The dirt on dry cleaners

By Holly Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 11:47 AM

Ask anyone if they have a good dry cleaner, and odds are you'll get one solid recommendation for every 10 horror stories about lost garments, broken buttons and outrageous charges. Tales of misplaced pants aside, there are several options to consider: Do you take a chance on the ultra-cheap operation near your office? Or spend more at an eco-friendly cleaner and avoid some of the harsh chemicals?

To get the dirt on coming clean, we conducted an experiment: I bought four identical button-front shirts and spilled the same amount of red wine in the same place on each. Then I took three to different dry cleaners - a wallet-friendly same-day-service spot in Silver Spring, an organic cleaner in the District and a long-established chain's location in Arlington. For the fourth, I scoured the Internet for a home remedy and tackled the stain with a cocktail of household products. Read on to see the winners and losers in this quest for clean.

ECO-FRIENDLY

Georgetown Valet

1100 13th St. NW

202-289-7779

Cost: $6.41

These days, it can be tough to find a dry cleaner that doesn't have "organic" somewhere on its signage, but not all things organic are created equal. There are no industry regulations on the use of the term, so in some instances, including Georgetown Valet, organic means using a nontoxic hydrocarbon solvent. It's better than the old-fashioned chemicals but not completely natural.

Pros: The customer service here was top-notch. All three employees greeted me and thanked me for coming in, plus they remembered me when I came back for the shirt, which was spotless.

Cons: It's not always easy - or cheap - being green. At just under $7, the dry-cleaning bill was almost a third of the cost of the $24.95 H&M shirt.

LOCAL FIXTURE

Bergmann's Cleaning

2147 Lee Hwy.

Arlington

703-276-3947; bergmanns.com

cost: $1.31

This family-run company has operated in the area since 1917. With 11 home pick-up and delivery routes from Reston to Columbia and a range of payment plans, Bergmann's approach is decidedly old-fashioned - customers can place their items to be cleaned outside their front door, where they'll be dropped off when the job is done. The company switched to a biodegradable solvent in 2007 but has steered clear of the "organic" label.

Pros: First, the obvious - Bergmann's charged the least and got all the wine out. With two freestanding locations and 50 Safeway drop-off spots, there's probably an outpost near you, plus the chain offers free home pick-up and delivery.

Cons: Call ahead. Using the "Store by ZIP" feature on the Web site sent me to a Wilson Boulevard location that no longer exists.

FAST AND CHEAP

Dryclean Direct

13411 New Hampshire Ave.

Silver Spring

301-589-7400

Cost: $1.98

Fixed-price discount dry cleaners have cropped up in recent years, but it this a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach? I pointed out the general stain when dropping off the item and the efficient clerk marked it with tape. The marked spot came clean, but there were adjacent small spots that didn't get that level of care. This place is about volume and convenience and so if you want extra attention paid to something, be prepared to be specific.

Pros: Same-day service means that the shirt, which was dropped off at 8 a.m., was ready for pick-up before dinner. This location has extended weekday hours and is open on Sunday.

Cons: This is the only cleaner that didn't remove all the wine, leaving behind small spots. Cash-only payment is required in advance.

HOME REMEDY

Hydrogen peroxide, soap

$0.99 for 8 fl. oz. and $1.39 for 16 fl. oz. at mass retailers

The at-home stain showdown began with an Internet search for the most popular do-it-yourself method. I started by wetting the stain and then coating it with salt, which some online sources claimed would soak up the wine. That doesn't work for a set stain. As plan B, I mixed one part hydrogen peroxide with two parts water and a squeeze of dish soap, poured it on the stain and waited. After about 30 seconds, I gently dabbed at the stain - don't scrub, or you'll fray the fibers in the shirt - for a few minutes and voila! The wine was gone and the shirt looked new.

Pros: The DIY approach gets the stain out and leaves solution for future spills. It took about 10 minutes.

Cons: Hydrogen peroxide can bleach certain fabrics, so test the solution on a hidden section first.

The Bottom Line

In my admittedly limited test, Bergmann's was the clear winner. The well-established Washington area chain won on convenience and - what really matters - cleaning. Find a cleaner with multiple locations and added services. If you're looking for an eco-friendly establishment, get a price ahead of time. And never leave the cleaner without checking the results.

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