Water costs, increased efficiency standards and new technologies are pushing the laundry room out of the shadows as apartment owners find that this expected service can be turned into a valuable amenity.

“With competition running high, building property owners want – and need – to be able to use the laundry room as a leasing tool,” said Dick Casey, director of multi-housing sales for Alliance Laundry. “It can no longer be put in the corner of a basement with a light bulb hanging down and rats running around behind the machines.”

When it comes to laundry, many tenants prefer having their own washer and dryer. But there are many buildings where it just isn’t an option, and more and more buildings where it might not be the right option.

Water usage is coming under increased scrutiny across the country, and it is a cost that all property owners and managers are eager to control. According to the Multi-Housing Laundry Association (MLA), common-area laundry rooms are 3.3 times more efficient than in-unit equipment, saving more than 150 gallons per unit, per week, in the process.

Some local municipalities offer rebate or tax credit programs for machines certified by the federal government’s Energy Star program. Washing machines that are certified use 35% to 50% less water and 50% less energy that traditional equipment, according to the Energy Star regulations. For example, the San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) is offering $150 rebates for each installation of an EnergyStar certified washer. The state of New York is offering a $200 rebate.

Many multifamily property owners opt for commercial-grade equipment, which is not held to the same efficiency standards as residential washers and dryers. Even so, manufacturers are responding to calls for higher efficiency. SpeedQueen’s commercial front-loading washers, for example, have qualified to display the Energy Star mark.

With in-unit washers and dryers still the choice among many tenants, manufacturers are showcasing a variety of new space-saving models. Thor Appliance Co. is targeting the multifamily industry with its SoftLine model, an all-in-one machine measuring 23 inches wide and 33 inches tall that does not require a dryer vent. Thor promotes Softline as the largest capacity combination washer/dryer. Texas-based ASKO is taking a similar approach, touting its new front-loading washer/dryer pair, which can be stacked and uses half the detergent and less energy than any other pair, according to the company.

New technologies

Inside the common-area laundry room, a new feature is gaining popularity – the use of card-based payment systems, or smart cards. Some advocates are convinced they can increase customer loyalty, encourage more laundry equipment use, and thus, generate more revenue for the property owner.

Massachusetts-based Mac-Gray, which offers LaundryServ, a full-service laundry solution, said that its smart card system has increased customer revenues by 20%.

Taking coins out of the equation makes it easier for people to use laundry rooms and increases usage, explained Heather Maguire, marketing director for The Fowler Cos., a New Jersey-based turnkey laundry service provider.

These systems do require a higher capital investment, according to Maguire.

According to Scott Scarpato, president of the Boston-based Automatic Laundry, smart card systems can cost 25% to 35% more than the traditional coin-based configuration. However, Scarpato estimated at least 35% of his new accounts are opting for card-based laundry equipment, a number he expects to keep growing.

The real value of these systems to the owner is that “the cards are prepaid,” said Alliance Laundry’s Casey, “and that you have the money on the front end.”

But card-based systems are only 5% to 7% of his company’s multifamily sales, Casey said, and he remains unconvinced that machines with cards are used significantly more than coin-operated washers and dryers. Alliance Laundry manufactures washers and dryers under the brand SpeedQueen, and it services the multifamily housing industry through a national network of route operators.

Service matters

One way to serve tenants better is to offer them a way to check the availability of machines without having to leave their apartments. Web Service Co., based in California, offers the Laundrimate Phone System, a monitoring device that is connected to a dedicated phone line, thereby providing tenants with an easy means of checking to see if machines are available. Automatic Laundry is beta-testing its Wash Alert System, a PC-based system that also allows residents to check machine availability.

Internet technologies are also being used for service checks. Alliance Laundry’s NetMaster system allows its route operators to remotely check the operation of its machines.

Many turnkey operators are also providing design services, working with property owners to maximize the convenience and comfort of the laundry room.

“The trend is clearly that the laundry room has to be a very tasteful amenity to the project,” said Scarpato.

“Pressure on the industry is to create an environment that performs the primary function of washing clothes, as well as a secondary benefit of being a pleasant place.”