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Conduct thorough and proper site evaluations to avoid the unexpected

October 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

by Pamela Mills-Senn

Thorough evaluations are key to avoiding issues that could slow down an installation or even present a danger. Alex Kouzmanoff, president of Aztec Tents, demonstrates using a dynamometer to test anchoring loads. Photo courtesy of Aztec Tents.

There’s a time and a place for surprises—a tent install isn’t one of them. Encounter the unexpected on one of these projects and you risk losing time, money and potentially a customer, not to mention incurring on-the-job injuries.

Site evaluations offer the best protection against such unhappy outcomes. Although the unanticipated can still happen, site evaluations greatly reduce the chances of a tent rental company being caught off guard.

Site evaluations offer an in-depth understanding of the project, identifying problems ahead of time that could cause delays, says Alex Kouzmanoff, president of Aztec Tents in Torrance, Calif. Common issues include a customer ordering a tent too large for the site or not well-suited for the topography. Others challenges Kouzmanoff mentions are limited or difficult access to the site, or one where trucks must park some distance away from where the tent will go up; overhead or underground utility lines and other obstacles; non-standard anchoring conditions; or a client who wants to have the tent installed over objects that can’t be moved, such as trees, statues or pools.

Even when a thorough evaluation is done, things can still pop up, says Steve Belliveau, sales manager for Evansville, Ind.-based Anchor Industries Inc. He recalls one installation where the tent site was several feet away from a stream or river that would (unknown to the company) overflow during heavy rain.

“The day before the wedding, it rained over 2 inches and the tent was completely swamped, causing chairs, tables, and even the dance floor to vanish downriver,” he recalls. “The tent had to be reinstalled several hundred feet away on higher ground.”

An aerial viewpoint highlights the complexities of this installation for an elaborate wedding held in 2016 at a private residence. The house was built on a hill, with much of the site sloped. In order to accommodate the 40-by-75-foot ceremony tent, Fiesta Tents Ltd., which designed the structures and layout and conducted the installation, built a floating platform over the abutting lake. Photo courtesy of Total Events & Entertainment, producers of the event.

Up, down and all around

What should be checked at every site evaluation? “As much as humanly possible,” says Belliveau. “The more information gained, the less likely the need for subsequent trips on the installation—which, we all know, will have a negative effect on the overall profitability of a job.”

A sample evaluation checklist includes:

  • Site access. Customers often don’t consider the distance to transport product, narrow passageways, size of the equipment being hauled in, and overall scope of the work.
  • Potential wind exposure and weather conditions for the time of year.
  • Ground conditions, levelness, stability, drainage and type
    (grass, blacktop, concrete, etc.).
  • Obstructions at ground level, overhead and below ground. Power lines are a particular concern. “They may not be as obvious when they’re very high in the air, but they can be a serious risk when you consider tents that have very tall poles that are made of aluminum,” Belliveau says. “Even if the poles are many feet away from hitting the wires, they still may be in the path of a voltage arc, which can be deadly.”
  • Proximity to other tents or structures, or the need to connect to these.
  • Local fire and building codes. 
  • Site size as it relates to the customer’s needs and desires.
  • The need for other equipment to ensure a safe and efficient event.

Kouzmanoff also suggests using the checklist available in the Procedural Handbook, published by IFAI’s Tent Rental Division.

“Look up, look down, look all around,” advises Joe Langehaug, regional sales manager for Losberger De Boer, in Frederick, Md. “There’s a lot to be considered when doing a site evaluation. Is the site exposure class 1, 2, 3 or 4? A risky exposure condition could require the use of a larger-than-normal tent framing system if there is an escarpment effect present [probable wind uplifts] or some other weather-related reason to use a more weather-resistant tent system.”

Higher-risk sites, such as those with poor soil conditions or rooftop installs, may also require heavier framing systems or anchoring different from what would normally be used, he continues. Also confirm if electric power is available on-site or if a generator will be needed. What about site leveling? If this is required, Langehaug suggests scaffold staging, baseplate shimming or using different height side legs to address grade changes under the covered areas at the tent site.

A Skyline Tent Company crew worked in a tight space to install a custom L-shaped P3 uniflex Losberger structure with 17-foot legs, 3-foot legs on the left and a dormer to make the 90-degree turn necessary for covering an outdoor dining space. Photo courtesy of Losberger De Boer.

When, who, how often

Langehaug says Losberger sometimes does an initial site evaluation to determine the scope and provide an accurate quote. However, a second evaluation might be required closer to the actual install to see if conditions have changed in such a way as to affect the original plan.

“The goal is to make sure when an install crew arrives they can start working right away,” he says. “It gets very expensive to show up with a crew only to have them wait while you try to figure out a Plan B with the client.”

Most of the time, Aztec Tents performs site inspections anywhere from at the first meeting with the client up to seven or 10 days before the installation, says Kouzmanoff. Where lead times are shorter, evaluations could happen just one or two days prior. Multiple site visits may be required for big installs or those sprawling over large areas with differing topography.

Shortened lead times are one of the biggest challenges associated with site evaluations, says Kouzmanoff, who bemoans this trend. “Years ago, you would have weeks to plan for a project. Today, many projects require a near-immediate response.”

Ideally, site evaluations should happen far enough ahead to allow for proper planning and allocation of resources, says Belliveau.

“But not too far ahead to allow for possible changes or alterations to the site being considered,” he adds. “I suggest a few weeks, to three to four months out for most site visits, although some might be just a couple of days prior for events that come up suddenly. Most important is that you conduct one for pretty much all event rentals and that the rental company commits to this being standard.”

As for who should conduct the evaluation, Belliveau says the size and type of rental company will determine this. As such, this could involve the owner, sales manager, the party/sales consultant, operations manager, tent supervisor or an experienced tent installer.

“Regardless, the person needs to be a qualified professional who has a good understanding of what to look for and how the proposed equipment will be laid out,” he adds.

Langehaug says the event and size of tents or tent structures factor in, but that generally, the property owners, client and installer should meet to ensure a common understanding. Maintenance staff, a city planner or city official will sometimes get involved. Other times, the project may require that only a lead installer go out to get the measurements and do a visual inspection.

Whoever is selected, it must be someone who can identify potential problems ahead of time and effectively transmit these to the install team, says Kouzmanoff.

“It’s also important to have someone who can properly communicate with the client and also share and communicate to the office sales team any specific needs expressed by the client,” he adds. “Experience and education are key for the person conducting the evaluation.”

When an evaluation has been done far in advance of an install, additional visits may be required, Kouzmanoff adds. This is especially the case for a site prone to change, for example, construction work, grading or a reconfiguration of the layout or the tent placement within the event space.

Establishing a weekly or monthly re-inspection of long-term installs is advisable, especially if weather conditions become extreme, says Belliveau. Frequency also depends on the product, he adds. For example, clearspans generally don’t require as much looking after as rope-and-pole tents. Re-inspections not only allow the tent rental company to proactively spot potential issues, says Langehaug, they also give clients peace of mind.

This commercial custom job, performed by the Collective Event Group, involved a tremendous amount of prep work, custom design by Anchor Industries and many visits to the site. The deck size required tents to be made in custom lengths and widths and, because anchors and stakes were not allowed in the ground, ballasting was required. Detailed CAD drawings were critical to ensure that everything fit. Photo courtesy of Anchor Industries Inc.

Taking charge

Spotting all the issues that could thwart a smooth install can prove challenging, as can conducting the actual evaluation. For one thing, says Belliveau, getting everyone involved on the same page at the same time can be vexing.

“Often there are too many chiefs and opinions, which can lead to disconnection and confusion on how to go about the project,” he explains. “The rental company representative has to manage this situation, be sure of what the conclusion is, and make sure the tent part of the project is something they’re comfortable completing.”

Belliveau says additional site evaluation hindrances one might encounter include:

Obstacles making it difficult for one person to obtain the necessary measurements, which is why he advises having two people handle the task.

A site that can’t be correctly evaluated or measured—for example, if construction is going on, or if there’s snow on the ground preventing a clear look. “Better to come back another time,” he says.

A customer who wants too many options. “This can cause a lot of confusion when you begin making equipment recommendations.”

A site that isn’t tent-able. “Too hilly, too rough of terrain, or not big enough, and the customer just doesn’t want to hear it. There are times when you have to politely say no, especially when it comes to overall safety.”

Regarding safety, remember the things that most often escape notice, especially if in a rush. Overlook some of these—Belliveau mentions low-hanging branches, underestimating ground slope, among others—and the install might require sudden-death reconfiguring. However, failing to identify other problems, in particular underground lines, and the consequences could be far worse.

“Private underground lines are most often missed because 811 won’t locate private lines,” says Langehaug. “They’re the responsibility of the property owner to locate and mark. Having a conversation ahead of time with the tent company and the property owner will help ensure that the private lines are located by one of them.

“But even though the property owners can call 811, it should be done by the company doing the stake pounding,” cautions Langehaug. “[The marking] needs to be done correctly or hitting an underground utility could be expensive, even fatal.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.