Being married to a dry cleaner has taught me a lot about the dry cleaning industry. My husband, Pierre Rochman, opened Newfield Cleaners, his first dry cleaning store, in Bridgeport during 1968. Chez Pierre in Newtown followed in 1969, and after that, he opened Stony Hill Cleaners in Bethel in 1979. Then he launched a main plant in Danbury with two drop stores, where the cleaning was done in the main plant and sent to the satellite facilities called Pride Cleaners. Finally, in 1987 he designed and built his own Danbury-based state-of-the-art facility, Mill Plain Cleaners, which he has owned since.
Since I have often pitched in when my husband owned four dry cleaning businesses at one time, and since my children often spent time in these stores, it was important that we establish a healthy environment. That was long before the terms “environmentally,” “green,” or “organic” became popular. Since my husband has a background in engineering and even studied chemicals used in the dry cleaning process, he was always looking for better ways to clean garments safely. When he designed and opened his own store, where all work is done on the premises and is environmentally friendly, dry cleaners from far and wide came to visit his state-of-the-art, high-tech facility.
For years, most dry cleaners used a chemical called perchloroethylene, or more commonly referred to in the industry as “perc.” Many dry cleaners still use it, but now many cleaners want to be environmentally friendly, and they have adapted other ways of dry cleaning. This includes my husband, who did a lot of research before he selected his cleaning process of choice.
Most people would agree that perc is bad. It has been determined to be carcinogenic, toxic, and environmentally damaging. It could get into groundwater and then people could possibly end up drinking or ingesting it. It is damaging to animals as well as to humans. Overall, the industry has definitely moved away from using perc. On the other hand, wet cleaning is an integral part of the dry cleaning industry’s process for cleaning clothes. For cleaners, if it’s not, it should be.
To put it simply, dry cleaning has a lot of similarity to washing. Both processes depend on immersing a garment in a solution. In a dry cleaning machine, the garments are agitated and then tumbled dry. In dry cleaning, a substance is used that is not water. In wet cleaning the solution is water and detergents. The water is discarded after washing, and the drying temperature is relatively high.
Does this mean that wet cleaning is the same as putting your clothes in a washing machine? Absolutely not. Professional cleaners use high-tech machines that are computerized and control water temperature to a specific degree and control rotation speed. There is also an extraction force in the drying cycle. Timing is crucial in the drying cycle and is timed to the minute. There are also special detergents unavailable to the public that are specifically designed to clean garments in water. This process is designed to prevent shrinkage and color bleeding as well as other problems that might occur using a home washing machine.
The big question is, How does one know if a dry cleaner is “green”? There are many debates on which dry cleaning solution is the most environmentally friendly, and you definitely want to make sure your cleaner is not using perc. Yes, you can just ask. More preferred green options include hydrocarbon cleaning, which is not gasoline-based, silicone cleaning, and CO2 cleaning, as well as several others. Still, all of the above have their detractors, but there’s no argument about the dangers of perc.
Pierre maintains that customers should use their eyes and nose when going to a dry cleaner. Since the fluid solutions used in the cleaning process are reused over and over again, the purity of the fluid becomes a key factor. No matter which fluid is being used, it is expensive compared to perc. “If your whites are coming back to you looking dingy, then the fluid being used may have not been filtered properly,” explains Pierre. “Dry cleaners that try to save money will avoid purifying and distilling the fluid often enough, and distillation is expensive.”
While dry cleaning professional organizations recommend distillation based on the number of pounds cleaned, it is left up to the individual dry cleaner to decide when and to what extent to distill. It follows, therefore, that a dry cleaner who distills after each load, like my husband, would use the purest fluid for the best cleaning results.
In addition to the dry cleaning process, if there are stains, specific chemicals are used before dry cleaning; however, when done properly these chemicals are flushed out. Stain removal is an art in itself. Knowing what to use on a specific stain makes the difference between a knowledgeable and experienced cleaner and a satisfied customer or a possibly ruined garment.
As for using your eyes and nose, customers should note that when they enter a dry cleaning store, there should not be a chemical smell. Many dry cleaners are drop stores that send their work out to a plant and don’t process garments on-site. Customers still should rely on their noses to determine chemical use. A full-service green dry cleaner where the work is done on the premises should be free of chemical odors. You might see some steam coming from presses, but there should not be any chemical smell in the store or any chemical residue scent left on your clothes.