SYLVA, N.C. — After another round of gas price hikes came blowing in on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, longtime laundry owner Ted Edwards decided he’d had enough.In the spring of 2006, he made some dramatic changes to his store, Ted’s Laundry in Sylva, N.C. He yanked out 34 washers, ranging in age from five to 26 years. That was his entire stock except for nine top loaders he hung onto to please longtime customers in this semi-rural, western North Carolina mountain area.He replaced the washers with 34 soft-mount, high-speed extract washers that spin clothes so dry that drying time, and thus usage of the bottled gas that runs the dryers, is reduced. They exert two to three times the G-force of ordinary washers, he says, and he estimates that 10 minutes’ drying time is saved per load.Edwards also replaced his older-model water heater with an on-demand, gas water-heating system. “We didn’t change the dryers. We don’t want you using the dryers anyway,” he says.WORTH THE EFFORT?Did the actions of a frustrated laundry owner pay off? The result: He saved 16% on his average monthly gas bill from April ’06 to March ’07, compared to April ’05 to March ’06, even though his overall business stayed about the same. And that’s despite an increase of 21 cents per gallon in the average price of bottled gas for those periods. “If we were comparing apples to apples, we’d be saving even more,” he says.Gas had jumped drastically in price back in 2001, he says, and though the increases stopped for a time, the post-Katrina hike convinced him to take action. He saw the handwriting on the wall, he says. “This was a situation that was going to go on and on.”He immediately started putting together the financing for the equipment, which he started using in March 2006.Edwards was either going be paying money to the bank or the gas company, he figured. “And the bank is a lot more stable (in its demands) than the gas company. You know where you stand with the bank.”MAKING ADJUSTMENTSTo pay for the switch, Edwards raised prices on 20-pound washers by 50 cents, the amount that he estimates customers save by running the dryers for 20 minutes rather than 30. Drying times tend to be lengthy in the mist-laden N.C. mountains where he’s located, he says. “That’s why it’s called the Smokies.”On 30-, 40- and 50-pound washers, he raised prices 50 cents (the amount users would save because of less drying time), plus an optional prewash is available for another 50 cents. Edwards was unable to charge separately for a prewash in the past because it was standard on the old machines. He also pared his 20 top loaders down to nine in the changeover, and he got rid of the remaining top loaders’ water-guzzling, free super-cycle.SELLING THE CHANGEEducating his laundry customers about the switch required effort and patience, he recalls, but he doesn’t think he lost any customers because of the move.“For a month or so, we struggled, and we had to approach everybody that came through the door. You really have to explain yourself,” he says.“Hopefully, you won’t pay a dime more,” he explained to customers, pointing out the savings in drying time. He also told them that the machines use less water and detergent. “It’s amazing how many clothes you can put in them,” he adds.Spinning the moisture out of clothes also makes them last longer, he believes. “All that lint in the bottom of the dryer is your linen, your clothes.” It’s deposited there by friction associated with dry heat, he explains.Customers evidently have bought the explanation. Debbie Trantham, approached recently as she loaded one of the new machines, was asked if she liked it. “Oh sure,” she said. “Saves drying time.”The new washer-extractor equipment mix includes 20 20-pound capacity machines charging $2.50; five 30-pound machines at $3.50; two 40-pound machines at $4.50; and four 50-pound machines at $5.50 (Prewash not included). Prices include a recent hike to cover increased labor costs.HELPING OUTSix years ago, Edwards added a commercial division to serve country clubs, an assisted living facility and other clients. The four assistants who did wash, dry and fold for the coin laundry used the same machines for the commercial work. They continue to handle both commercial and wash, dry and fold, but in a dedicated space in the 5,100-square-foot building.The new purchases include three high-speed extractors for their exclusive use: one 100-pound machine, one 60-pound machine, and one 40-pound machine. Edwards’ wife, Deanie, has been managing a drop-off site for a drycleaner at the coin laundry. She and Edwards recently moved the site across town to make more room for another 60-pound washer-extractor and a presser in commercial/wash, dry, fold.Edwards estimates that commercial and wash, dry and fold, taken together, account for about one-quarter of his total business. Wash, dry and fold is one-quarter of that.He offers two levels of wash, dry and fold: an economy level with a flexible price based on washer and dryer usage and detergent plus 45 cents a pound for labor, and a full-service level at a flat $1 per pound.With full service, Edwards says, “We sort everything. We turn your socks. We wash, dry, fold, hang. It’s ready to go back in a drawer or closet.”Edwards and seven part-time assistants, not including the four who are working wash, dry and fold/commercial and an assistant at the drycleaning drop-off, keep a sharp eye on the laundry from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.The assistants are people used to handling responsibility, he says, including a retired schoolteacher, a railway engineer, the principal of a local school, a retired GM employee and a police officer. How much crime does he have? Very little, Edwards reports.The assistants clean constantly. “That way, you can pick up on things going wrong,” says Edwards, who does all his own maintenance. “Fix it then. Don’t delay.”The new, computerized machines spin so fast that they require 80% of a full load to maintain the necessary balance, he says. If a load is too small, the machine will try nine times to adjust it and restart, but by that time, Edwards or an assistant has likely come to the rescue.Assistants make more than minimum wage, but when North Carolina raised its minimum wage $1 an hour recently, Edwards increased his $1 too, “to keep the differential.”CHALLENGING TIMESHis long-term solution to static sales, besides trying to counteract gas price increases, is to grow the commercial side of his business.In the coin-op, he says, “on the weekends, we’re busy,” and he has to have enough machines to accommodate that volume. But they’re not used to capacity the rest of the week, he admits. If the commercial business outgrows its four new washers, he can use some of the laundry’s machines for the commercial business.“We’re going to use them one way or another.”To Edwards, the machines represent a valuable asset as well as a hedge against unpredictable gas prices. “We’ve gained a new facility and haven’t lost anything,” he says.“Would I do it all over again?” he asks rhetorically, then answers himself. “In a heartbeat.”
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