During this past year, the tent rental industry saw some major changes in the customer base to which they were renting their tents. Instead of weddings and graduations, the customers were medical facilities and restaurants. These rentals were more long-term, involving not just weeks but months in the field. Cleaning these tents presented a new challenge for many tent renters.
The biggest challenge was that the long-term rental tents were coming back with a gray film on the tent. The tents that were in large cities or near factories were getting coated with a pollution film. This film is usually petroleum-based. The other long-term rental tents were exposed to hard water rains and dew films. It is impossible to determine which is the most prevalent by just looking at the gray film.
Hard water films are mineral-based and removed by acids. That acid is usually a phosphoric acid- and hydrofluoric acid-based cleaner. The pollution films are petroleum-based and can be removed by pure citrus terpene-based cleaners that do not contain any petroleum. Any petroleum-based cleaners, such as mineral spirits, will yellow the fabric and compromise the integrity of the vinyl. That is because vinyl fabric is a petroleum-based product.
To determine which film is most prevalent, two 3-in. sample spots should be used. Just make two small indentations in the vinyl and pour the citrus cleaner in one and the acid cleaner in the other. Make the two sample spots close together so you can easily compare. After 15 minutes or so, take a dry cloth and wipe each “puddle” sample spot dry. Whichever sample spot is the whitest is the cleaner you should use.
The undiluted citrus cleaner can be sprayed on with a solvent-resistant garden sprayer. A floor machine with a white pad can be used for agitation. Do not use a red pad because the citrus cleaner slightly dissolves the pad and can leave a pink film on the fabric. Yes, I have learned from this mistake. After thoroughly cleaning the tent, be sure to rinse well with water using a damp mop.
The acid cleaner also can be sprayed on liberally with an acid-resistant pump garden sprayer. The acid should be diluted according to instructions or at least one part acid to seven parts of water. In a 2-gal. sprayer that is one quart acid to seven quarts of water. The floor machine usually is not necessary. A polypropylene or plastic bristle push broom is enough agitation. The important part for the acid to work is the dwell time, which is usually between 20 to 30 minutes. You can rinse as normal using water with a damp mop.
Oddly, if it is mainly a mineral-based film, the acid will remove all the pollution and dirt trapped microscopically in the film. Conversely, if it is a pollution-based film, the mineral film is removed with the pollution film. It also does not hurt that the pure citrus cleaner also is acidic.
While we are discussing the citrus cleaner, here is a helpful tip. The pure citrus oil cleaner also is great for removing duct tape residue, paint, tar, asphalt and tree sap off the vinyl fabric. The citrus cleaner removes the smoke and protein grease when renters pull their grill underneath the tent to cook as well. If you wash your own linens, the citrus cleaner is invaluable for removing candle wax oil and protein grease stains on linens even after the linens have been washed and come out of the dryer. Apply the citrus cleaner undiluted directly to the oily stain and immediately wash. No scrubbing is necessary, and the oily stains are removed.
If the tent does not have a gray film but is dirty and needs a thorough cleaning, there is a technique to cleaning a dirty tent by hand. This process uses as little water as possible to prevent filling up the seams and hems of a tent with water. Often when tents are cleaned and rinsed, people will use a garden hose or pressure washer to rinse. This loads up the seams and hems and retains the water even when the rest of the exposed vinyl is dry. The problem is when the tent is then put in the storage bag, mold and mildew will grow on the tent because of this trapped water moisture.
To prevent this problem, lay out your tent on top of a tarp on a concrete floor. Then spray the tent cleaner with a pump-up garden sprayer on the first 20 ft. of tent. This is so the cleaner will not dry before you can scrub it. The best method for scrubbing is a floor machine, commonly called a buffer. The commercial floor machines come in 17- and 20-in. sizes. Many tent owners are worried that this may damage the vinyl. With the soft white or red pad or brush attachment and the lubricity of the cleaner on the tent, this is absolutely safe for the fabric. The floor machine is the first step in getting your cleaning process mechanized. It also does a much better job on extremely dirty tents.
The floor machine should be used left to right in a grid pattern. Then quickly run the machine at right angles covering the entire 20-ft. area that has tent cleaner on it. At this point, quickly before the tent cleaner can dry, use a damp mop to rinse. The mop bucket water should have a quart of white vinegar mixed in the solution. The vinegar lowers the pH of the cleaner, makes it easier to rinse and leaves less hard water film on the vinyl.
By using a damp mop to rinse, the hems and seams are not filled with water. The tent will be completely dry within a few hours. Take caution to not over-wet the straps because they take longer to dry. You then can put the tent in a storage bag with confidence that it is dry. If you have a room to use as a drying room, hanging tents from the ceiling with fans and a dehumidifier also will ensure the tents are dry. Dehumidifiers, used in an enclosed area, suck the moisture from the straps, hems and seams.
Long-term tent rental will definitely bring back dirtier tents into your inventory. These grimy films can be pollution, hard water rain or just plain dirt. The good news is these films can be cleaned off. Using the correct products and methods is the key to this process. The tent usually can be returned to an “A” level tent ready for a mother of the bride to inspect.
Chuck Shipp is the owner of Shipp Cleaning Systems, Conyers, Ga. Learn more at cleanatent.com.