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With vinyl tents, the choice can be clear

June 1st, 2012 / By: / Markets, Tents

End product manufacturers guide their customers in the best use of clear vinyl.

With product improvements and more choices, clear vinyl offers end product manufacturers a variety of looks and functionality to fulfill their customers’ requests. Uses of clear vinyl range from windows (such as in a canvas tent or marine covering) to complete structures (like a deck enclosure or covered walkway).

Clear vinyl is available as soft vinyl as well as rigid acrylic and polycarbonate, and each offers specific advantages and drawbacks. Which to use? Consider price, labor and function. Soft vinyl costs less than the rigid options but offers reduced clarity. Rigid vinyl offers better clarity but costs more. There is also the time factor to consider. Assessing your customers’ expectations will help make the right choice for each project.

Informed decisions

“Soft vinyl is much quicker to fabricate,” says Dave Elliott of David’s Custom Trimmers in Brisbane, Australia. “Rigid is definitely a slower process, depending on the methods used. However, at the top end of the range, you have much better vision and clarity in the polycarbonate and acrylic options.

“You’re not going to have wrinkles in these top-end products,” he says. “In the bottom-end products, there’s more maintenance if you want to maintain them, which the average boater does not.” However, rigid vinyl products generally last longer than those of soft vinyl, which can be used as a tool to sell your customers on the rigid vinyl option.

In terms of maintenance, Mike Erickson of Canvas Designers in Riviera Beach, Fla., notes the advantage of a polycarbonate called EC2CY®. “EC2CY has no coating on top of it, so if you get a scratch, you can buff it out and it’ll look brand new again. And, versus other polycarbonates, EC2CY is inherently UV-resistant.” That’s another selling point.

Customers who don’t need rigid windows may opt for 40mm clear extruded vinyl. “Clear extruded vinyl is the most popular option we use,” says Chris Ritsema of Canvas Innovations in Holland, Mich.

Semi-rigid polycarbonate windows are a “best-of-both” product. “OC3, our newest product, is less expensive and has a more flexible scratch coating for longer life and less crazing,” says Steve Sisco, Ocean Clear in Alta Loma, Calif. “Ocean Clear semi-rigid windows cost less than coated vinyl windows but offer glasslike clarity, superior strength and a smoother finish, due to its self-tensioning nature. Polycarbonate can be sewn or bonded in-house for greater control and profits.”

Rainier Industries Ltd., Tukwila, Wash., offers polycarbonates and impact-resistant acrylic. Rainier Windows are rigid but can also bend, retaining their memory but returning to flat so windows can be stored flat when not on the boat. They also screen UV rays. Fabricators, however, need to become a Qualified Fabricator through Rainier to be able to sell Rainier products.

Strataglass™ is scratch resistant and easy to work with on the trimming table and during installation, says Walter Johnson of Strataglass LLC, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s highly forgiving for unintended table, installation or customer abuse. With proper maintenance, it lasts years,” he says.

“Strataglass, which comes in sheets rather than rolls, also offers the UV-blockage that boaters like,” says Crystal Cantrell, co-owner and manager of sales for Lake Gaston Awning of Bracey, Va. “Depending on the application and where roll goods are needed, we also use clear double-polished vinyl made by Robeco/Ascot, which is a laminated product and most economical. It is also available CSFM flame retardant, which is very important for use in restaurant enclosures. Robeco/Ascot also offers a clear extruded vinyl with clarity that’s superior to other laminated vinyl roll goods,” she notes.

“The Crystal Clear 20/20 made by Strataglass is a little thicker, made of press-polished vinyl sheets,” adds Kenny Cales, co-owner and production manager of Lake Gaston Awning. “It has great UV stability and resists clouding and yellowing and, while it costs more, it offers additional benefits. All clear vinyl that I’ve worked will contract and expand with changing temperatures, and that becomes a consideration in fabricating roll-up enclosures. Where feasible, I make a metal frame panel which keeps the vinyl tight and enhances the clarity.”

Michael Tharpe, director of sales for TopTec Event Tents, headquartered in Moore, S.C., says his company utilizes several types of clear vinyl in fabrication of its tents. “Clear vinyl is harder to manufacture because of the expansion/contraction factor. We use both the clear clear vinyl and the clear that has some scrims built into it, but our major source is the clear clear. We’ve been using it for 15-20 years and have seen a little bit of improvement in it when it comes to clarity and strength, [but] it still needs to be improved.”

Imaginative uses

Since there’s no operations manual to follow, Cales does his own problem-solving to create the clear vinyl tents covering decks and patios on vacation homes and restaurants around Lake Gaston. “I do research, go online and see how something’s done with glass,” he says, as he did for the six-panel tent that extends the usable space of a small, waterside cafe. Cales has discovered that such a project markets itself. “As soon as one owner of a vacation home on the lake gets a look, he wants a deck enclosure too. It extends the length of the season he can use his vacation property.”

Magazine photos also act as free sales pitches. “People come in with something they’ve seen in a magazine. The more that’s out there, the more people see it and want it,” he has learned.

Tharpe agrees—and that usually means a dreamscape of an entire tent fabricated of clear vinyl. “They see it and they say, ‘I want that!’ It’s customer demand that’s driving us.”

But the customer needs to understand potential drawbacks. “Come June, there’s a greenhouse effect. You can’t sit under it during the day because the heat is magnified,” Tharpe says. “But people want it anyway so we encourage them to reduce its use, such as incorporating it in cathedral-style windows or in one or two roof panels, rather than the entire structure. With clear vinyl, moisture condenses at the top or bottom, which gives a cloudy effect until the sun burns it off. And if you attach it to a frame-style tent, the sun can almost melt it, binding the vinyl to the pole.”

“We try to lead customers to a system with frameworking rather than rolling, which costs more initially but looks better longer,” says Cales. “Some are too rigid for roll-ups but are clearer; flexibility means it’s not quite as clear. In making conventional awnings, the wider the width of the roll, the fewer the seams—a plus.”

In-demand offerings

Lake Gaston utilizes clear vinyl in enhancing the desirability of both fixed and roll-up enclosures as well as in walkway covers, display kiosks and display panels, both for commercial and residential customers. TopTech makes tent tops and midsections as well as sidewalls around perimeters and sells its tents to rental companies. And demand is up.

“In past years, we’d order a roll every six months to a year,” says Cales. “Now, we’re going through three or four a year.”

“It’s not hard to sell; everybody wants their view,” Cantrell adds. A few years ago, vinyl was not as clear, but that’s improved.

“If a buyer’s going to use clear vinyl, we let him know in advance the possible drawbacks so he can put a rental rate on it that assures he gets his money back in four or five rentals, at most,” Tharpe advises. “For nighttime events, it’s just spectacular and provides an ambience no other material can offer. It’s beautiful under the stars or watching fireworks. As to the future, the market’s just going to grow and grow.”

Carla Waldemar is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.

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