they have something to hang at the windows and cover the suite. This buys time until they can replace items one by one.
The key here is to be upfront with the customer about the risks and to take the time to minimise them.
The main difference between fire and flood damage is the risk of serious microbial contamination found in flood water, which permeates the home and breeds on every bit of damp or wet fabric created by the flood. This arises because when sewers are full, as in very wet weather or because a river or stream has burst its banks, then the water company is allowed to let a sewer overflow into a convenient river.
This means the entire contents of the sewer, including urine and faeces, enters the river entirely untreated. Large concentrations of bacteria, such as E.coli, then start to breed - feeding either on the faeces or on the various food particles from the kitchens served by the sewer.
The risk of very severe watermarking and progressively worsening odours is much greater with flood damaged work than with textiles rescued from a fire. The risk increases with the amount of sewage contamination and the initial odour gives a guide to this.
The sooner you can get the textiles into the wash process the better, and whilst they are still damp if possible (so as to minimise the risk of watermarking). This means taking safety precautions for staff entering affected premises, with full body coveralls (that can be washed and disinfected) and wellington boots that can be hosed off and doused in disinfectant. Face masks are essential and head gear is advisable.
It is the uninsured customer who needs most help, because if they cannot afford immediate replacements then they will need cleaned textiles that are at least safe to use for a while.
The wash process may need to start with a sluice to remove as much foul water and loose debris as possible. If in any doubt, programme two sluices to make the task of disinfection first time much easier. Use a heavy soil detergent mix and dose about one third of the recommended usage into the pre-wash.
A good detergent recommended for flood damaged work will contain extra suspending agent to prevent redeposition of soiling back onto the cleaned textile. It will also contain a low-temperature disinfecting agent which works at say 40C.
For pastel and coloured textiles, it is vital that the contents specify no optical brightening agent, because this help considerably with maintaining the original colour.
Flood damaged textiles are often best processed in small machines in the range of 20 – 50kg capacity, so that it is easier to keep deep reds and blues separate from whites and pastels.
From the advice already given, it is clear that the machines used need to be programmable to achieve the desired result. They also need to be capable of dosing with up to four different chemicals, to give the best chance of thorough cleansing with minimal redeposition and effective disinfection.
Customer expectations are often higher than the best results achievable and it saves much time and effort if this is made clear to the customer at the outset. This should not be in the form of a ‘blanket’ disclaimer, which has little if any legal significance anyway.
You should be able to make strong guarantees based on doing what you say you are going to do in your quotation. Use phrases such as:
Shrinkage: "All textiles tend to shrink in washing and drying, but we try to reduce this to the absolute minimum by use of low temperature processes and careful drying. We re-finish the goods with steam under tension wherever possible and use vacuum to re-set to as near the original size as possible"
Odours: "We use special processes that incorporate sluicing and disinfection to minimise the risk of residual odours"
Fading: "We avoid the use of brightening agents to minimise the risk of fading, but there is always a residual risk depending on the fastness to washing of the dyes used"
These positive disclaimers are much more likely to be acceptable in the event of any dispute regarding the results actually achieved.
They also make it clear that this is an expert task and that you have the expertise to tackle it.
~ Steve Anderton, LTC Worldwide