Better control of multiple laundry equipment, improved resident satisfaction and retention, and increased security are just some of the benefits new computerized, wallet-size smart cards are achieving for the nation's $2.0 billion laundry services industry. The smart cards for hassle-free laundry, door access and other applications being neatly folded into multifamily operations also helps differentiate properties, reduce building management concerns and increase laundry usage, among other advantages. In most cases, the technology is available to property owners for about the same cost as a coin operation.

The term "smart card" refers to the credit-card-like device, complete with computer chip, now cycling through the industry. It is a generic term for the card itself and, in this case, its basic ability to activate commercial washers and dryers equipped with electronic card readers, eliminating the need for coins.

The imbedded microprocessor chip stores and processes a dollar value that is reduced as the card is used, and may be increased with dollar bills, credit cards, debit cards and other methods. The smart card's computer chip holds more information than traditional magnetic stripe cards and is more dependable, since it withstands wear better than magnetic stripe technology. The microprocessor also makes it easy to add information and program different applications whenever necessary.

"Residents like the convenience of the smart card's coinless technology, and property managers like its influence on resident satisfaction and retention, which is their primary mission," says Dick Casey, director of multihousing sales for Raytheon Commercial Laundry of Ripon, Wisc., which manufactures and markets Speed Queen brand laundry equipment. "For property managers, smart cards make money collection easier, since bills are gathered from one location, as opposed to coins being collected from many machines."

The Macke Laundry Station, card center technology from Macke Laundry Services of Wheeling, Ill., accepts VISA, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, ATM cards and prepaid Personalized Debit Cards. It provides online, authorized credit transactions and a printed receipt, and the card provides access to multiple functions, such as door access.

"About 30% of a property's service calls are related to the machines' coin slides; when you take the slides out, the laundry room operates more efficiently, vandalism is practically eliminated, and the residents are glad they don't need quarters to do their laundry anymore," says Mel Biagini, director of marketing for Macke. "For a property now operating on coins, we can replace that technology with the Macke Laundry Station at no additional cost. We deliver the system, install it and maintain it. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved."

At Whirlpool Corp. of Benton Harbor, Mich., the company's Whirlpool Smart Card system tested successfully in college dormitories, and has now been introduced to other multihousing environments. Value may be added to the card via dollars using the Laundry Card Update Center (CUC), usually located in a manager's office to further deter vandalism. Credit, debit and other payment methods will also be accepted by the system in the near future. "We're finding that most property managers don't want to deal with quarters. Coinless card technology that activates the machines as well as doors and vending machines is the way to go," asserts Carolyn Verweyst, public relations manager for Whirlpool Home Appliances.

Web Service Co. of Redondo Beach, Calif., retrofits primarily Maytag and Whirlpool laundry equipment with its own smart card technology, conducting 90% of its commercial business in the multihousing arena. The Web AccessCard System provides smart card access to the washers and dryers as well as doors, gates and other security system devices, laundry product vending machines, snack machines and more. The company also provides the Web AccessCard Add-Value Station, which allows residents to purchase a new card or use cash to add value to an existing card. With the Web AccessCard Billing System, all laundry room cash is removed from a property; laundry equipment usage may be billed to a resident's major credit card, or be billed directly to the resident via a monthly billing statement from Web.

"Today we are providing properties with custom cards complete with logos and pictures of their complexes," says Cathy Jackson, director of marketing for Web. Managers are approaching local businesses to cut deals offering discounts to residents that show the card. It's another leasing amenity that helps differentiate one property from another."

New Washer/Dryer Products "Another trend spinning through the industry: to promote water, electric and wastewater disposal savings, new front-load technology for washing machines is being mixed into today's product cycle," says Jackson. "The technology is significant because it can save properties hundreds of dollars a year in utility costs. She says that Speed Queen and Maytag were among the first brands to offer the new front-load technology."

Casey of Raytheon confirms that the new Horizon high efficiency, front-load washer and matching dryer Speed Queen machinery equipped with electronic reader to accommodate Raytheon's Cardmate Laundry Card is now on the market. "Available as a single unit or stacked with the dryer, the new Horizon front-load washer was designed specifically in response to the industry trend towards lower cost operation," says Casey. The product uses about eight gallons of water less per cycle than a top loader for the same capacity, and has a high-speed extract (spin cycle), providing significant savings in the energy used to dry loads. In addition, its front controls comply to ADA guidelines and are accessible to persons standing or in wheelchairs.

"The new high-efficiency, front-load washer from Maytag has been very successful in the multihousing market, where it is providing an energy savings of about 40% over typical top-load machines," says Ron Fey, general manager of commercial laundry at Maytag. "In addition to using less hot water and removing more moisture in the spin cycle than top-load washers, Maytag's new machine has 32% greater capacity easily accommodating sleeping bags or comforters, and does a better job of stain removal."

For placement in individual apartments, the newest product from Appliances International of Burbank, Calif., the North American distributor of Bendix laundry equipment, is a portable, high-efficiency front-loading washer and dryer combination. An exclusive, patented system allows clothes to be washed and dried in the same machine. "After washing, a powerful spinning phase removes humidity from clothes," says John Lee, president of Appliances International. "Then hot air is blown at a high speed, with its temperature automatically regulated, directly onto the gently moving clothes."

"Dryers are the most costly laundry item to run; but when water is extracted from the wash using high-speed centrifugal force, water retention is reduced, requiring less dryer time. This process also lets the dryers keep up with the washers; tenants are less likely to be standing around with loads of wet clothes waiting for a dryer," says Bob Eisenberg, marketing director for IPSO.

"The new coin-operated unit complies with ADA guidelines, which top loaders do not, and may be installed on any floor, because of its unique non-bolted, suspension-mounted system."

Future Trends Though coin-operated technology is taking a tumble, it's hardly all washed up, for most multihousing properties today still provide coin-operated laundry room services. But as smart cards continue to penetrate the market and their related applications are broadened, residents look more closely at smart cards.

Interestingly, some smart cards, such as the Web AccessCard, are designed to work with future "electronic purse" vending applications, both on and off a property. Test piloted at the Olympics in Atlanta, the electronic purse concept entails a stored value card that may be used to access a property's on-site laundry equipment, vending machines and security doors, as well as to make purchases at off-site convenience stores, gas stations, video stores and public telephones.

This approach is now in use throughout Europe, where the smart card idea was first developed in France during the mid-1970s. Europeans are using the cards for diverse purchases, public transportation, telephone calls, healthcare services and more. "In Germany, a person's entire medical history, including insurance information, is stored on a smart card," says Verweyst of Whirlpool. "If smart cards ever approach this level in the U.S., they will probably be driven by the banking industry, not laundry manufacturers and service companies. In the meantime, multihousing property managers implementing new coinless smart card technology today may wipe clean their competition tomorrow."