Carbon Dioxide

Copyright 2006
Everett Childers
Tahlequah, OK

The original article appeared in a 2006 issue of American Drycleaner magazine. It was updated in 2010 with update from Gordon Shaw, who was one of the first pioneers with liquid carbon dioxide cleaning.

Carbon Dioxide as a Textile Cleaning Solvent

First smell the air in the lobby, as a customer would do after coming into your business from the outside. It should smell fresh. Is the counter clean and uncluttered? Does it look like it was designed for Neiman Marcus? Is the front counter light and airy? Look at your customer attendants and check to see if they are clean, dressed appropriately for helping customers with their clothing care needs. Do they greet the customer promptly and courteously with a “Good Morning, or Good Afternoon”? Do they ask for the customer’s last name then verify it with their phone number? Is the plant quiet and peaceful without undue noises?

After you have gone through the above exercise think about the cleaning operation itself. Is the work area spotless and free from rap, hard-metal, or other strange sounds that disguise themselves as music? Can you find even one little speck of dust in the processing area. Are all of the presses and related equipment in perfect operating order with clean pads?

If you can honestly answer positively to all of the above questions then you are close to being on a peer level with Gordon Shaw of Hangers Cleaners in San Diego, CA. I have wanted to visit one of his carbon dioxide cleaning plants for a long time and got the chance after the California Cleaners Convention in late mid August (2005). Gordon was the Chairman of the California Convention that year, as he has been for several years in the past, and it was as good as any convention as I have ever attended. I worked at one of the equipment distributor’s booths and heard a lot of very good comments on the quality of the equipment, diversity of vendors and innovative things for our industry.

Gordon was one of the first cleaners in the U.S. to venture into carbon dioxide cleaning several years ago (2001) with the now defunct drycleaning division Micell Corporation who introduced CO2 cleaning into the industry. Many people thought Gordon was crazy to jump into such an untried and unproved process that had a lot of upfront and initial expenses. If you have never seen the original machines, they are huge. The footprint appears to be about ten foot by eight foot and quite tall. In the beginning there were a lot of problems with the detergents designed for CO2 cleaning. There are several large, round cylinders making up the machine with related heavy, stainless steel piping and expensive looking valves, compressors and related components.

Mr. Shaw knows the machine, well, intimately, inside and out. He can simply listen and tell when it pressurizes, depressurizes and what cycle it is in. The physics of the machine are ones we normally do not spend a lot of time learning in everyday liquid solvent cleaning and probably avoided in high school. The entire cleaning cycle is about 45 minutes. When the garments are removed from the machine they are very cool, without wrinkles or lint and have an excellent hand (feel) to them. There were a few crusty residuals remaining but these are easily blown off with a steam gun. Heavy grease and oil stains will need pre-treatment because CO2 is not an aggressive cleaner, which also means that it does not strip dyes or change the feel of a garment, nor turn it into a handful of lint.

Gordon is not a newcomer to the industry. He has owned perc plants for 22 years and had a one-price cleaner for 13 years and decided that the world did not need another ordinary drycleaner or one-price operation. In 2001 he made the decision to abandon perk and bite the bullet with a new solvent then made a plant to virtually put all others to shame. His idea was that there can be a lot of money made in this industry if it is done right. Right includes everything being first class and not even looking at the cheapest rent location.

Gordon’s latest CO2 store front is attractive and in a new shopping center with a lot of wealthy growth potential. In the front window many cleaners have a cat sleeping or a dead plant as the main attraction. Gordon has a shiny, stainless steel storage tank for his CO2 which is an eye-catcher in itself. He also has beautiful nature graphics and water displays large enough to be considered an indoor waterfall. I was in this store for an hour or so and saw several people stop and read the description stating what is happening to their garments while in the care of his Hangers cleaners. On an easel, in one of the front windows he has a beautiful rendering of the machine workings and a description of how it is much better for your clothing than any other drycleaning process.

Excellent work lighting is provided by low pressure sodium fixtures and they are of daylight consistency. Tensioning equipment is utilized to reduce finishing time and all of the presses are clean and well maintained with clean pads and grid plates. Slick rails move the garments throughout the plant and up and down conveyors help to utilize the expensive floor space.

There have been articles written on the processing of clothing with carbon dioxide solvent but the main point of this article is the absolute professionalism and attractiveness of the entire plant and it happens to use an innovative solvent. This article is also about not being an ordinary drycleaner but to stretch your imagination on “what can be” and not dwell on “what is”.

Cleaning Procedures

The entire operation of the liquid carbon dioxide machine is unique in that the carbon dioxide is a gas and when pressurized is transformed into a liquid. This liquid is then the solvent that is injected with detergent, and the detergent does the bulk of the actual cleaning while the liquid CO2 carries the soil to the filters. The cleaning action is very gentle and drying is done by simply depressurizing the vessel and the liquid again turns into a gas and is readily removed from the garments. A drycleaner would find a rotating drum for the garments, a filter and still including a lint trap which consistently has very little lint, which means the garments are not being damaged by the mechanical action of a heavy, aggressive solvent or any heat of drying. With the gentle cleaning and drying action of the machine the colors stay vibrant and like new. As the garments are removed from the wash cylinder they are cool and completely without odors…of any kind! At the end of the load about $3.00 worth of carbon dioxide is vented to the atmosphere. Daily maintenance is done on the machine and there have not been any unexpected expenses for repairs of the machine. It is a high-pressure unit and must be respected with proper and not makeshift parts when something does wear out.

The actual cleaning of the liquid carbon dioxide is fine for the type of customers the cleaners attracts. They tend to not have greasy, oily garments but tend towards designer labels and very light soil. The original detergents were lacking in their cleaning abilities but the one most CO2 cleaners are using is made by Kruessler and it is doing a much better job of removing water and solvent soluble soils than the original detergents.

An Early Micell Machine

File photo of an early Micell machine

There are between 20 and 30 liquid carbon dioxide cleaning plants in the United States and this is primarily due to the cost of the machine and even perhaps due to the original marketing of the Micell company. It is not polite to ask the price of some things and I didn’t ask Gordon the cost of the machine. Gordon did volunteer that the total cost was about $165,000.00 which included freight, rigging, installation and the use of an engineer until everything was running perfectly. Now that the price question is out of the way and when compared to a liquid drycleaning machine it is over twice the cost. However there are some offsets; first a load is cleaned in 45 minutes without any damage or wear and tear on the garments. There is absolutely a noticeable lack of odor from the garments. Colors are as bright as the day the garments were new and damage to beads, sequins, dyes or trims is virtually non-existent. The garments are not wrinkled which makes finishing much faster for a high quality plant.

Big and expensive seem to be the negatives. Excellent care of the garments, no dye loss, no damage to garments, no lint and again, that lack of odor thing are all positives. It appears that the cost of a load would be comparable to a solvent cleaner and utilities could be slightly higher. If the business is properly managed and a profitable price is charged for the work it is apparent there are a lot of marketing possibilities that are not available with any other solvent. After standing and watching potential customers stop and read about the gentleness of the process from the front window it convinced me that they care about their clothes, and they also care about an environmentally friendly cleaning processes.

After seeing the liquid carbon dioxide plants that Gordon has I suspect that you could not persuade him to go back being a liquid drycleaning person. His plants and store fronts are sights to behold as they are not like anything we are accustomed to seeing in this industry, and there are so many selling points to the solvent and process to a forward thinking man like Gordon.

A 2010 Update

There are basically two detergent suppliers now, Kruessler and Linde with Linde being a large supplier of industrial gasses. After 2001 Cool Clean Technologies has been the service provider and Gordon has used them in the past but he states a couple of years ago virtually all service and parts became prohibitively expensive. He has now joined with other CO2 cleaners and they have a co-op buying program which seems to e working well. Gordon feels that once CO2 machines are more common the parts and service will be reduced in price.

Garment finishing- no difference, not faster, not slower. A non factor reports Gordon but as mentined earlier there is no color loss on garments and virtually no lint in the lint trap meaning the gentleness of the cycle is not wearing the garments out. The positives of the solvent and process are the Unique Selling Points which can result in higher prices and more satisfied customers. This is because customers who have fine and expensive garments can feel, smell and see the difference between CO2 cleaning and regular solvent cleaning. This has been proved during the current economic downturn with less customer reduction in spending. Spotting labor seems to be a bit higher than normal cleaning but finishing is about the same.

There seems to be a bit more interest in CO2 cleaning and this should continue in the coming years as the regulators continue to tighten the rules and regulations of typical solvent cleaning. As more manufacturers begin building CO2 machines the price should come down and there should be more qualified service technicians and less sticking it to the customer on replacement parts.

Eskil Eriksson of Northfield, Ohio is the president and CEO of EC ALL Ltd, a company providing services and products to the CO2 cleaaning industry. thinks that the future is bright for CO2 cleaning. He feels that some of the current machines will disappear from the market while other manufacturers will emerge. Eskil also thinks the machines will have a smaller footprint and give the same throughput and will see the price come down from the original pricing by Micell. Eskil contributed some valuable information for the update of the original article.

This seems to be the state of the carbon dioxide cleaning at the present time. There is a company making a solvent machine with a liquid carbon dioxide rinse but the sales have been reportedly quite low. There is a question about how environmentally compatible the glycol ether cleaning solvent is, and how it will hold up to close governmental scrutiny.