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  • This page was printed from

    Shade sails offer aesthetic and functional appeal

    Awnings & Shades, Feature | December 1, 2009 | By:

    Shade sails expand architectural
    aesthetics and functional fashion.

    Whether it’s the need to provide UV protection for schoolchildren or outdoor shopping plazas looking to offer extra attractions for their customers, the need for healthful, comfortable shade continually increases. One high-impact—and aesthetically pleasing—solution is shade sails. Borrowing from the concept of ship sails, a shade sail is a fabric membrane that is tensioned between three or more attachment points. Shade sails are particularly popular in places with intense sunlight, such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; in the United States, the American Southwest, from California to Texas, is becoming a beacon for these products, with other regions of the Sunbelt starting to follow suit.

    According to shade sail fabric suppliers and fabricators, this sector of the market is starting to take off. Breaking into this market segment, however, requires a lot of knowledge, as the production of a shade sail offers both notable opportunities and challenges, requiring a qualified team of designers, engineers, finishers and welders.

    Know your components

    A shade sail comprises multiple parts. The most commonly used fabric for shade sails is knitted mesh high-density polyethylene, advises Steve Morenberg, national sales and marketing manager for Polyfab USA, a division of Polyfab™ Australia. A major worldwide supplier of heavy-duty knitted HDPE shade fabric, Polyfab originally manufactured fabric for the agriculture and horticulture industries. The company developed a heavy-duty monofilament/tape knitted product that offered a higher shade factor more suitable to protecting people than crops, and now offers 7-oz. Polytex® for small residential and commercial shades and 10-oz. Comtex® for all shades, including very large designs. HDPE shade sail fabrics are designed to withstand moderate tension and offer breathability so breezes can pass through. (For a list of fabric suppliers, visit and search for Fabric, HDPE or Fabric, Shadecloth.)

    In addition to fabric, shade sails also require posts and attachment hardware. For the shade sails it manufactures under its Sun Ports and Shade Structures brands, USA SHADE & Fabric Structures Inc. of Dallas, Texas, uses Flo-Coat® galvanized steel for its posts. The structural steel tubing features four coatings, starting with a zinc coating applied internally and externally during the manufacturing process, as well as a clear polymer coat to which a powder coating adheres. “One of the biggest problems with columns is they rust, so proper protection needs to be applied,” says Ashley Donde, vice president of sales for USA SHADE & Fabric Structures. “Even though someone may paint the outside of this pole, rust still builds up inside. The galvanized [zinc-electroplated] structural steel is made with the strength to support a load, and it has five to six times greater resistance to rust and corrosion than regular steel.”

    The team at Killer Shade in Phoenix, Ariz., has crafted a variety of posts for its projects. “You could go with something simple like pipes and tube steel, but we’ve also done bent steel, wide flange beams and custom-cut steel plates,” says estimator and purchaser Tiffany Sands. “It’s all depending on how artistic the customer wants the shade sail to look.”

    When it comes to hardware, “we have used turnbuckles, anchor shackles and similar products,” Sands says. “We also run a cable around the perimeter of the sail, and that loops through the hardware on the attachment corners.”

    “A grommet and eyebolt connection can work well in simple situations, while a specifically designed/engineered collection plate can accommodate cables, clevis attachments or other custom hardware and clamp itself to the reinforced fabric at points of high stress for other situations,” adds Mark Welander, owner of Fabricon, Missoula, Mont.

    It takes a village

    Creating a successful shade sail requires a talented and knowledgeable team to handle all the necessary steps. “People are often surprised that it takes so many tradespeople to bring a project together,” Sands says. “You need to have a draftsman, an engineer, a sewing machine operator, a certified welder, an excavator and a surveyor to make a shade sail.”

    Welander outlines some of the skills necessary to fabricate shade sails: “the ability to work in x, y, z coordinates; translate accurately, cut accurately and assemble to meet the correct points; and an ability to schedule installation when there are no winds.”

    When it comes to the engineering of the structures, software plays an important role—but it doesn’t reduce the importance of employing qualified people to work on the shade sails themselves. “We utilize state-of-the-art software to design, engineer and run shade studies on projects,” explains Jordan Causer, president and CEO of Urban Shadow Inc. in Tempe, Ariz. “This takes an eye for design and a background in drafting, modeling and engineering. We employ landscape architects, engineers and drafters to accomplish effective and desired results for our clients.”

    A basic drafting software program such as AutoCAD can assist in the engineering process. “There are also more expensive software programs such as computer-aided manufacturing and auto-matrix cutting tables that can help with making the shade sails,” Sands says.

    Some fabricators will offer all services in-house, from design to installation; while others, such as Watermelon Shade Ltd. in Christchurch, New Zealand, rely on subcontractors. Whichever route the manufacturer chooses, experience matters. “All of our manufacturing is contracted out to highly skilled professional sail makers who have the knowledge, equipment and expertise to produce an outstanding end product,” says Mike Keys, managing director of Watermelon Shade.

    Ultimately, the critical point is: don’t cut corners. “You need to do it right by working with designers and engineers and understanding steel manufacturing,” Donde emphasizes. “There are only a handful of people in this industry who do it right.”

    Safety first

    The engineering, design, construction and installation of shade sails are all important stages in the process. “Our number one focus is safety,” Donde says. “We need to make sure the structure is designed and built to support the load, because you don’t want the shade sail falling down and hurting someone.”

    For USA SHADE, safety begins in the factory. The company’s manufacturing facilities have IAS (International Accreditation Service) certification, which requires that good safety protocols be in place. Welders who are certified on a regular basis also play a necessary role “so there are no problems with the actual structure,” Donde notes. “Another thing that’s important is air quality in your factory. If you have too much carbon in your air, you don’t get a strong enough weld. All these factors are crucial to make sure you get a good quality product that is safe and will stand the test of time.”

    Before any other process begins, make sure you’re following building codes. “It’s important that when beginning a project, you determine what restrictions a municipality has, such as height or encroachment restrictions, because each sector is going to be different in terms of their safety requirements for a shade sail,” says Killer Shade’s Sands.

    The end product should be tight, with only slight movement in high winds. “All shade sails, if properly installed, should incur a very large amount of pre-tension and force,” Causer advises. “Starting with manufacturing and ending with installation, it is critical that every stitch, pocket or bracket is completely enclosed—meaning that there should be no open ends on the sail or installed structure itself. A certified structural engineer should define specifications for all sails.”

    Shaping market growth

    The biggest benefit of a shade sail, of course, is shade, but the product offers many other advantages. “Shade cloth provides high levels of protection from the harmful effects of UV rays,” says Keys of Watermelon Shade, “and sails can provide shade cover over a far greater area all year round than any other product on the market.”

    The nature of the structure itself also proves to be a benefit. “Because of the weight-to-strength ratio of shade sails, you have a very large shape that doesn’t weigh a lot and holds up well under environmental exposure,” Morenberg notes.

    Consumers are also selecting shade sails for their aesthetic qualities. “Oftentimes, our customers go with shade sails because they want something that is eye-catching and makes a statement,” Sands says. “These products also can be designed to complement the architecture of a building.” Fabric sails can be cut to different shapes for added architectural and visual appeal.

    Because of shade sails’ advantages, more markets are choosing these stylish structures. Schools, parks, playgrounds, pools, water parks, day care centers, office buildings, outdoor shopping complexes, car dealerships, universities, hotels, country clubs and car dealerships are among the segments using shade sails to protect their precious commodities.

    Causer of Urban Shadow believes that the residential market is poised for significant growth, particularly once the economy heals. “What I see happening is that people who are staying in their homes [rather than selling] are also improving them,” he says. “Relative to a traditional structure such as a gazebo or trellis, it can be a cheap and effective alternative. Unfortunately, competition in the market is high. Some think it’s bad for the bottom line, but I don’t. It’s creating huge visibility and awareness of the product in the residential market.”

    Many shade sail fabric suppliers and fabricators agree that the market is virtually untapped, opening the door to a tremendous amount of opportunities in the future. Morenberg likens the acceptance of shade sails to the rise in popularity of retractable awnings. “When retractable awnings first came to the market, people didn’t know what they were,” he notes. “Over the years we’ve seen increased popularity, and this market continues to grow. I think the shade sail market is going to take the same track. It may take a few years to gain traction, but eventually you’re going to see more awareness, with things like home improvement TV shows discussing these products, as well as legislation requiring companies, municipalities, schools and other institutions to shade open areas.”

    Meanwhile, Keys believes that the future of shade sails comes down to visibility and promotion. “Greater awareness needs to be placed on the benefits this product offers, not only as to its affordability but also from a health perspective,” Keys says. “Everyone needs this form of protection, whether it is at work, at play or at home.”

    Holly O’Dell is a Minnesota-based freelancer.

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