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The true value of awnings

Awnings & Canopies, Features | January 1, 2009 | By:

To remain relevant and profitable in a tough economy, awning manufacturers, distributors and retailers need to promote the palpable benefits of awnings.

As their bank accounts shrink, consumers are carefully examining every purchase and balking at what they view as an unnecessary expenditure. Unfortunately, awnings are often grouped into this category, prompting the industry to review product lines and how they are marketed. Rather than giving customers a simple checklist of benefits, however, the industry must arm itself with an arsenal of awnings’ tangible advantages in order to stay relevant in today’s tough economic climate. There are many factors that will allow awning manufacturers, fabricators and retailers to not only continue to sell but to create new products and opportunities as they weather the current economic storm.

Awnings save energy

As they move toward a greener lifestyle and want to save some cash in the process, consumers are more open than ever to hear about ways they can reduce their energy usage. Awnings have always offered that advantage, notes Kevin Yonce, MFC, IFM, CPP, head of TCT&A Industries in Urbana, Ill. “Awnings were originally designed to keep your home cool,” he says. “Then air conditioning became part of Americana [post-World War II], and awnings faded from the residential market. But they still offer a huge benefit, particularly as energy costs fluctuate.”

Fortunately, the industry has the data to back up these energy-savings claims. According to information from the American Society of Heating and Air Conditioning Engineers, an awning can reduce heat gain by 55 to 65 percent on south-facing windows, and 72 to 77 percent on west-facing ones. The European Solar Shading Organization, or ES-SO, indicates in one of its reports that solar shading products, including awnings, can help users experience energy savings of up to 10 percent.

But more than simply touting these figures to consumers, awning manufacturers and retailers can better connect with their customers by explaining exactly how an awning is the appropriate mechanism for their home or business.

“The key thing is to block the sun’s energy before it ever gets to the glass, because once it hits that glass or passes through it, it turns into heat, warms up your house and then your air-conditioning bills are higher ” says Doug Dubay, awning market manager for Glen Raven in Glen Raven, N.C. For instance, if a homeowner installed a neutral-color fabric awning or roller shade on the outside of the window, rather than on the inside, 40 percent less solar heat would enter, according to the “Awnings in Residential Buildings” report from the University of Minnesota and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in partnership with the Professional Awning Manufacturers Association (PAMA), a division of IFAI.

Awning use can also take the stress off the electricity grid while allowing users to downsize their cooling units, says Dick Dolmans, secretary general of ES-SO. “Air conditioning can be a problem because everybody needs it at the same time, causing a peak load problem in most of the grids,” he notes. “Awnings contribute to passive cooling, as opposed to active cooling by your air conditioning. With external shading, you can have a smaller and more efficient air conditioning unit in your home, office or any building, because it keeps most of the heat of the sun out.”

But it’s not just the warmer months when a consumer can benefit from a retractable awning. “If you live in Minnesota, for example, the sky can be crystal clear on a cold winter day, and that sun comes pouring through the window and has a warming effect on your home,” Dubay says. “By rolling up a retractable awning, that sunlight comes streaming in to brighten your home and make it cheerier.”

Dolmans believes that the solar-shading industry has an unprecedented opportunity to go beyond saving energy to actually generating it. “We have lots of awnings that look pretty sophisticated with integrated light, sound and heating systems, but there hasn’t been any major effort to pick up the energy from the sun and generate electricity, since they’re sitting in the sun anyway,” he says. “This could make the awning either self-sufficient in energy for its motor or to make it an energy source. It’s a challenge, but at the same time, a new opportunity.” Dolmans says that although some manufacturers have dabbled with such technology—including a German manufacturer that used photovoltaic cells at the front end of an awning to generate electricity—none of the efforts has happened on a large scale.

Awnings improve outdoor living areas

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, American homeowners spent more than $40 billion in 2003 improving their outdoor living areas. Furthermore, the Association of Realtors’ “2007 Remodeling Cost vs. Value” report indicates that a deck addition offers a nearly 77 percent return on investment. Although these numbers may wane in the current economy, consumers continue to show interest in creating beautiful outdoor spaces.

Awnings definitely fit the bill. “The main reason to buy an awning today is really the lifestyle,” says Ido Eilam, CEO of SunSetter® Products in Malden, Mass. “And that lifestyle is moving from a formal way of life, which is indoors, to an informal, more relaxed way of life, which is outdoors. Retractable awnings give you the ability to create an oasis of comfort in your own back yard, on your deck or on your patio.”

“Awnings become the roof of your outdoor room and can define the living area for people to enjoy,” says Dubay. “You can complete that space with furniture, lighting and accessories to make it an inviting four-season space, rather than a place to avoid during hot or rainy days.” Awning manufacturers and retailers can also promote awning use from an aesthetics standpoint. For instance, Sunbrella® produces hundreds of solids and stripes that offer solutions for any home style. SunSetter, meanwhile, offers directly to consumers two types of fabrics with 12 and 15 colors, respectively; the company offers 42 color choices through its dealer network. Add matching patio furniture to the mix, and homeowners have a lively outdoor room. “It’s easy to coordinate the right awning design with the rest of the outdoor room to add a lot of life and character to a home,” Dubay says.

In tandem with comfort, consumers want convenience; the industry has answered with innovative products. Somfy Systems Inc., Cranbury, N.J., offers a brand concept it calls Home Automation by Somfy, which represents a line of automated products for awnings—and anything else in the home that can be motorized, such as rolling shutters or projection screens—designed to introduce convenience into the user’s life. The products utilize a control platform called Radio Technology Somfy (RTS). “With the control users have, they can bring an awning in or out with the touch of a button or with our automatic sensors,” explains Margaret Cook, business development manager for Somfy. “If it is too windy, the awning can retract, or if it’s too sunny, the awning will come out automatically. The consumer doesn’t have to worry about manually opening or closing the awning.”

In addition, the ability to incorporate and easily control lighting and heating elements within awnings can extend the outdoor season—a boon to restaurants and hotels because they can continue to offer outdoor dining or socializing in the late fall or early spring when competitors might have already shut down their patio seating.

Awnings add flexible beauty to outdoor spaces

For commercial properties, an awning can serve many purposes. “It immediately identifies a business, and many companies use the awning as signage by adding graphics,” Dubay says. “An awning creates a welcoming entrance to a retail store that provides shelter for customers entering or exiting.”

One of awnings’ most appealing, and perhaps saleable, features is beauty. “Awnings can be an eye-catcher,” says Orlando, Fla.-based architect Michael Lingerfelt, who spent 15 years as director of project architecture and engineering for Walt Disney Imagineering. “They also contribute to curb appeal. At night you can illuminate them, and of course that changes the whole customer experience.”

When he worked for Disney, Lingerfelt encouraged awning use within the Magic Kingdom® “to make some areas jump,” he notes. While park visitors are waiting in line for the Dumbo ride in Fantasyland, for instance, they see awnings with the circus colors of red and white. Disney calls the concept “Queue Fun.” “It’s a way of adding some interest while you are in the queue for such a long period of time,” Lingerfelt says.

Disney also installed awnings in Main Street USA, Adventureland and Tomorrowland. In the Agrabah Bazaar, the awnings “use many different shapes, colors and textures to add to the look of an Arabian bazaar,” Lingerfelt says. “We even inserted jewels to make them sparkle in the Florida sun.”

Lingerfelt believes that the awnings brought value to the Magic Kingdom. “They added color and light, and in some areas they added architectural relief,” he says.

Yonce has noticed that in commercial settings, one awning project begets another. For instance, after his team installs an awning at a business, they promote TCT&A’s services to others within a three-block radius. The efforts have resulted in additional sales to those businesses. “If the awning fabric is clean and clear and neat on a frame, and uses a style that works for your business, it doesn’t just benefit your business,” he says. “It adds to the whole block.”

The choices that awnings provide prove valuable, too. “Fabric awnings provide a variety of patterns, colors and options, and you aren’t tied to those,” Yonce says. “You’ve got a frame that you can reuse over and over again, and you can change out the fabrics down the road.”

Thanks to the advances in digital printing, business owners can create spectacular signage on their awnings—and brand themselves at their own front doors. “It gives them that marketing edge that a billboard might offer, but it’s right in front of their building,” Yonce says. “Awnings can give a distinctive flavor to their business.”

Adds Dubay, “A lot of times people will use color, form and stripes to identify their business. You can tie awnings into a business’s color scheme and its identity.” He cites KFC, Chili’s, and T.G.I. Friday’s for their ability to successfully brand themselves using awnings.

By promoting the tangible benefits of awnings to their customers, manufacturers, dealers and retailers will continue to stay relevant—especially through a sluggish economy. “If we ask ourselves what we can do to combat the economic downturn, the answer is seizing these opportunities to get the message across that our products fit well into the present environmental and political priorities,” Dolmans says. “We’ve got to make our voice heard.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in central Minnesota.

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