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Flexible fabric provides disaster relief

Advanced Textiles, Features, Tents | October 1, 2008 | By:

When disaster strikes, flexible fabric products offer aid.

Whether it’s flooding in Iowa or earthquakes in China, disasters in today’s global society seem to touch everyone. Victims need clean water, shelter and fuel quickly, but the traditional means of supplying these things have long been cumbersome and costly—if it was possible to get them to victims at all. However, recent innovations have produced reliable flexible fabric solutions that provide relief in disaster situations. Products put to the test in recent disasters include tents designed for long-term use in harsh climates, flexible tanks to contain potable water and fuel, and fabric barriers to hold back floodwaters. And on the horizon, a solar fabric holds promise to make tents and backpacks function as power sources.

Flexible fabric provides necessities

Shelter Systems, located in Santa Cruz, Calif., has been manufacturing a variety of tents for more than 30 years. Like the rest of the company’s products, its disaster relief yurt and dome tents are constructed using a shingled design so the fabric panels overlap each other to create a waterproof, wind-resistant shelter that’s still airy. Both the yurt and the dome tents can be set up by one person in just 30 minutes without tools.

Because the poles are constructed outside the tent and do not come in direct contact with the fabric, the tent itself is held together using the company’s Grip Clips™ tarp fasteners. This design keeps the tent from flapping open in the wind and prevents pole friction that can cause wear and shredding.

Designed by Shelter Systems owner Bob Gillis, the tents are made of woven, multilaminate ripstop film, which is resistant to both rot and mildew. And the fabric is UV-treated so the tents can last up to three years, even in the hot, dry conditions of the desert. Liners are available for use in extremely cold conditions. Flap doors are evenly spaced throughout the tents for easy access. Above each flap is a skylight that allows sunlight in without compromising the privacy of people inside. The 254-square-foot tent sleeps 8 to 10 people, while the 706-square-foot tent can accommodate 30 to 40.

In May, the company shipped 1,800 relief tents to China following the Sichuan earthquake. “Most of those tents were ordered by the U.S. Olympic Committee,” says business director Eleanor Hamner. “They were already working in China and they wanted to make a contribution to the Chinese people.”

The Cooley Group, Pawtucket, R.I., manufactures fabric membranes that can be used in numerous disaster relief products, including inflatable boats and rafts and shelters.

Cooley’s onion tanks, named for their shape, are used to store potable water in disaster areas where water supplies have been damaged or contaminated. Water tank fabrics vary, including polyurethane, polypropylene, PVC or various polyesters and nylon. Flexible fuel tanks are also very useful during a disaster. Cooley’s tanks are usually made from polyurethane and can store anywhere from 500 to 210,000 gallons of fuel. Both the fuel and the water tanks can last three years or more, even in harsh conditions.

“Our water tanks and shelter products were used during Katrina,” says Edward Silva, Cooley vice president of sales and marketing. “In many cases, we were able to respond from inventory and ship the next day.”

Flexible fabric prevents flooding

Sandbags used to be the first defense to hold back rising waters. In recent years, though, lightweight fabric barriers have become more prevalent. Not only are they easier to install, they don’t allow leakage like sandbags do. They can also be cleaned and stored for reuse, whereas sandbags often have to be discarded after a disaster because they’ve absorbed contaminated water.

Floodguards Systems Ltd. in the United Kingdom offers the Rapidam® fabric barrier system. Made from heavyweight 34-ounce vinyl-coated polyester, Rapidam barriers come in a variety of configurations. The Rapidam Boltdown Barrier can hold back a ton of water per three-foot-high barrier for more than three months without leaking. In areas prone to flooding, a system of bolts can be installed ahead of time so the fabric barrier need only be rolled out and attached to the bolts when floodwaters threaten. Rapidam’s 30-foot sections are joined by a patented, watertight, five-tooth ziplock system.

Alternatively, the Rapidam Freestanding Barrier needs little preparation to install. Military-designed penetration screws hold the barrier in place and can anchor up to 2,500 pounds. The barrier can be as small as three feet across or extended to enclose large spaces using the zipper system to connect sections. Sixty-five feet can be installed in less than 15 minutes.

Hendee Enterprises Inc. in Houston, Texas, is among the U.S. manufacturers that offer Rapidam products. President Chuck Hendee explains that most customers have experienced flooding in the past and want to be ready for future problems. “Everything is custom manufactured,” he says. “The commonality between customers is that they have a location that would be expensive to replace or that they have no tolerance for business interruption.”

Flexible fabrics incorporate solar power to provide portable energy

Relief agencies need a power source when responding to a crisis, but portable generators and the fuel to run them are heavy and difficult to transport. Over the years, many companies have tried to find ways to harness the sun’s energy to power mobile phones and other devices. GreenWorks Solar Energy Inc. of Annapolis, Md., believes it has a solution.

SolFlex™, the company’s new solar fabric, uses a flexible solar membrane known as thin film to create tents, backpacks and blankets capable of recharging batteries, providing LED lighting inside tents, charging global satellite phones and even running a fan or small refrigerator stocked with medicine.

The film, which can be laminated onto different types of fabrics, is dependable in many types of disaster situations because it does not rely on direct sunlight, says Dave Buemi, president and CEO of GreenWorks. “Thin film is designed to react to many different light spectrums,” he says. “It can charge even on a cloudy day.”

GreenWorks uses acrylon, an acrylic-based fabric, to make its solar products because it is lightweight and highly resistant to ultraviolet rays. Once they’ve been laminated with thin film, each product can be connected to various devices using specialized charge controllers. “When you think about this, you can see pretty quickly that in a disaster situation a lot of money and time could be saved by not having to fly in so many generators and fuel,” Buemi says. “It’s definitely an economic value.”

Though thin film has been around a while—generally encapsulated in glass as solar panels on buildings—using it on a flexible material is fairly new, Buemi says. GreenWorks is in the process of raising investment capital to bring SolFlex products to market, perhaps as soon as 2009. The price point will likely be three to four times higher than a standard relief tent, due to the high cost of the solar material, but in the long run, money will be saved due to decreases in the amount of fuel that must be hauled to a site.

“This could fill a great need in disasters like we just saw in China,” Buemi adds. “This is a way to substantially increase quality of life.”

Companies use flexible fabrics to prepare for disasters

If the exact location and severity of a disaster could be accurately predicted, actions to mitigate damage could keep a disaster from becoming a disaster. Since unpredictability is part of the problem, how do these companies decide how much to manufacture and stock in inventory? Cooley carries a varied inventory of finished and raw materials ready to ship to manufacturers it regularly works with around the country, Silva says. “If we get a call for 10,000 shelters, we could turn that around in a week or two,” he says.

It is the company’s vertical integration from base fabric production to compound formulation that makes such speed and efficiency possible, he adds. “We are only one part of the rapid requirement. The major component is fabrication, and the companies we work with have the flexibility in their operations to turn out large volumes of shelters in a very short period of time.”

GreenWorks intends to make most solar products to order, but the company does plan to stockpile some supplies in areas prone to disasters such as hurricanes or flooding, Buemi says.

Shelter Systems’ relief tents are manufactured in Georgia. To ensure the company’s ability to meet demand, its Georgia warehouse is always stocked with 3,000 to 5,000 tents. “If we needed to, we could ramp up production to make about 200 tents per week,” Hamner explains. “But that really doesn’t meet people’s needs in the midst of a disaster. It’s expensive to store these things, but I think we should all put more effort into stocking large quantities of these kinds of products for worldwide relief.”

Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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