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What to do when pollution lands on your work

September 1st, 2008 / By: / Feature, How-To Articles, In the Shop

Not long after she and her husband bought their Florida canvas business, a mystery confronted Rebecca Hillan of T&C Canvas Inc. in Fort Myers, Fla. One of her customers lugged his year-old boat cover into the shop. The fabric layers were delaminating, actually separating from one another. “It was coming apart in our hands,” Hillan said.

Covers and enclosures on boats located near airports, sea ports, power plants or industrial areas are in danger of damage caused by airborne polluants.
Covers and enclosures on boats located near airports, sea ports, power plants or industrial areas are in danger of damage caused by airborne polluants.

On closer inspection, she discovered the sides of the cover were largely untouched—unlike the top. What could have caused such dramatic, yet inconsistent damage?

Hillan contacted the fabric manufacturer for help. She sent samples of the damaged fabric back to the company for testing, and quickly produced a new cover for her customer. Through subsequent conversations with the customer, Hillan discovered that he stored his boat on a trailer in an orange grove, and found out that crop dusting airplanes had sprayed pesticides over the grove. She concluded that chemicals in the pesticides likely caused the damage to the customer’s boat cover.

Although Hillan’s experience with crop dusters and pesticides is unique, her experience with material failure due to environmental hazards is surprisingly common. Extreme weather and intense sunshine have long been recognized for their harsh effects on marine fabrics, but corrosive fallout from airports, seaports and power plants also causes serious damage to boat enclosures and covers. The fabrics become marred by irremovable black streaks, and enclosure windows become pitted and cloudy. If unchecked, the damage may compromise structure and functionality of the fabric.

David Elliott, owner of Dave’s Custom Trimmers in Brisbane, Australia, says, “One of my small workshops is in a marina that has 1,300 boats in the water. We see a lot of black streaking on the boats and their covers.” The marina underlies air traffic between Brisbane and Sydney, and is near a shipping channel for the port of Brisbane.

The woven texture of the underlying fabric eventually appears when outer coatings deteriorate, as seen in this close up of a 27 month old flybridge seat cover. The boat, used in boat shows, spent time in ports along the west coast, from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Harbor.
The woven texture of the underlying fabric eventually appears when outer coatings deteriorate, as seen in this close up of a 27 month old flybridge seat cover. The boat, used in boat shows, spent time in ports along the west coast, from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Harbor.

“In the United States, San Diego is a classic example where planes fly right over the marina at low altitudes, dumping raw kerosene into the atmosphere,” says Edison Irvine, president of Strataglass Ltd. “That is disastrous for enclosure fabrics and windows.”

Typically, pollution falls onto boats in the form of dust. As temperatures reach dew point overnight, the dust gets wet and emulsifies. Later, as the sun bakes the liquid, the corrosive elements deface the enclosure materials.

Hillan, Elliott and Irvine all recommend that boat owners be diligent about cleaning, waxing and waterproofing their enclosures in order to protect them from the corrosive effects of fallout.

“If people don’t clean their covers, the fallout etches into the fabrics,” Elliott says. Even worse, in coastal areas, salt left on fabrics intensifies the damage. Elliott urges his customers to imagine that every salt crystal is a small magnifying glass, augmenting the sun’s strength.

Where water-use restrictions prohibit hosing down boats, frequent sponge cleaning of enclosures and covers is a way for boat owners to maintain them, regardless of the harsh environment.

Damaging fallout collects mainly on the horizontal surfaces of covers and enclosures. The side surfaces can be left largely untouched. Damage caused by washing the cover with harsh chemicals is more likely to occur on the vertical sides, as well as across the top.
Damaging fallout collects mainly on the horizontal surfaces of covers and enclosures. The side surfaces can be left largely untouched. Damage caused by washing the cover with harsh chemicals is more likely to occur on the vertical sides, as well as across the top.

Damage can also compromise the fabric’s structure and functionality. In some cases, like the cover in the orange grove, the layers of the fabric actually peel apart. In other cases, like boat enclosures near industrial polluters, the outer surface of some fabrics becomes sticky, gummy and extremely difficult to clean. The surface eventually hardens, and the outer layer may disintegrate.

“The whole top surface, once it goes through that sticky stage, basically goes hard and disappears,” Elliott says. “It goes into a powdery-type surface and just leaves the undercoating.”

The acidic nature of industrial pollutants affects different marine fabrics in different ways. Enclosures made with acrylic fabric may show black streaks, but not the gummy surfaces that appear on vinyl fabrics. However, Jenny Lingenfelter, general manager of Harbor Custom Canvas in Long Beach, Calif., notes that mildew and mold can thrive on the fallout dust after it settles into the texture of woven fabrics, making them extremely difficult to clean. Left unchecked, mold and mildew can make acrylic fabric stiff and brittle.

Hillan, Lingenfelter and Elliott work closely with manufacturers’ representatives whenever confronted with damaged materials.

“Don’t be afraid to call your supplier and your rep, and talk with them,” Hillan says. “They’ve always taken good care of me.”

Cargo ships registered outside the United States, such as this ship registered in Germany, are currently permitted to burn heavy diesel fuel while in port. The fallout contains sulfur and may form sulfuric acid droplets on boat enclosures.
Cargo ships registered outside the United States, such as this ship registered in Germany, are currently permitted to burn heavy diesel fuel while in port. The fallout contains sulfur and may form sulfuric acid droplets on boat enclosures.

Eric Christensen, northwest regional sales manager for Glen Raven Custom Fabrics LLC, says it’s standard procedure to send compromised fabric back to Glen Raven labs for testing after field reps look at the damage.

“Identifying the cause can be a long and involved process,” Christensen says. “But although it’s important to not short circuit the testing process, sometimes we can expedite it, especially if there’s a situation where a customer needs a resolution quickly.”

Discovering the environmental hazards unique to their area enables fabricators to help their customers select appropriate enclosure materials. Hillan stresses the importance of learning everything about the products and educating her customers as much as possible about them and their proper care.

In the event of trouble, she says, “Let the customer know you’re going to do everything you can for them, and then do everything you can for them.”

Mary Jo Morris owned and operated Berkeley Marine Canvas for five years. She has written articles for Caribbean Business, a weekly newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She lives with her husband and their dog, Sally, in Point Richmond, Calif.

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