Successful cold-weather tent installations

Seasonal events and construction projects keep tent renters busy in cold weather climates—with modifications to protect tents, installers and profits.

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In February 2011, some 2,500 people jumped into Wisconsin’s frigid Lake Monona. The Polar Plunge proves not only participants’ fortitude, but also the fact that a tent renter’s work is never done. A to Z Event Essentials of Madison, Wis., installs tents for food and drinks, registration and clothes changes for the annual fundraiser benefiting Special Olympics.

“Four years ago, it was really cold when we put up the tents—about 5 degrees [Fahrenheit],” recalls Todd Jordan, account representative for A to Z Event Essentials, which has supplied the event since 2003. “We have to put the tents up no matter what.”

There’s a saying in cold climates that the only way to survive the winter is to get out and enjoy it. For many tent rental companies, the only way to financially survive the winter months is to continue to provide tents for seasonal events and construction projects. But renters who provide cold weather installations face a unique set of challenges.

Who invited Jack Frost?

O’Neil Tents and Party Supplies of Canal Winchester, Ohio, services an annual winter fundraiser: the Wendy’s Chili Open at Columbus Zoo benefiting children’s charities. Mark Ritchey, sales and marketing manager for O’Neil, recalls a trying situation a couple of years ago.

“The night before, we had 16 inches of snow in about four to five hours, and then it kept snowing all night and into the morning,” he says. “It was a 24-hour shift clearing snow, moving it outside the event area and making sure the structural integrity of the tent was not compromised.”

Camelot Party Rentals Inc. of Sparks, Nev., deals with extreme weather conditions that change on a daily basis, says Luis Aragon, logistics manager. “The most challenging situations are installing tents on the mountainsides of the ski resorts,” he says. “Our crew comes equipped with snow shovels and heaters to move and melt snow.”

The winter calendar for Ultimate Events of Bloomington, Minn., includes the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, cross-country ski races and ice fishing tournaments. But COO Kevin Moore notes an addition to scheduled sporting competitions: “A lot of [our winter work] is concrete pours,” he says. “It seems like we are doing more and more of them.”

Ritchey concurs that more construction companies are renting tents in the winter because they get a financial bonus for coming in on time or ahead of the project schedule.

Doug Schroeder, partner and general manager of Colorado Party Rentals in Denver, points out that construction projects require clearspan structures because “they don’t want poles in their foundation. And it has to be an older tent. You don’t want them mucking up your wedding tent.”

Grab a shovel and a heater

Like lizards, tent vinyl relaxes in the warmth of the sun. In warm weather, it may take less than two minutes to pull tent tops through beams, Ritchey says. “In winter, it will take 15 to 30 minutes to get one panel through. It fits a lot tighter, and you run the risk of tearing the top if you pull too hard or out of sync.” O’Neil Tents addresses that problem with on-site heaters, keeping the fabric in a heated truck until it’s needed and then using a propane heater to keep it warm (and pliable) until it is pulled.

“Winter tent installations require careful selection of high-quality canvas,” says Tasha Wheeler, director of sales for Camelot Party Rentals. “The canvas should be free from rips or cracks. All of the ropes should be in new condition. Clear-top tents create the scene for romantic weddings in the winter, but they are not suggested for use in freezing conditions because clear canvas is more vulnerable to cracking and tearing.”

Ultimate Events deals with cold setups by using a coated vinyl, which is more flexible than uncoated vinyl, and laced sidewalls. “In winter, we use lace because it’s more forgiving,” Moore says. “We know we will be able to piece [the sidewalls] together and not have a zipper break.”

A to Z Event Essentials also uses coated vinyl, but still keeps tent tops in the heated delivery truck as long as possible. “There are times we can struggle for a good 30 minutes [to pull the tops tight] when they’re cold,” Jordan says.

Before taking tent parts to a site, Ultimate Events pulls beams that are normally stored outside into its warehouse. “Snow gets into the channels and will form ice,” Moore explains. “We bring the beams inside and let them sit overnight so everything thaws out. Then we tarp the lot so that, even if it snows again, snow doesn’t get in the channels.”

For Commercial Tent Rentals and Sales Ltd. in Sussex, N.B., Canada, the majority of winter installations involves clearspans, says co-owner Allen McCandless. “That’s the closest to a tent that is somewhat airtight or wind tight for winter use,” he says. “And that means the fabric is Mylar®-coated vinyl to help survive extreme cold. We have installed them when it’s been -15 degrees Celsius, and we have never seen any damage to the fabric.”

One of biggest challenges, McCandless says, is frozen ground. “There have been a couple times we’ve used a compressor with a rock drill to prepare holes for stakes,” he says. “Then we run into times when we can’t get the stakes out. In that case, we are clear with the customer to the potential we may not be able to remove the anchors until the ground thaws.”

To keep regular 42-inch stakes secure in packed snow, Colorado Party Rentals pours water down the holes to freeze them in place. “It’s just a nightmare getting them out,” Schroeder acknowledges. When the regular stakes don’t hold, the crew uses auger stakes.

A to Z Event Essentials has foregone stakes altogether when installing Polar Plunge tents. “It’s on asphalt,” Jordan says. “One year we had a hard time staking through it, so we decided the following year we would weigh the tents down with 2,000-pound weights.”

Rock drills and pneumatic or hydraulic jackhammers are useful for getting stakes into frozen ground. But, Moore says, “First and foremost, you need a good old-fashioned shovel to make sure the area is clear.

“Propane heaters are very important,” he adds, “and we use gable fans to keep the air moving so you don’t get condensation in the roof. You don’t want it raining on your customers.”

Cold comfort

McCandless notes one advantage of winter jobs over the busy summer season when crews are spread thin: “All our senior guys are available,” he says. “It does help speed up the installation a bit.” However, he adds, “Everything takes longer, period. Usually we plan an installation taking almost half again as much time in the winter as in the summer.”

And just as installers need to take precaution in hot weather to avoid heat stroke, tent rental companies working in the cold must consider crew safety the number one priority.

“We are very sensitive when [weather forecasts] say exposed flesh is going to freeze in 30 seconds,” Moore says. “We try to schedule so our guys have warm-up time during the day. We break more often than we normally break.” In addition to keeping portable heaters in staging areas and in tents once the shells are up, Ultimate Events ensures that crew members are dressed to withstand extreme cold.

Still, there are times when insulated coveralls and gloves aren’t enough. Moore points out that in Minnesota, temperatures can drop to -35 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills. “If it’s 20 below, we try not to work, out of safety for our crew members.”

Wheeler says that the only times Camelot would refuse a setup are when conditions are unsafe for the crew.

“During the winter, our cancellation policies regarding the weather are extremely flexible,” she says. “We will refund any order canceled more than three days before the delivery date. Residents in the [Reno, Nev.] area are familiar with the conditions, so snow normally does not mean that the party cannot go on.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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