As the world continues to call for commercial fabrics that can withstand ever-greater environmental challenges, shade sail vendors are waiting to see whether that will translate into greater demand for flame-retardant (FR) shade sails.
Forecasters indicate demand will ramp up for all kinds of FR fabrics in the next few years, particularly those treated with chemical additives. According to a market research report published by MarketsandMarkets™ in June 2021, the global market size for FR fabrics is expected to rise by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.1 percent in the next four years, growing from the $3.2 billion achieved in 2021 to a healthy $4.3 billion in 2026.
A separate report published by Grand View Research in November 2021 forecasts that the global market for FR products in general will rise at a CAGR of 8 percent through 2028, a trend attributed to heightened consumer awareness, tighter consumer regulations and heightened fire safety efforts across industries that include construction.
To shed light on such reports, we asked shade sail fabric vendors belonging to the IFAI to discuss those reports and how they may be affecting their business strategies.
FR shade sails? “The average person doesn’t worry about it”
All three vendors report healthy sales of their FR fabrics. But they agree that doesn’t correlate with a greater customer demand for FR shade sails—at least not for now.
At Florida-based Alnet Americas Inc., President Patrick Lane is seeing climbing demand for Extrablock, a dimensionally stable shade cloth that meets most flame retardant specs across the U.S. and abroad—including the stringent California State Fire Marshal (CSFM) test for Title 19.
Part of the product’s appeal is that it can be priced similarly to non- or lesser-fire retardant fabrics, so it provides extra value even when fire-retardancy isn’t a stipulation.
“After making Extrablock available for U.S. domestic distribution, demand increased exponentially,” Lane reports. “It can provide the strength, durability and longevity required in 99 percent of the canopy requirements for HDPE [high-density polyethylene], including fire retardance. Alnet was very forward thinking in manufacturing Extrablock as a fully CSFM/NFPA 701 compliant fabric before the demand had extended to the level it is now.”
Alnet began developing the full-feature product in the mid-1990s, and in 2015 began investment in seven custom-made Karl Mayer knitting machines to boost production. As demand accelerated, new extrusion, film and stretching machines were installed to aid production, while the factory expanded accordingly.
Since the product need not be produced in non-FR versions, or in different fabric weights, it’s also cost effective to make.
“It’s always been a fire-retardant fabric, so we have not added costs to make it compliant,” Lane explains. “That aids in Alnet being able to provide it at a competitive price point to more entry-level shade fabrics. Our production costs have risen due to the increased costs in polymer and additives, but that’s something all fabric manufacturers are experiencing.”
At California’s Polyfab USA LLC (which has divisions in Australia and Dubai), managing director Steve Morenberg estimates shade sail demand has been up 10 to 20 percent over the last couple years, thanks mainly to upgraded outdoor living areas during the pandemic. But clients aren’t necessarily clamoring for FR shade sails, he says, since they’re normally detached from buildings and installed in areas with few fire hazards.
“Shade sails normally only become a fire risk due to vandalism or on-fire airborne items that land on the fabric,” he explains. “I get very few shops asking me about fire retardancy unless one of their clients brings it up, maybe county governments or something. Otherwise, the average person doesn’t worry about it.”
That said, Morenberg says Polyfab’s durable FR fabrics Polytex® and Comtex® have been universally popular with clients; advantages include their compliance with the Building Code of Australia’s general requirements for flammability (i.e., AS1530.2 fire regulations) and with NFPA-701 in the U.S.
“We have certainly been winning extra business with [those] in combination with the extended warranty, upgraded pigments and introduction of new vibrant colors to the range,” he notes.
At Missouri-based Marlen Textiles, top sellers include FR fabrics called Top Gun® FR and Top Gun FR Lite. The products meet all flame-retardant standards while offering strength, abrasion resistance, solution-dyed colorfastness, dimensional stability
and affordability. But in recent years there have been no significant boosts in demand, reports chief operating officer Alan Prelutsky.
Regardless of demand, production is costly
Surges in demand may not be an immediate challenge, but Morenberg, Prelutsky and Lane agree advancements in fire-retardant fabrics can be pricey.
“Raw material costs for [producing FR materials] have gone up significantly over the past year,” reports Prelutsky. “We manufacture four different materials that have a flame-retardant version, and we’ve experienced both delays of raw materials and large cost increases.”
The issue? Chemicals applied to boost fire protection tend to counteract those applied to boost UV protection. While UV protection is crucial to building in long-lasting durability, finding the right mix for each variation can be tricky and expensive.
“There’s always a bit of a fight and a tightrope to come up with formulas that will be as compatible as possible with each other, at a reasonable price point,” Morenberg notes. “The final fabric cost depends on the chemicals being used, and the amount of additives you put in usually correlates to how severe a FR test the product needs to pass. Depending on how much you put in, it may not meet all the tests.”
He points to a soon-to-be-discontinued Polyfab product called FR Comshade® that “had all the bells and whistles as far as FR specs,” but was more expensive than similar shade cloth lines due to the necessary FR additive. Supply issues were another factor.
“It was a great product, but demand was spotty and people didn’t want to spend that extra money for it,” he says. “So it’s slowly riding off into the sunset.”
Another industry challenge: Costs associated with formulating different FR products to meet different, highly fragmented U.S. standards.
“It’s determined by each municipality … there’s not even a state standard for most states, and in many places not even a county standard,” says Prelutsky. “That means you can have one requirement on one street and a different requirement on the next street over.”
Bottom line: technology is there if demand rises
Whether demand for FR shade sails will rise over the next few years in accordance with forecaster reports remains to be seen. The good news: The fabric technology involved is considered effective.
“If you’ve ever seen a Coke bottle melt, it’s roughly the same thing that happens to shade fabric,” Lane confirms. “It will burn, char and retreat from the flame as long as the fabric is exposed to the flame, but will not become the source of flame and/or drip flaming plastic on people or possessions below.”
Perhaps, like so many technological advances throughout history, FR shade sails are simply a product ahead of its time.
Michelle Miron is a freelance writer based in Hugo, Minn.
SIDEBAR: FR demand Down Under? So far, business as usual
In Australia, the importance of FR in awning fabrics gained media attention in 2018 when a blaze at a 10-story building in Sydney was blamed partly on its adjacent shade sail. But neither that nor the country’s history of bush fires seems to have boosted demand for FR shade sails, according to our interviewees. “COVID-related lockdowns have been more intense in Australia, with people literally stuck in their houses for months at a time,” reports Morenberg. “As a result, our partner in Australia is seeing residential demand up for patio covers, school demand up for covered outdoor learning areas and commercial demand up for outdoor seating and eating areas. But they’re not reporting an increase in demand for FR fabrics over there, and we’re not seeing it here in the U.S.”