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Tent cleaning essentials

Features, On the Job | December 1, 2010 | By:

When it comes to tent cleaning, a job worth doing is worth doing well.

If you have a delicate constitution, brace yourself. Paul Krugman, general manager of Clean Awn, a tent and awning cleaning company based in Lakewood, Calif., can tell horror stories of tent cleaning attempts gone wrong.

“The worst story I have heard was someone cleaned their tent using abrasive cleanser with a floor mop, with the material on the ground unprotected,” he recounts. “This method wore off the top coating of the fabric and ruined it.”

Lane Cooper, president of Industrial Structure Cleaning Co. Inc. (ISCC), Orangeville, Calif., knows of similar crimes, such as a brand new tent at a state fair that was cleaned with a harsh chemical and not rinsed well.

“Within two years, the fabric was fried from the sun,” he says. “The slightest little bit of residue from harsh cleaners can peel that top [protective] layer off, and then everything’s exposed.” Cooper says that structure owners who think they are getting a bargain on tent cleaning can end up paying in the long run.

“They just hire their window washer, who may use the window cleaning product that they already have,” he says. “Sometimes they use a pressure washer, get it too close and peel away the top layer. Or they might use a brush that’s too coarse, or drag something up on it and leave scratches, or use boots that leave marks that are super hard to get out.”

Experienced tent renters are unlikely to make such rookie mistakes. But you should still review your options for cleaning tents and institute a system that keeps your inventory in tip-top condition. Krugman says tent renters have three choices: clean the material manually, use a specialized tent cleaning machine or hire an experienced outside firm.

Lay it out

Most tent rental companies wash tents the old-fashioned way: spread them out flat, apply the manufacturer-recommended cleaning chemical and gently mop or scrubb them clean. It’s often safest and easiest to do this outdoors, but outdoor surfaces can be dirty and abrasive, damaging fabrics and finishes.

Leavitt & Parris Inc., Portland, Maine, addressed this problem by manufacturing a 60-by-100-foot heavy-duty tarp that can be secured in the company’s parking lot.

“It’s attached tightly, like a pool cover,” says vice president John Hutchins IV. “And that’s where everything is cleaned, on that protective surface.”

To dry the fabric, employees usually hang the tents from a telephone pole hanging rig in the parking lot, Hutchins says. But in bad weather they bring tents indoors and hang them on a series of racks.

The clear vinyl in the company’s inventory requires special care. A marine protectant chemical is applied when the pieces are manufactured, which protects the clear vinyl from scratching and from absorption of fungi, mildews and pollens that can distort clarity. Once that’s done, the clear pieces can simply be washed with water or polished with a soft cloth and a gentle cleaner.

Laundry day

Hutchins says the employees who wash tents at Leavitt & Parris have been doing it so long that they’re very efficient, and he’s not sure there’s enough tent-washing work in his region to justify the large, upfront expense of a machine. But the situation at Special Event Rentals, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is different. The company purchased a Teeco tent washing machine in 2009.

“We had been laying the tents out on the floor and mopping them,” Thomas Pollard, director of operations, says. “And it was doing an okay job with the actual vinyl, but if the webbing and lacing got dirty, it was pretty much impossible to get them clean that way. Plus we’ve had labor challenges up here in Alberta, so it’s been tough to find people to clean tents and do a good job.”

The machine doesn’t save space because it has a large footprint and the tents still need to hang to dry. It uses a lot more water than handwashing, but the quality of the cleaning is far better, Pollard says. The company is now able to employ two workers year-round instead of four seasonally and take in other companies’ washing. The washer also helps the company get a better price on the sale of its used tents. Recently, Pollard sold a couple of 2003-vintage tents for 75 percent of the original purchase price because they looked so good.

The number one benefit of a tent washing machine is labor savings, says Matt Hrdlicka, sales manager at Teeco Solutions, Webster Groves, Mo. But it also keeps inventories bright white for a longer period of time, thus saving companies from having to buy new inventory and allowing a company to do more work with fewer tents.

“There are a lot of those last-minute reservations where you have the tent, but it’s not clean and you’re caught saying, ‘Can I get away with this halfway dirty tent?’” he says. “With our washers, you can wash up to 5,000 square feet of tent in just an hour and 15 minutes, so you can react to those quick turnaround moments.”

Companies that don’t have a tent washing machine but still have a time crunch can send tents out to be cleaned by another firm. Clean Awn washes tents with its Kit C-A-T machine. It’s not a tumbler-style machine like a Teeco; rather, it’s a roller machine that cleans both sides of the fabric simultaneously with Clean Awn’s line of biodegradable chemicals.

Timing is everything

In general, the best time to clean tents is at the end of the season. Marianne Iosso, vice president of fabric cleaning product manufacturer IOSSO Products, Elk Grove, Ill., says it is vital for tents to be as clean as possible when stored because mildew grows on dirt. But sometimes tents need to be cleaned during the season too.

“If a tent is only up for a short period of time, like one or two days, just hitting it with the hose to keep dirt off of it is probably good enough,” she says. “If it has gone through any period of time where dirt or stains could accumulate, then it’s better to clean it.”

Long-term installations can’t always be taken down for cleaning when they need it. One solution is to swap out sidewalls as they get grungy. Otherwise, a tent renter can call in a company such as ISCC that specializes in cleaning fabric structures in situ.

“We get up on top of the fabric, we rope it up with safety ropes, we use hoses and we scrub it all by hand,” Cooper says. “We have specially made heads on our poles, and I use a specially made climbing shoe that’s nonmarking. And then we make sure we thoroughly rinse.”

Leavitt & Parris keeps a quality control list that rates all of its tent pieces and flags them for cleaning whenever necessary. Every piece of material has a 12-digit code so it can be tracked and graded. During takedown, the crew foreman uses a digital camera while assessing the condition of the tops and walls.

“If there’s anything that needs cleaning or has taken on some sort of mark, he’ll write down the number and photograph the section,” Hutchins says. “The camera gets turned into the operations manager, who downloads the photos and assesses any damages, cleaning needs, etc.” Dirty tents are immediately put in a cleaning queue.

Cleaning tents probably isn’t your favorite part of the job, but it’s important to do it right. Shortcuts and cheap products and services can do more harm than good. Find the right product, service or method for your company, and keep your tents bright and white season after season.

Based in Georgia, Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer specializing in the specialty fabrics industry since 1997.

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