Drying off after a refreshing shower is often one of the very first and very last things a guest will do in their hotel room.
Those all-important first impressions, and those equally important final reminders, are created by the humble hotel towel. Since 99 per cent of hospitality industry towels are white, colour is unlikely to be a distinguishing feature. Instead, accommodation providers deliberate on size, fluffiness and drying power to ensure they don’t rub their guests up the wrong way.
But how do you make sure those fluffy white towels and bath mats that come into your establishment on day one are still impressing guests after 120 commercial launderings or more?
And how do you choose a towel for your hospitality business that will provide the right mixture of quality and longevity?
For Magnetic Island Laundries’, Peter McGrath, selecting the right towel comes down to looking carefully at the clientele.
“A backpackers obviously doesn’t need the same quality of towel as a five-star resort. You have got to remember that with a backpackers you have huge losses with regard to towels, they get badly damaged, used as ink blotters and everything imaginable. They also disappear by their hundreds,” he said.
Mr McGrath remembers one particularly bad day when he sent out 40 towels and only got 11 back. “It’s endemic to the industry,” he admitted.
“The losses reduce with more upmarket hotels and resorts but the towels are worth more so overall the cost of losses would be roughly the same. The five-star towels cost four times as much as a backpacker towel,” he said.
Mr McGrath said that only half the towels he buys actually remain in the system long enough to get worn out. The other half get stolen.
“That needs to be factored in so you have a rough idea of what your losses are going to be”.
It also depends on the training of the people that work in the hotels and resorts, how they handle the linen, is it kicked around the floor and used for cleaning rooms (face washers are a very handy size for rags) or is it bundled straight into bags ready for cleaning.
“We tend to upscale our towelling, we use oversize on everything,” Mr McGrath said.
“Bath mats need to last for at least two people to use them without becoming a wet rag on the floor.”
“A lot of people wear them as sarongs and they hang down to mid calf length. Size is important but so is the drying time, big fluffy towels might look like they will be very absorbent but sometimes they are not. We use a towel that dries very quickly. That is especially important so that people don’t need to change their towels every day.”
The commercial laundering process is fairly hard on towels lasting a full 40 minutes using six chemicals in each cycle and processing at temperatures of up to 80ºC.
“The towels have to go through a cold flush first with a liquid break, this is a very mild chemical solution to break up any blood products. Then they are put through a hot wash at 80ºC with brightening and whitening, then a triple rinse (one hot and two cold) before the final chemical rinse,” Mr McGrath explained.
“An average towel (up to four star) lasts for 120 washes. However in a lot of towels we have used in the past the seams start to come apart after 40 washes, I think it’s in the construction,” he said.
Towel producers and suppliers are keen to ensure their products can withstand the treatment they receive inside guestrooms and laundries. A great deal of work has been carried out into the life expectancy of towels in an industrial environment by institutions such as the British Laundry Research Association and the South African Dry Cleaners and Laundry Association. While opinions vary slightly the general consensus is that between 90 and 120 wash cycles seems to be an average lifespan for towels in an industrial environment. Fabric life is measured in respect of ‘number of launderings’ not elapsed weeks, months or years.
The primary purpose of a towel is to dry excess moisture from the body, which is in itself a fairly efficient chemical factory secreting an assortment of chemicals that are primarily acidic and fatty in nature, as well as a variety of sunscreens and skin preparations. If the acidic fats and greases are left on the cotton fabric they will physically ‘burn’ the material. It is therefore fundamental to the effective laundering of such fabrics that they are submitted to the correct pH and temperature to achieve thermal disinfection and a clean look in a white towel. If the pH and temperature are not achieved, the fatty acids will be left on the fabric resulting in chemical degradation of the fibres and reduction in towel life.
To obtain optimum life for a hotel towel, experts recommend that a stock of five towels be used to maintain one towel in a hotel room. This allows for one in the room, one in the linen stock room, one on the way to the laundry, one being laundered and one being returned to the hotel. Assuming 120 washes for each towel at one wash per five days this gives a life expectancy of 20 months. If any less than five towels per room are used then the life expectancy will be shortened accordingly.
Pool towels are particularly prone to degradation, he said, since they come into contact with damaging chemicals such as pool acid and antibacterial agents. Pool towels left wet and exposed to sunlight will accelerate the wear and tear.
Detergents used in the washing process lower the surface tension of the water to allow soiling to come free from the fabric. More importantly they hold this soiling in suspension preventing it reattaching to the fabric. Most modern detergents contain optical brightening agents or OBAs. These are a type of dyestuff that attaches itself to the fabric during the laundering process. The action of OBAs is to absorb light in the invisible ultra violet region of the spectrum and re-emit it in the visible spectrum principally as fluorescent white light.
On white fabrics the effect is to make the fabric appear ‘whiter than white’ but on pastel shade fabrics, the effect of the OBAs can overpower the colour of the fabric giving a bleached or faded appearance.
Towels can also be affected by the salts contained in the water that is used during laundering. These ‘water hardness salts’ are composed of calcium, magnesium and potassium carbonate, nitrate and sulphate that dissolve in the water during its passage through the land. Soap is sensitive to water hardness as observed by the scum formed when washing in hard water, forming the ‘ring’ in the bath or basin. This scum is sticky and readily attaches itself to fabric, discolouring it and turning it grey.
Detergents are also affected by hard water, producing sediment, which can be deposited on the fabric so you need higher detergent levels to compensate. Unless the higher detergent quantity is used or alternatively a water softening plant incorporated, not all soiling will be removed and white towels can become grey.