Hey!  My shirts aren’t getting clean!

Many shirt launderers either say this or should say it.  I am amazed at the varying levels of clean that are accepted as, well acceptable. In fact, some laundries have very clean shirts and accept that as normal while others barely seem to get their shirts clean at all and, yes, they consider that normal.

If you had a wish list, on that list would be I’ll bet, that you could get shirts perfectly clean, with no pre-scrubbing, no ring-around-the-collar and no stains.  You want this first time, every time.

Well, believe it or not, this isn’t very hard to accomplish at all.  If fact, you can make this happen quick, maybe even today.  Sound good?

Basically, there are two types of “stains” that needs removing from your shirts.  Most common is “ring-around-the-collar.”  This needs a surfactant.  It’s in the soap that you buy.  Then there are “stains.” This is what you buy oxygen bleach for.  It is almost true, but not quite, that if you have soiled collars, you aren’t getting enough surfactant in your wash wheel and if you have stains, you need oxygen bleach or more of it.  This is not always true, as I said, but it can be, sometimes. It could be something more obvious, easier and cheaper.

In order to wash shirts, you need 4 things:

  1. Time
  2. Temperature
  3. Chemical Action
  4. Mechanical Action

It has to be all 4 things. How much of each, though, can vary, but it is still scientific.  We know that we can give a little more of one thing and save on another.  But which ones and how much?  The most common example of this is enzyme detergents. They alter the chemical action and you decrease the temperature.  Another example would be using rope ties versus washing shirts loosely.  They improve mechanical action.  Consequently, you can save on detergent or cut down on wash time.  Still, all this has to be done with professional help.  You are only as good as your chemical rep.  If you don’t have one and you have issues with shirt cleanliness, then the problem is his absence or his qualifications.  Most brands of detergent have a service rep that will tour customers in a geographical region for the sole purpose of making sure that these customers are satisfied with the products that they supply.  Some progressive distributors offer a similar free service for the same reason.  The coolest thing about being in the shirt business is that you can make shirt cleanliness their problem rather than taking it upon your shoulders.  His job is to satisfy you and my job is to tell you not to be satisfied unless you get clean shirts without scrubbing collars and pre-treating minor stains.

Still, you may have quality problems.  Your local chemical rep is not your washman.  Or your maintenance man.  He can tell you what you need, but will be unable to make it happen without your support. Here are some reasons why you’ll have cleanliness problems:

  1. Overloading the wash wheel.  This is probably the number one cause of inconsistentwash quality.  Some days, the shirts look fine, others, they don’t.  It is much easier to maintain the proper loading capacity with a system like Tailwind for example, that has a self-defining lot size rather than a piece system or a lot system that is either has lots that are difficult to identify or has lots of varying sizes. In those cases, your wash person is liable to try to squeeze in more shirts than they should into a given washer.  Overloading the wash wheel will not allow for the proper amount of mechanical action – one of the keys to getting clean shirts.  If you wash shirts loosely, you will need to under-load your machines by quite a bit.  While some people – but not I – think that washing loosely while under-loading is the best way, keep in mind that this is very difficult to manage. It may require weighing every load (and making sure that it gets done when you aren’t looking) to insure that you never put in more than 35 pounds in a 50 pound machine.  I think that this is a problem waiting to happen.  Anyway, whatever your chemical rep has determined is the correct wash capacity and formula  for your situation is what you need to stick with.  Don’t expect clean shirts if you go against his/her advice.
  2. Low water temperature.  This one is a killer.  You must have hot water.  Let’s say you need 120 degree water for your particular formula. Many enzyme detergents need this temperature.  Certain oxygen bleaches won’t do a thing unless you have the required temperature. What you set your water heater at, or what the gauge reads at the holding tank means absolutely nothing to me.  What is the exact temperature of the water 5 minutes into the wash cycle? Use a laser trap tester to get this reading right through the glass.  Do not rely on the washing machine’s temperature indicator.  For some reason that eludes me, they are notoriously inaccurate.  I have seen a 35 degree variance between the electronic readout on the machine and the actual temperature.  That is the difference between clean shirts and dirty shirts.  The setting that you select on your water heater will depend on several factors such as the distance between the hot water maker and the wash arena, how (and whether or not) the pipes are insulated and the type and condition of the washing machine. In some climates “cold” water can be 35 degrees in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer.  If your washing machine calls for a mix of hot and cold water to arrive at a wash temperature of 130 degrees, it is incontestable that your water temperature will not be consistent year round.  The washing machines that have thermostatically controlled water temperature are far and away the best.  When they are programmed, you simply select a temperature rather than “hot” or “cold”.  This leaves it up to the microprocessor to determine whether you need hot water or cold water at any given moment and will continue to monitor this throughout the wash cycle.  Still, the wash wheel temperature must be checked to assure that the electronic reader in the machine is accurate.  Keep in mind, also, that when you inject hot water into a wash wheel full of fabric and cold metal, you will lose several degrees due to the ambient temperature of these things.
  3. Mechanical/Maintenance Issues.  This is often overlooked as a possible cause of sub-standard wash quality.  Be sure that your washing machine’s drain valve isn’t leaking.  If your valuable hot water is leaking out of the wheel a little at a time, you may be doing all of the right things – the right water temperature and the right chemicals – but flushing them down the drain.  Again, trust a laser temperature gauge or a pyrometer, not the setting on the water heater.  You must have hot water to get clean shirts.  If the drive belt that connects the wash wheel to the drive motor is too loose, it is possible that the drum doesn’t turn at the proper RPM.  If the belt slips, the shirts will not get good agitation.


One thing that you can do is go to Sam’s Club and buy a 40 pound box of El Cheapo detergent for 8 bucks. Just don’t expect it to clean your shirts.  If you think that skimping on supplies here is the way to stop using all that red ink, I assure that there is something else that you’ve missed.  Don’t cut corners on proper chemicals.  If you calculate your chemical cost on a per shirt basis rather than by the cost per pail or bag, you will see that the “expensive” stuff barely affects your supplies cost on a per shirt basis, but makes your life a whole lot better.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.”