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Spotting tent quality

Tents | August 26, 2009 | By:

Knowing how to spot superior shelters can save the day.

John Crowley can spot a quality tent just by looking at it. “You get a feel for a good tent when you see it. It looks structurally superb,” says the general manager of ProEm Distinctive Tents in Denver, Colo. He sums up a tent’s quality in three words: aesthetics, engineering and craftsmanship.

Cutting-edge technology, ease of installation, fabric performance, seams and stitching, wind load capacity, value-added features and manufacturer support all factor into a tent’s quality, according to rental companies and manufacturers. ProEm focuses on high-end structured tents and is willing to pay more for top-notch performance and looks, suitable for the grade-A catered events, golf tournaments and car races clientele that it serves. Crowley contends that value is also important in today’s economy, as well as the supplier’s service and support track record.

“You always want the best product for the least amount of money, but sometimes there’s a tradeoff,” he says. “I used to own a company and I would pay a little bit more just knowing that I had [a tent manufacturer] behind me.”

Rental companies also look for construction and design, supporting engineering documentation, marketing support and cost-reducing features, which may include labor, transportation, inventory management, insurance and permit cost savings, says James Reyen at Eureka! The Tent Co., Division of Johnson Outdoors Inc. in Binghamton, N.Y. In his mind, quality tents are well designed, manufactured with appropriate raw materials that meet the needs of the tent type and can be installed safely and securely. Value-added qualities may include a double valance (making it easier to gutter the tent or use sidewalls), the ability to “button up” a tent for better climate control and the ability to light and accessorize it.

The cost of quality

A quality tent will look better, but it can add to the cost, Reyen says. “It’s more difficult to manufacture a tent with a lot of curves and arches. When you get into larger peak tents and tension structures, companies have to put more resources toward the design and manufacture of the tent.”

Anchor Industries Inc. in Evansville, Ind., measures a tent’s quality by its excellent workmanship, consistent stitching, good weld seams, straight line seams and quality hardware that meet or exceed code standards. John Fuchs, regional sales manager, says the company follows a safety factor of x2—if a web requires 10,000 lb. break strength, the company uses 20,000 lb. break strength.

“Quality is a tough thing to pin down,” Fuchs says. “For us, it’s not deviating from the specifications that we set and no shortcuts taken in building the tents. Being that tents are temporary structures—extremely susceptible to the elements—we’ve got to build them [to be] safe and provide a good event for the rental company. We like to build tents [as if we were building them] for our own families.”

Demand for engineered tents

An increasing number of municipalities are enforcing stricter codes for tents and temporary structures, driving customers to seek engineered tents that meet certain ratings. While still offering traditional pole and frame tents, Anchor has developed and continues to develop these style tents that are engineered to code. “Traditionally, engineered tents were required for larger venues but we’re seeing a trend of certified tents for almost every type of event,” Fuchs says. “To meet these codes, [we must] utilize components strong enough to meet the criteria, driving the cost of the tent up.”

Carol Lee Cundey, marketing communications manager at Eureka!, says engineering is at the top of the list when they begin designing new tents and clearspan structures.

“Anything that’s engineered will require heavier duty aluminum, stronger fabrics and raw materials, and come with stamped, engineered blueprints that guide how the tent must be installed safely,” Cundey says. Eureka! designs to the ASCE/SEI 7-05 code, which requires a wind load capacity of 70 mph sustained wind and gusts of up to 90 mph.

“Engineered products are typically stronger because there’s more substance to them. They take longer to set up and are more expensive, but you get what you pay for,” acknowledges Richard Nealon, senior event manager for ProEm. The trend in Phoenix, where he is based, is to use structured-style frame tents with kedered channels to slide in ceilings and sidewalls, which eliminates wind flap.

“Once you put a structure up on a site, the client really likes it. It’s one step closer to a building,” Nealon says. “As a tent rental company, I feel a lot better when the wind starts blowing, knowing I have a structure up rather than a pole tent.”

The downside, he adds, is that an engineered structure takes longer to install because of additional staking and anchoring requirements, and can look less stylish and more buildinglike. Manufacturers are starting to address those issues by introducing more design features in their engineered tension pole tents and clearspan structures that are suitable for weddings and special events, as well as making them easier to assemble.

That’s good news for rental companies like B.C. Tent & Awning in Avon, Mass., which is embracing more engineered tents, including hybrid models with keder frame systems. Owner Bob Costa says more and more of his customers don’t want to deal with staking and interior poles, but favor track systems that are more user friendly and tents with greater wind-load capacity. Topping his list is ease of installation because it saves him labor costs.

Fabric is another important factor for Costa. “We’re choosing more coated fabrics because of the life expectancy, ease of cleanliness and minimal blemishes,” he says. The company is also buying more blockout tents to eliminate the “pinhole” effect of laminated vinyl and allow more lighting control.

Coated or laminated vinyl

There is a range of fabrics in the market and all have a niche, says Drew Nelson, awning product manager at TriVantage LLC in Cleveland, Ohio. Some have more sophisticated performance features, such as cold weather durability, solar reflection and UV protection, cleanability, dimensional stability and varying weights depending on the requirement of the product. “Good inexpensive fabrics are available,” he says. “Fabrics with enhanced performance characteristics are in a higher price range.”

Coated vinyl, typical in clearspan structures, is mildew resistant, sheds dirt easier and is heavier weight to withstand long-term exposure to wind and extreme temperatures. Lighter weight laminated vinyl is commonly used in other tent designs because it is durable, strong and a good value for the price. “Weight alone doesn’t determine quality,” Fuchs says, “but the quality of the scrim, how well it holds up to ultraviolet rays, the integrity of the vinyl and the type of glue used are some of the components that make up a good vinyl.”

Ranch Busch, president of Value Vinyls Inc. in Grand Prairie, Texas, says more fabric products have come to market that haven’t been designed well, and that will be notable in strong storms and windy conditions. “Wind load is significant in a fabric’s performance, as well as having a lower crack code and being able to withstand more extreme heat and cold temperatures. With a laminate, you get two layers of film laminated with yarn in the middle. When poorly done, the film separates from the yarn (due to wind).” Busch adds that there hasn’t been a test or quantifiable way to rate the product for wind resistance, but it will continue to be a focus in the performance of the fabric.

In the end, a quality tent is one that is made with fabric and components that are tried and true, and meet the needs of the type of tent. As Cundey says, “A basic one piece lightweight canopy for your backyard may not be a wind-rated engineered tent, but so long as it’s manufactured properly, pieced together and sewn together properly, it’s a quality tent.”

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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