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Keeping outdoor fabrics clean

Continuing Education | September 1, 2007 | By:

The basics of fabric cleaning and maintenance for awnings, canopies and fabric structures.

We think of fabric maintenance and our thoughts turn to washing machines or the thread and needle—the basic techniques used on our clothing. Fabric can easily, readily be cleaned and patched, and therein lies part of its appeal. Of course, the difference between your pair of jeans and a circus tent is a huge leap of scale, but many principles are the same. After all, industrial washing machines, gigantic versions of those that wash your clothes, launder tents and awnings. And large-scale fabric applications can be repaired on-site as needed, just as you might mend your shirt on a moment’s notice.

But think about the life of a typical awning or tent, and you begin to see a few major differences between their fabric and the fabric of your clothing. After all, you don’t wear your jeans 24-7, and you aren’t sitting outside all day, every day.

Consider the enemies of awnings and tents. Any list must include sunlight and its degrading impact, auto exhaust and other pollutants, and, of course, exposure to any bird flying overhead. If your clothes require washing after each use, think what an awning requires after a few months outside. It is not like each rain shower or downpour can count as a wash, rinse and spin cycle. If it were only that simple.

Any fabric requires regular cleaning and maintenance to sustain its sparkle and lengthen its lifespan. Many owners of architectural fabric ignore this fundamental fact, jeopardizing their investment. Using the wrong cleaning product or procedure is equally damaging. But just as you think about that daily or weekly laundry load (and perhaps even dread it), you must think about the schedule of the awnings or tent. The cycle might be monthly, quarterly or yearly—not the more frequent schedule of your clothes, of course—but the idea is the same.

An awning, tent or other fabric structure will degrade without proper care. And, of course, the issues at stake are not merely the cost of the fabric itself. A fabric awning, for instance, is an ambassador—it is literally the first thing that a customer or potential client sees, often emblazoned with the business name and logo. With a tent, the stakes might even be higher, as the fabric itself literally houses the business concern or venture. In other words, fabric maintenance is not an insignificant, inconsequential issue.

Cleaning options program

There is a consensus for regular cleaning, but the options can be mind-boggling. Awnings are likely to be hand-washed in the field—cleaned in place much like you would a fixed carpet. Deployable tents are another matter. They can be hand-washed— and some swear by that. For instance, Sollertia, a textile installation and maintenance service, has developed an enviable market position, in part through its work with the famed Cirque du Soleil circus troupe.

Sollertia developed a unique low-pressure steam cleaning process specifically for Cirque du Soleil tents. A Sollertia team cleans the tents while the tent is being installed on location, by walking along the circus tent’s top using harness and ropes. This process evolved in response to Cirque du Soleil’s unique circumstances. The troupe’s long, cross-country tours were previously subject to long breaks, some a month long, just to clean the tents. Furthermore, the hand-cleaning process was not entirely satisfactory—dirt was readily removed, but the hand cleaning did not adequately address grease buildup.

Cirque du Soleil sought a better cleaning solution, one that caused fewer delays within its itinerant tour schedule. Sollertia addressed the concerns through a rigorous, two-step process concentrating on the various cleaning products and their application. A survey of soaps, degreasers and detergents revealed that some degreasers tended to stiffen the fabric over time. The products also varied widely in their cleaning efficiency and environmental impact. A test of cleaning methods showed that a floor brush worked best, yet abrasion with even the gentlest of soaps was a problem.

In the end, low-pressure steam worked best—and not simply because it de-greased and otherwise best cleaned the tents. Combined with Sollertia’s unique soap, the steam-cleaning approach minimizes environmental impact and reduces water use. On-site cleaning three or four times a year also slashed tour downtime, from almost a month a year to a few days.

Fabric care ABCs

Any fabric has a lifespan, and will last that time frame or longer only with regular maintenance. The considerations are many, and vary from location to location. In temperate California, for instance, an awning might be out year-round. If close to an airport or high-traffic area, that fabric would further be subject to pollution. In comparison, a summer awning in rural New England faces nominal stress. Maintenance also varies with fabric type. Depending on the location, optimal cleaning and sealing for vinyl might be quarterly; a more traditional fabric would be cleaned a few times a year, and sealed annually.

Most fabric mills require cleaning and sealing as a part or condition of their warranty, with particular cleaning products called for by some suppliers. Typically, manufacturers specify mild detergents like Woolite, Dreft or Ivory Flakes, applied with a soft-bristled brush or sponge that dislodges dirt and pollutants without scratching or damaging the fabric. After cleaning, applying a sealant will yield a protective finish that retards and repels dirt and dust, as well as offer UV protectors that fight sun damage.

Regular cleaning and sealing is preventative. Organisms such as mildew grow only if there is sufficient food and moisture on a fabric, because only then will a spore sprout. In other words, mildew will not take root on fabric itself, as there is nothing to support or nurture it. The dirt and residues from acid rain that accumulate on outdoor fabric, however, do provide a mildew medium. Instead of trying to remedy an overly soiled and stained canopy or tent with an overly aggressive cleaner or brush, a systematic maintenance program, such as outlined above, has benefits.

Regular service not only maintains the fabric, it also is an opportunity to survey its structural integrity. The number of companies that exclusively maintain and service awnings and tents occupies an important market niche in the fabric industry; hiring one is no different than taking clothes to a dry cleaner or bringing in a carpet cleaner. Of course, awning and fabric rejuvenation firms also exist. Many owners of fabric products often do not adequately care for their investment, or their awnings have aged poorly with fading. Recoloring can extend the awning lifespan a few years, at a fraction of the replacement price. There is a market to resuscitate fabric that has been neglected or is otherwise past its prime.

Maintenance machines

Cirque du Soleil’s unique circumstances and needs called for experimentation with various cleaning detergents and techniques. Given its road schedule, field cleaning was necessary. Yet another option includes industrial washing machines, especially designed for tents and other large-scale fabrics. With adjustable cycle times, slow and smooth drum rotations and large doors, these washers are designed to lessen the wear and tear that degrades fabric and shortens its lifespan.

But the small drum space and spinning inherent in a traditional washing machine design means that fabric is compressed and confined, contributing to overall fabric crinkling. Vertical cleaning apparatuses directly address this concern. Fabric is fed through a system of rollers and brushes, which wash and polish the fabric as it passes through the machine. Additionally, squeegees wrest water from the fabric to lessen drying time, and the cleaning water itself is recycled by the machine.

Stain basics

Through a regular sealing and maintenance schedule, troublesome, unsightly stains might be avoided. But despite best efforts, they do crop up. The major stain categories—dirts, organic residues and biological organisms—each have different characteristics. Identifying the dirts and soils, mildews and molds that mark or stain any fabric is critical, as each calls for a different cleaning strategy or detergent.

The dirt category, for instance, includes soil, clay and dust; these stains are commonly water-soluble. Gently rubbing a water-dampened cloth over such a stain will leave a residue on the cloth. Rubbing the soiled area with cloth dampened with diesel fuel, in contrast, identifies an organic stain. If residue comes off the soiled fabric, darkening the cloth, the stain is organic—fuel, sap, oil or grease. Biological organisms—mildew, mold, fungus and other living plants—are similarly tested with bleach (chlorine), which kills the growth and removes its pigments.

Testing with water, and cycling through the diesel and bleach test if necessary (and always testing in an inconspicuous location), will reveal the stain type. Cleaning is another matter, as each stain merits a different attack. Water-soluble dirts are typically more easily addressed than other stains, which will require a more aggressive approach, as recommended by the manufacturer.

Todd Willmert is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture specializing in architectural technology. His article on acoustics and fabrics appeared in the July/August 2006 issue.

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