The History of Dry Cleaning Solvents and the Evolution of the Dry Cleaning Machine

DRY CLEANING HAS BEEN AROUND SINCE THE 1600S AND HAS BEEN A RELIABLE WAY TO GET CLOTHES CLEANED EVER SINCE. CHEMICAL-BASED SOLVENTS TOOK OFF IN THE 1800S, AND THE CONVERSATION ABOUT INDUSTRY BEST PRACTICES AND LONG-TERM IMPACTS ARE HOT TOPICS TODAY.

Black and white picture of a drycleaner

Perchloroethylene, also known as perc, has been around for nearly a century and it’s still the dominant solvent used by U.S. dry cleaners compared to hydrocarbons or alternative solvents like GreenEarth. 

However, the number of dry cleaners using perc has started to go down. From the 1970s to 1990s a barrage of increasingly stringent rules and regulations covering dry cleaning operations and the use of perc, past and present took place. Over the past few decades, 80-85% of dry cleaners in the U.S. used to use perc. Now, about 60-65% of dry cleaners use perc and the rest now use hydrocarbons (20-25%) or alternative solvents (15-20%).

Timeline of drycleaning solvent usage between 1600 and today
Here’s a timeline of dry cleaning solvent usage. Inventors and industrialists experimented with kerosene and gasoline-based cleaning through the 19th century. In fact, dry cleaning as we know it was discovered by Jean-Baptiste Jolly on accident when a kerosene lamp was spilled on a linen tablecloth in the late 1800s. As you can imagine, washing clothes inflammable liquid was not ideal. An American dry cleaner, Wiliam Joseph Stoddard, is credited with developing the first non-gasoline-based solvent but it was Michael Faraday, a prominent chemist, who discovered tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene or “perc” which has been a solvent favorite for 80 years.

Perc is well-liked by dry cleaners because it is much more effective and quicker to use than hydrocarbon cleaning, which takes 75% more time to do the same cleaning that perc does for clothes. With these efficient attributes, it’s no wonder that perc has stayed as a popular choice for so long.

However, there are some downsides to using perc for dry cleaning: 

  1. Perc is a very strong chemical, which is what makes it a great cleaning solvent, however, it can easily seep into the soil and groundwater beneath a dry cleaner with a few minor spills causing serious contamination issues. Additionally, perc doesn’t naturally degrade over time and without treatment perc will actually sink deeper and spread out farther, which creates a large plume of perc contamination. 
  2. The historical perc regulations didn’t instruct the industry to handle and dispose of the chemical safely, which is a heartbreaking story because dry cleaners were following the proper regulations at the time, but they’re now on the hook for the contamination.
  3. Perc dry cleaning machines are expensive and can cost $60,000-$80,000, which is why they are a big expense for dry cleaners and are not replaced often. Additionally, the perc machine was considered to be an investment and an asset. Therefore, if a dry cleaner can’t afford a new machine nor sell their old perc machine, then they are most likely still using a Perc machine instead of a machine that can use alternative solvents.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE DRY CLEANING MACHINE

Now that we’ve covered the history of dry cleaning solvents, we’ll dive further into the evolution of the dry cleaning machine.

The dry cleaning machine as dry cleaners know it has gone through multiple generations of functionality and use. First, there were wet to dry machines, then dry to dry machines, then the current machine on the market, closed-loop machines. The different machine generations solved operational issues for dry cleaners and helped them use their dry cleaning solvents more effectively. 

1ST GENERATION MACHINE

1st generation drycleaning machine with separate washer and dryer
Wet clothes were transferred between the washer and dryer. Some systems did incorporate a separate vapor recovery unit, utilizing either a carbon bed or water cooled coils. Image Courtesy: Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

2ND GENERATION MACHINE

2nd generation drycleaning machine with combined washer and dryer
In the first dry-to-dry machines or second-generation machines, vapors are vented to the atmosphere from the machine washing drum when the machine is opened after the drying cycle. Again some machines utilized either a carbon bed or water-cooled coils. Image Courtesy: Newtone Drycleaners

3RD GENERATION MACHINE

3rd generation light blue drycleaning machine
These were the first “closed-loop” machines. The vapors from the dryer are routed to a refrigerated condenser for solvent recovery. Image Courtesy: Böwe Textile Cleaning

4TH GENERATION MACHINE

Image #4 alt-text: Back view of 4th generation drycleaning machine
These closed-loop machines utilize both refrigerated condensers and carbon adsorbers to recover solvent vapors. Reducing the vapor concentration in the wheel to below 300ppm. Image Courtesy: Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

5TH GENERATION MACHINE

5th generation drycleaning machine
In addition to a refrigerated condenser and carbon absorber, these closed-loop machines have inductive fans and sensor-actuated lockout device that will not allow entry to the machine door, button trap, or filters until solvent vapors in the machine are below certain levels (generally 300 parts per million (ppm)). Image Courtesy: Oasis Max Clean

Dry cleaners are keenly aware that the use of perc has become as heavily regulated as nearly any other industrial chemical to date, and some have started to switch over to hydrocarbon or alternative solvents. As mentioned earlier, changing machines is a costly endeavor for dry cleaners and it’s understandable why they would prefer to keep using perc compared to other solvent options, such as hydrocarbon and alternative solvents like GreenEarth, K4, Sensene and wetcleaning. 

While dry cleaners evaluate different solvent options and their future business plans, it’s important to prepare for addressing an environmental issue if it’s placed in your lap. The costs of addressing environmental contamination without funding though historical insurance can range up into the hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, which is why we recommend using insurance archeology, which is a small fraction of that cost, to locate insurance assets that can be used to cover the necessary environmental and legal costs associated with a cleanup. Being proactive means that you are in command of the situation and by being in front of the issue, you will save yourself a lot of stress and money.

As chlorinated solvent experts, we’ve helped hundreds of dry cleaners navigate their environmental concerns with little to no out-of-pocket costs to them. Our goal is to help our clients get out of a challenging situation without a large financial burden. We understand how challenging this process can be for business and property owners and have successfully helped our clients navigate through these often uncharted waters. 

Want to hear what our clients think? Hear from our dry cleaning clients and get an inside perspective on their environmental challenges.


Headshot of Dru ShieldsDru Shields has over ten years of account management experience in the environmental consulting industry and serves on the Midwest Drycleaning and Laundry Institute Advisory Council and was recently appointed as a District Committee Member on the DLI Board. Among her many responsibilities, she assists clients in securing funding for their environmental cleanups through historical insurance policies and walking them through the environmental remediation process.