Ballasting done right means going heavy, but industry-developed tools help to ease the burden.
by Jeff Moravec
Ballasting may seem a necessary evil in the world of tented events. All tents need to be anchored in one way or another, of course, with ballast (weight) being a common method. It requires a lot of planning, cost and physical effort to do it right—yet it’s work that likely goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated by the customer and event attendees unless something goes wrong.
But, because when something goes wrong an event can be ruined, along with the installation company’s reputation, it’s critical to have the right ballast and to know how to transport it and use it.
“You don’t want to be on the news because your tent blew down as the result of being poorly ballasted,” says Saroj Bains, general manager of Event Labor Works, a labor augmentation company serving the tent rental industry in Montreal, Que., Canada.
In the industry there are those who view successful ballasting as an art form and take pride in mastering the craft. And in recent years, with access to better information about how to ballast, as well as significantly improved ballast options, the operation doesn’t have to be as onerous as it once was.
“We actually love ballasting,” says Steven Eisenstein, president of Classic Tents & Events in Norcross, Ga. “We’re proud of the way we do it.”
Learning the hard way
Eisenstein’s experience is likely not unique in that he learned the importance of proper ballasting the hard way. “Many years ago when I first got into the business, one of our tents in a grocery store parking lot was hit by 40 mile per hour winds,” says Eisenstein. “The whole tent moved about 50 feet and slammed into a car.
“I decided there had to be something better than water barrels, which is what we were using for ballast at the time,” he says. “I wanted to be able to sleep at night when I knew winds were coming.”
Donny Vasquez, CEO of Made in the Shade Tent Rentals in West Sacramento, Calif., had his own kind of problems with using water barrels. “We’d do jobs where the tent was set up for the long-term,” says Vasquez. “We’d come back and you could push the barrel over with your hand—it was bone dry. You had evaporation, but you also had a breakdown of the plastic after a while. UV rays were definitely our enemy.”
However, it was the 2011–2016 drought in California in that pushed Vasquez into abandoning barrels for good. “We do a lot of work at the state capitol and they prohibited use of water on the capitol grounds and cut off access to groundwater. We had started to move into concrete, but that’s when we jumped.”
Concrete blocks as ballast can have their own issues, however.
“When we started with concrete, the logistics were just awful,” says Nick Deninno, owner of PTG Event Services, a tent and party rental company in Bethpage, N.Y. “We were using makeshift ballast because 90 percent of our work is in Manhattan, and you couldn’t stake in the city; almost every job had to be ballasted. It was hard to handle and strap and move. After the second time I lost a load of ballast on the highway, I said, ‘There has to be a better way.’”
And with that, Deninno came up with what is today almost universally considered the better mousetrap in the ballasting business—the Block and Roll® system, produced through Deninno’s other company, B&R Innovations LLC.
A better solution
“We used to use barrels filled with concrete, makeshift blocks that we made in-house with wood forms,” says Deninno. “They were hard to stack, and you needed two people to get them on a hand truck. There were logistical and safety issues. Kind of out of desperation, I had to find something better.”
He came up with a system of ballast blocks (ranging from 350 to 3,500 pounds) that could be moved by forklift without a pallet. And at the same time, he created a variety of hand carts that could be used to move blocks up to 700 pounds.
“It took me a while to kind of figure it out, but once I did the first test run, we realized our efficiency went up a few hundred percent.”
“Designing and making the blocks was one thing, but we also wanted to figure out how to move them efficiently,” he says. “We wanted to do it with as few machines as possible, because it’s not always practical to have a machine on every job. If you go to a house, you can’t always bring in a Bobcat® or a forklift.”
“When we started, I wasn’t really planning on selling the system; I was just making it for myself,” he explains. “But as soon as I made it, my crews would come back and tell me that so-and-so from this company wants to know where you got this from, or buy it. After a couple of inquiries, I decided to get a patent and we started selling commercially.”
Deninno says he figured few companies would want to buy actual concrete blocks—largely because of shipping costs—so he began selling steel forms that allow anyone to make their own blocks. “But in this industry, there isn’t much notice on a lot of jobs, and if someone needs 200 blocks all of a sudden, there’s no way they can use their forms to do it in-house. So we sell a lot of premade blocks and have block facilities in four different states so we can get them to people faster than just from New York.”
“The Block and Roll system really revolutionized not just ballast, but the way you can access parks and different areas with ballast,” says Bains. “You don’t need a forklift or a truck to pull up right beside the tent. Ballast is a pain to move around, but this is a much easier solution than what we had to use in the past.”
Attention to detail
“Ballasting isn’t an art form; it’s just attention to detail,” says Deninno. But, as we all know, the devil is in the details.
The “details” are less difficult, says Deninno, since the development of IFAI’s TRD (Tent Rental Division) Ballasting Tool, which helps tent rental companies determine the best ways to use ballast, and determines the expected mean coefficient of friction for different common types of ballast on a variety of surfaces. The tool was developed from a study completed by TRD with the Clemson University Department of Engineering, Clemson, S.C.
“It was coincidental that that tool came out shortly after we launched Block and Roll,” says Deninno. “I had no idea it was coming and wasn’t involved. But as soon as that study came out, people learned they needed more weight in their tents, and I was the solution to figure out how to do it. We don’t tell people how much weight to put on—we just give them the tools to do it properly.
“You have to accept what you don’t want to accept,” says Deninno. “You have to accept that you need more weight than you think you need. That’s the hardest battle for rental operators. The Ballasting Tool is the best resource to figure out what you really need, but I always tell everybody to be prepared, because you may not like what you see.”
Those comments are echoed by Michael Tharpe, national sales manager at Rainier Industries Ltd. in Tukwila, Wash., who contributed to the development of the ballasting study and is currently chair of the TRD.
“The most common cause of ballast failing is simple,” says Tharpe. “It’s not using enough ballast. And a tent will not remain erect unless it’s secured to the ground on which it sits. That’s the cold hard fact of it.”
Besides using the Ballasting Tool, Tharpe says it’s important to have and use the manufacturer’s installation instructions and any pertinent engineering documents that reflect the loads placed on the tent. “What you need for ballast in normal conditions with no weather is important,” he says. “But you need to use the engineering information to tell you the wind load criteria; you have to go up to the point where the tent will tip, or wants to tip.”
And there’s nothing wrong with erring on the heavy side, says Bains. “I like to see an overweighted tent,” she says. “You feel good in an overweighted tent.”
“It is costly to move all this concrete weight around,” concludes Eisenstein. “It costs more than water barrels. And to move 700-pound blocks you need some pretty strong guys. But it’s safer. I can sleep at night. My insurance claims are down and wind isn’t getting underneath our tents and blowing them away.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Heavy on variety
According to Michael Tharpe, national sales manager at Rainier Industries Ltd. in Tukwila, Wash., ballast can be accomplished in several ways:
- Weight can be positioned on top of a plate that is attached to the baseplate of a tent.
- Weight can be distributed via a web and ratchet or rope to the eaves of the tent.
- Weight can be attached to both the baseplate and attached via a web and ratchet or a rope to the eaves of the tent.
- And finally, weight can be positioned on top of a plate that is attached to the eaves of the tent via a web and ratchet or rope.
Additional factors to consider include the type of tent and configuration required, ground type or surface condition, required load for the tent, and type and geometry of ballast to be used.