How to buy bunker gear washing machines

Keeping turnout gear clean is critical to firefighter health; here's how to buy and use turnout gear washers

The publication of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, has led to an increased awareness among firefighters for the need to have turnout clothing laundered regularly. But awareness is not enough.

We continue to learn more about the hazards of the "ethyl-methyl-bad-stuff" from structural firefighting that contaminates our turnout gear and the connection to a variety of cancers. Clean and decontaminated personal protective clothing is a firefighter health and safety issue, and every department should ensure that their personnel have the equipment to properly launder and dry that gear.

The U.S. Fire Administration addressed this issue several years ago when it included laundry equipment for PPC to the list of what could be purchased with Assistance to Firefighters Grant money. Laundry equipment manufacturers have all taken steps to ensure that their products are compliant with AFG requirements.

Laundering basics
For structural gear, OEMs recommend a front-loading washing machine, which does not have an agitator, and preferably one that is designated specifically for cleaning turnouts. A stainless steel tub is preferred.

The OEMs caution that the washer's extractor G-force is very important and they suggest that 85 Gs would be best, but certainly no more than 100 Gs. If you are trying to convert revolutions per minute to G force, you can do so using the following formula:

  • CRPM = Cylinder RPM
  • CD = Cylinder diameter (inches)
  • G-forces = CRPM x CRPM x CD /70,500

If you must use a top loader, they suggest using a laundry bag to protect the inside of the machine from the hooks and D-rings (and to protect the hooks and D-rings from the machine's agitator).

Machine washing will not affect the protective qualities of your turnout gear. The special fabrics contain inherent flame- and heat-resistance properties, which cannot be washed off or worn out. However, given the nature of the contaminants to which firefighters are exposed, never wash any civilian clothes in a machine used for PPC.

When machine washing, always prepare the clothing as directed, by separating removable liners and DRDs from outer shells and fastening all closure systems. Use warm water and a normal cycle; water temperature should not exceed 105°F.

Following each complete wash cycle, thoroughly rinse your garments. Liners should be turned inside out and smaller items, like gloves and protective hoods, should be laundered in a mesh bag. Every separable component should be laundered separately.

Protective clothing should always be washed by itself; do not overload the washing machine; do not use softeners; and never use chlorine bleach.

What to look for in a washer/extractor
Before you start your search for the right washer/extractor, take a good look at where you're going to put it in the station. Hard-mount washer/extractors require a reinforced concrete foundation for the unit to be bolted to the floor. Soft-mount units make use of a heavy-duty suspension system that absorbs the energy of the operating unit and thus eliminates the need for bolting the unit to the floor.

NFPA Standard 1851 states that soiled protective gear should be washed in a highly programmable front-load washer-extractor. A highly programmable washer allows fire departments to alter how they wash gear based on changing recommendations and fabric innovations. 

A highly programmable machine allows the user to program every variable of the wash process, including extract speed in G-force, number of baths, water temperatures, water levels, cylinder rotation options, mechanical action, wash time and automatic chemical injection.

With these machines, fire departments can properly clean virtually any fabric type. Once the machine is programmed, the user enters a code and presses start.

The gear is cleaned automatically and properly every time with the right mix of chemicals, water temperature, water levels and extract speed. The load results are consistent every time, regardless for who is doing the wash.

A washer/extractor with automatic chemical injection can automatically inject exact amounts of cleaning chemicals at exactly the right time in the wash process and at the right water temperature. It is very important that fire departments choose a washer-extractor with this feature because it prevents chemical overuse and damage to fabric — and it saves the department money through more efficient use of those chemicals.

What's available
The Speed Queen Quantum hard-mount washer/extractor features a self-cleaning four-compartment dispenser that automatically dispenses detergent and fabric softener at appropriate times in the wash cycle. The Quantum also has flexible water level settings for more efficient use of water thus saving on utility bills. Models are available in 20-, 30-, 40-, 60-, 80- and 100-pound capacities.

Speed Queen also offers a soft-mount Quantum with the same features as its hard-mount sibling. It has a heavy-duty suspension that absorbs vibrations without the need for special foundations. The soft-mount is available in 18-, 25-, 35-, 55-, 75-, 100-, 135- and 165-pound capacities.

UniMac's UX Series is available in hard- or soft-mount; both have four-cycle controls with 100 G-force extraction. They are available in 18-, 25-, 35-, 55-, 75-, 100-, 135- and 165-pound capacities.

Continental Girbau offers the ExpressWash high-performance soft-mount, the MG-Series high-performance hard-mount and the M-Series hard-mount washer/extractors.

The ExpressWash washers are freestanding and allow for quick installation without bolts and thick reinforced concrete foundations. They slide easily into unconventional locations including truck bays, utility rooms or areas with in-floor heating systems. The MG-Series and M-Series washers must be bolted to a reinforced concrete foundation, but have a compact design to save space.

Dexter washer/extractors come in a wide range of models that can handle between one and five sets of PPC per load.

Selecting the washer/extractor that best meets the laundry needs of your department is a sound investment in both your people and their PPC. With proper use, a washer/extractor can ensure that both have long and successful careers.

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