Many larger tent rental companies have found that they can significantly reduce labor costs by using tent washers, such as this one by Rosholt, Wis.-based CCC Washers Inc. Photo courtesy of CCC Washers Inc.

Keeping rental fabrics clean is a top priority for event companies.

by Jeff Moravec

Chuck Shipp, owner of Shipp Cleaning Systems and Clean a Tent, based in Conyers, Ga., knows a thing or two about how to effectively clean tents, linens and other event fabrics, but he says that knowledge came the hard way: “I’ve gotten it only through 42 years of making mistakes.”

That may be why a conversation with Shipp sometimes feels like talking with a chemist—his knowledge of the proper formulas to use for a wide variety of event fabric cleaning needs is extensive. It’s that chemistry that often makes the difference between keeping a tent clean, unstained and usable, or destined for the scrap heap.

But Shipp is not the only expert in how to keep tents and related products clean and in service. We spoke to several companies for this article, asking for tips on how they clean and care for such items. 

In some ways, event fabric cleaning is not complicated. “My belief is if you do the right maintenance and you do it on a regular basis, you’ll have great looking fabrics,” says Scott Massey, owner and president of Awning Cleaning Industries in New Haven, Conn. But especially as a company grows, it looks for ways to accomplish cleaning tasks with less cost and less labor.

Marianne Iosso, vice president of Iosso Products, which sells a wide variety of cleaning products from Elk Grove Village, Ill., agrees with Massey’s sentiment. And she says that if anything good came out of the pandemic, it was that people started paying more attention to the importance of keeping things clean. “People were cleaning like crazy,” she says. “They were cleaning everything.”

Tablecloths, such as these at A1 Tablecloth Co., South Hackensack, N.J., need to be washed, pressed and folded prior to each rental. Photo courtesy of A1 Tablecloth Co.

Washing machines take on a bigger role

The biggest decision in cleaning these days may be the decision whether to use a commercial washing machine instead of cleaning by hand. Many smaller companies that rent event fabrics may clean tents and other items by hand, simply because it’s the least expensive method, especially when compared to a commercial washing machine that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But there is an in-between. 

Shipp recommends a floor polisher as “the first level of mechanization” for fabric renters who want to reduce manual labor.

“A floor polisher doesn’t cause as much wear and tear on the fabric as a washing machine does. A lot of tent manufacturers just cringe at people putting tents in washers, banging them around,” Shipp says.

A floor machine that turns at 175 rpm replaces the need for someone to scrub the tent with a brush, saving time and the vinyl, he says.

But that’s probably not the best solution for companies that are renting out dozens of tents, he adds. “Once you get over 120 tents or so, it greatly behooves you to buy a washing machine because you just can’t do it physically anymore—you don’t have the time to pull it off. If it reduces the tent’s life, so be it,” Shipp says.

CCC Washers Inc. in Rosholt, Wis., manufactures washing machines as a division of Charnecke Tents Inc., a manufacturer and rental company. Jenny Cole, CCC’s sales manager, says that washing machine cleaning saves labor. “Paying people to hand wash tents is not cheap,” she says. 

Massey says the same thing. “You can pay guys to do all this work, or throw the tents into the machines and buy new more often. I think the latter choice is winning the game. The machines are pretty efficient at what they do.”

Overall, Cole says, machine-washed tents get cleaner than those that are hand washed, which really makes a difference when a rental company is dealing with stubborn problems, like a tent that has turned grayish because of exposure to environmental pollution such as smog. “In those kind of cases, you may have to wash the tent a few times before the gray comes out,” she says.

Photo courtesy of A1 Tablecloth Co.

Air is full of dirt

The air is full of dust and pollution that can settle on tents—Shipp calls it electrolysis film. “It electromagnetically binds dirt to the vinyl of the tent. It’s like road film on your car,” he says. “You go to a cheap car wash and pressure wash the car, and if you don’t use a brush, when it dries that film is still on the car.”

Removing that type of stain from a tent is fairly easy, he says, using product such as Clean a Tent’s Tent Cleaner.

“A lot of rental companies use 4-by-8-foot tables and pull the tents across them, spraying with a trigger bottle, and then wipe by hand, every single tent they rent,” Shipp says. “These companies will do this in the winter when they have labor they want to keep year-round but they don’t have anything else for them to do.”

Of course, the best way to avoid having to remove stains is to avoid having stains in the first place. Christopher Whitlow, owner of Structure Liners, which manufactures fabric liners in Acworth, Ga., says that starts with installers. “If someone gets done installing the tent and then goes right to the liner without properly cleaning their hands, you’ll have problems.”

One way to clean a tent is by spray. The left portion of the fabric pictured here has been cleaned at Shipp Cleaning Systems in San Marcos, Calif. Photo courtesy of Shipp Cleaning Systems.

Mold and mildew issues

Mold and mildew is a common problem for tents that get put away wet and are then left for a period of time—if a tent is left in such a condition for a long period, such as over the winter, the problem can be big.

“Sometimes people clean a tent but don’t get it completely dry,” Shipp says. “You get water trapped in the hems and the seams of these tents. You may hang it up for two or three days and it may feel bone-dry to the touch, but you don’t realize there’s trapped water. Then you roll up the tent with the moisture trapped and when you take it out it’s covered with mold and mildew.”

Because household bleach is too corrosive on such products, Clean a Tent recommends its Blitz formula, which uses calcium hypochlorite, which Shipp says is 200 times less corrosive than household bleach. “It doesn’t require scrubbing, either,” he adds. “You just spray it on the tent and let it sit, although if the mold and mildew has been there for a while, it may take two or three applications.”

Iosso also produces a non-bleach Mold & Mildew Stain Remover, as well as a product called Odor Buster, which can be used if there is residual odor following treatment. 

A brush and soap can go a long way to keep fabrics clean, says Scott Massey, owner of Awning Cleaning Industries in New Haven, Conn. Regular cleaning will keep fabrics looking great. Photo courtesy of Awning Cleaning Industries.

There are also products available that are designed to prevent mold and mildew from growing in the first place. Humidity can get trapped under the top of tents, especially those that are up for a long period of time and face north, says Shipp, who produces a product called Miracle Tent® Mildew Proof to spray on tents.

Many renters can avoid tent stain problems by simply keeping their eyes open. According to Cole, tents that are up in the fall can often get dead leaves trapped inside when they are put away, and they easily stain the fabric. “That’s always a challenge,” she says, “because that’s a hard stain to get out. Fortunately, the sun can fade those stains over time.” 

“Leaves and other things from Mother Nature can be nasty,” adds Massey. “There isn’t much you can do, except maybe consider coated materials that will avoid the problem.”

Insects can be a problem as well, says Whitlow. “They’re probably the hardest things on tent liners,” he says. “We see spiders and things like that especially in tents that go into long-term venues. But the stains they made can generally be removed with gentle detergents.”

According to Marianne Iosso, vice president of Iosso Products, Elk Grove Village, Ill., if anything good came out of the pandemic, it was that people started paying more attention to the importance of keeping things clean. Photo courtesy of Iosso Products.

Fabric cleaning

Iosso recommends the company’s Mold & Mildew Stain Remover to remove stubborn food stains from fabrics such as linens. Also, Safe-T-Solve, an industrial strength cleaner/degreaser, will work for pre-treatment on linen stains.

On the other hand, Adam Pearle, general manager at A1 Tablecloth Co. in South Hackensack, N.J., says that most common linen stains that are food-driven—such as butter, oils and grease—“can be tricky.”

“There’s chemistry specific to the types of linens,” Pearle says. “A lot of things are not aggressive enough to get heavier types of stains out.” Spotting chemicals can be useful, says Pearle, but commercial laundries can generally do a better job of getting the linens clean. 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Drying tent fabrics

The real bottleneck in an effective tent-cleaning operation is the drying part, according to Chuck Shipp, owner of Shipp Cleaning Systems and Clean a Tent, based in Conyers, Ga.

Shipp recommends that rental companies consider designating a specific, separate room for the purpose of drying tents, especially companies that bring in tents to wash from other smaller companies that don’t have their own washers.

“When you have an automatic washer, create for yourself a drying room,” Shipp says. “It needs a higher ceiling so there is room for the tents to hang, using a hoist and pulley system or something like that.

“The room needs to be somewhat sealable, have doors so it can be closed,” he adds. “You put fans in there, but the key really is about getting dehumidifiers in there as well.”

The trick, Shipp says, is to use two to four dehumidifiers, depending on the size of the room and the ambient humidity in the area.

“You do that and you’ll get a great dry time,” he says. 

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