How to Select, Install, and Maintain Shade Sails

Easy to install, and cheap to buy, shade sails are the modern-day answer to protection from harmful UV rays from the sun in the outdoor areas of our homes and gardens.

The devices have been created based on the same technology as a ship’s sail — hence the name. They have a flexible membrane (made out of a range of normally water-resistant or waterproof fabrics) that’s tightened between several anchor points.

If you’ve not already noticed them everywhere, chances are after reading this article, you’ll see them everywhere you look — particularly in popular outdoor areas like parks and playgrounds.

Brief history of the shade sail

Way back in ancient Egypt, they used pieces of quality fabric to create shade. The ancient Greeks and Romans did the same — taking advantage of the technology to provide shade to their spectators at the Colosseum in Rome (it was pulled into place by sailors, of course!).

Of course, the strength of the sail depends upon the durability and toughness of the fabric and techniques employed. They were made out of flax (linen), hemp, cotton, and canvas.

It was in the industrial revolution when shade structures were able to grow in size — and substantially so — due to new industrial machines and techniques.

Midway through the 20th century, the concept of tensile architecture for shade to large outdoor areas was put to the test when it was employed at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne in 1959.

From there, shade sails took…well, sail. Membrane structures were used for Saudi Arabia’s Tuwaiq Palace, and the roof of Munich’s Olympic stadium, both in the 70s.

Synthetic materials like PVC have led to the creation of the modern quality shade sail that we know today.

Different types of shade sails

These nowadays fulfill all sorts of uses, and of course, there are different types for different purposes. Here are some of the most common types you should know about.

Waterproof shade sail

Waterproof sails protect from harsh elements like heavy rain and the blazing sun.

The shade sail that comes to mind first for most people is the waterproof shade sail. Made from durable PVC material, it can withstand both harmful UV rays from the hot sun and heavy rains, making it ideal for use even in the tropics.

That said, the waterproof shade sail is often used in the construction of parking shelters, as well as on fabric structures and architectural membranes.

Shade umbrellas


A favored shade sail of restaurants the world over: the shade umbrella.

Connected to steel posts and rafters, shade umbrellas are probably the most well-known type of tensile shade construction — though it’s not generally thought of as a shade sail.

Depending upon the material use, shade umbrellas generally do a good job of keeping out both harmful UV rays from the sun and rain.

Popular for picnics and gatherings of small groups, as well as around pools, this type of shade sail isn’t usually big enough for large groups.

Shade arched canopy

Built with freestanding structures, shade arched canopies come in all shapes and sizes. These types tend to be most popularly used for parking garages and garden areas.

They are, like the other types, sun-proof and water-resistant (or waterproof, depending on the fabric used in its construction).

Privacy screens

Though privacy screens aren’t always sails, sails do make excellent privacy screens.

Fabric is typically tightened between four corners of a rectangle frame, and connected all around, and the structure is then often connected to two, three, four, or more similar frames with the same fabric tensioned in the middle.

The result of this is that the privacy screen provides just enough cover, but usually not full. It’s generally possible to make out vague outlines of objects and people behind a privacy screen shade sail.

These structures are not only used for privacy, but also to act as a divide between one room or garden area and another.

Shapes of shade sails

Not only do they come in different types, but also in different shapes. The waterproof shade sails can be purchased as either triangles, squares, or shapes with five, six, and more points.

Square shade sails are popular the world over for providing a large amount of shaded area. One of the drawbacks of their square shape, though, is that they tend to “belly up” in the center due to water build up. The other drawback is its appearance — square shade sails simply don’t look as elegant as their three-pointed cousin.

Which brings us to the oh-so-popular triangle shade sail. With their more fashionable look, these types of shade sails are often found layered one on top of the other to provide maximum shade coverage to the area in which they’re installed. These sails are perfectly suited to smaller locations, but can also work in larger areas too when layered correctly. Besides the aesthetic advantages of the triangle shade sails, they’re also less prone to pooling or sagging.

Purchasing your shade sail

There are certain things to keep in mind when you’re selecting the perfect quality shade sail for your needs. Here are the most important ones:

  • Select a high quality shade sail. This is because the cheaper versions tend to stretch, which makes them move more in the wind. The lower-quality ones then continue to break apart. Eventually, it won’t stretch any further and will begin to fall apart.
  • Ensure your shade sail is made with stainless steel wire around the side, rather than webbing. This is because webbing can shrink. Since the fabric doesn’t shrink, the shrinking of the wire can cause the shade sail to sag.
  • Look for a shade sail with high UV protection. You want at least 92% protection from harmful UV rays in your shade sail. Purchase accordingly.

Shade sail use ideas

These are nothing if not versatile. Here are some super handy ways you can put your shade sail to good use:

Garden


Sails and hammocks are the perfect pair.

A shade sail in the garden can not only shelter (partially, at least) your outdoor furniture from the elements, but it provides shade and protection for you and your guests, so you can enjoy the garden any time of day.

Swimming pool

They are the perfect poolside companion. In the form of umbrellas, waterproof sails, or shaded arched canopies, they can be installed over poolside loungers, jacuzzis, and other poolside structures.

Carport

Among the many great uses for shade sails is their use in providing shade for cars, which can otherwise sizzle under the sun.

Children’s play areas

Providing shade for the little ones while they frolic in their play area is another excellent use for a shade sail. Indeed, these innovative contraptions are used in many kids’ playgrounds in Australia.

Camping


Sails are a camper’s best friend, after her tent.

If you’re heading into the wilderness to get back in touch with nature, don’t forget to pack your shade sail! Its durable material makes it ideal for raw, natural conditions, and helps your campsite stay dry and out of the sun.

Picnics

So long as there are trees to attach your carabiners to, you can hang up a temporary shade sail for an afternoon picnic.

Shade Sail Use Tips

Though shade sails are pretty easy to install and maintain, there are some tips and tricks that can make your life easier. Here’s the best of the bunch:

  • Ensure your shade sail is drum-tight.


Properly securing your shade sail is one of the most important steps you can take during your shade sail installation.

Failure to do this can actually cause damage to your house if it’s attached to it at any point. Why? The loser your shade sail is, the more prone it will be to moving in the wind, which puts strain on the attachment points. Eventually, the attachment points will come loose, and this could cause lasting damage to whatever it is attached to.

  • Attach your shade sail to poles with care. Incorrectly installed shade sails can cause physical harm to those around it. To stop a pole from coming loose and potentially hurting someone, dig your hole extra deep, and use concrete to set it. You may even want to set it in some rebar.
  • Look closely at your 10-year warranty. Many shade sails come with a 10-year warranty, but be warned that this is for the UV stability of the fabric. Nothing else is covered, and if your shade falls apart in a year, there will be no UV stability to measure!

Step-by-step Shade Sail Installation Guide

Installing your shade sail is a pretty simple job, so long as you ensure you make several key steps. Here is our handy installation guide, complete with easy-to-follow photos.

Materials

Method

1. Prepare for your shade sail installation.

Measure the area where you would like to enjoy shade in your garden or patio area.

Take your time browsing for your desired sun shade sail — there are many different kinds to choose from, as you’ll have read above. Select a heavy duty high-quality shade sail that’s best for your needs and desires.

Always make sure to pay attention to the color scheme in and around your house to make sure the color of your shade sail matches your outdoor decor.

Remember to select a heavy duty sun shade that blocks out at least 90% of UV rays. Pick up an awning attachment kit to help string up your shade sail correctly, too, as most of the less expensive types don’t come with this kit.

Shade sails are not only practical, but they look pretty stylish too, when strung up correctly.

💡Tip: Your shade sail will arrive nicely folded (hopefully). When you unfold it and first install it, you’ll notice it’ll be all wrinkly. Don’t worry — once you tension it, and the sun hits it for a while, those wrinkles will smooth right out if it’s tensioned properly.

2. Plan your shade

Make sure you have anchor points around the area in which you would like to have your sail. This can be the wall of your house, large trees (trunk only), carport etc.

If you don’t have enough anchor points, then you will need to erect some using wood, stainless steel or even bamboo.

Since the timber frame of our house didn’t offer enough solid anchor points for the way we wanted to position it, we had to erect two of our own anchor posts using 3 x 3 inch timber. For the third anchor point, we used a wall of our house (see image below).

It’s important to make sure your anchor points are strong enough to hold the sail tight and allow for tightening.

Attach your shade sail to your house wherever possible, since this is the strongest structure on your land (usually).

💡Tip: Buy or borrow a “come along” from your local DIY store. These can be modified to be your best friend while installing your shade sail.

3. X marks the spot

Mark your anchor post positions. An easy way to do this is lay your sun shade out on the ground or have some friends hold each corner tight and mark the position in which they are standing for your post.

Make sure to add a minimum of 20 cm to each post position to compensate for the awning attachment set and tightening. So, for example, if your shade is 4 meters wide, you would mark your posts a minimum of 4.4 meters apart from one another.

You can always use chain or galvanised wire to extend the sun shade from your anchor posts if the distance is too great. There is nothing you can do, of course, if the distance is too short. So be sure to make the gap greater if you’re at all unsure about positioning of anchor posts.

Spreading your shade sail out on the ground where you intend to put it up will give you a good visual of exactly where the anchor points will hit. 

4. Get shoveling.

Now you’re ready to dig your holes for anchor post positioning and installation.

Your hole should be a minimum of 30 cm in diameter by 50 cm deep.

This will ensure stability and stress in the post. Even though it is not load-bearing, it will have to withstand a certain amount of tension when the wind picks up in your garden.

The deeper you dig your holes, the sturdier your shade sail post will be. Watch out for rocks!

5. Position your posts

Treat your anchor posts with to ensure they live a long life.

If you’re using steel, treat with metal primer before use. If you’re using timber, use a bitumen paint on the part of the timber that will be submerged in the cement, together with deck stain or varnish on the remaining part of the wood.

Termite control is also important if you’re using timber. Position your posts where you want them to go, and make sure they are plumb using a level. You will also need two pieces of timber per anchor post to help keep the post upright and in position while your cement goes off.

Use a pre-made fence post mix. All you need to do is add water and follow the instructions on the packaging. Leave the posts for at least 24 hours before removing the timber supports from the sides.

Timber supports will keep your anchor posts in place while the concrete dries and solidifies around them.

💡Tip: If you want to be able to put your shade sail up and take it down quickly and easily, properly installed pulleys are the answer.

6. Bring it all together

Attach your awning support kit to your anchor posts and or walls.

Make sure to level off your anchor post stainless steel hooks and make sure the corner in which you want the water to run off is slightly lower than the other points. Since water follows the flow of gravity, it will always run down to the lowest point.

Again, make sure to either use some chain or galvanized wire on each corner to help with tightening the shade sail.

String up the sun shade using the awning attachment set and start tightening the stainless steel turnbuckle by cranking it clockwise.

The more you turn your hooks, the tighter the sun shade shall become. (see image below). Tighten until all the creases disappear out of the sun shade sail and your are happy with the shade it is producing.

💡Tip: Leave your wire rope loose until all of your corners are attached. You can tighten your wire once all corners are securely linked to their anchor points.

A well-hung shade sail opens up much more of your garden or patio area.

💡Tip: Tensioning hardware works best when it’s been properly lubricated. White lithium grease paste works well to lubricate your turnbuckle.

💡Tip: Large shade sails need bigger, sturdier hardware. For particularly big shade sails, use commercial brackets.

How to care for and maintain your shade sail

Shade sails may be easy to install and maintain, but there are still certain care guidelines to follow.

Once you’ve got your shade sail up, it’s important to take good care of it, so it lives its longest life.

  • Take your shade sail down in the winter months. The snow, cold, and frost are not particularly good for the contraption, and can rust the hardware too.
  • Clean your shade sail once a year or so. Use a light detergent and a soft scrub brush for the job. Ensure the detergent is free from acidic chemicals (dish soap works well), which can weaken the fabric. It can take around 3 to 4 hours to properly clean a shade sail (and that’s with a helper, too!).
  • You can use a power sprayer to clean your shade sail, too. Just don’t get too close or hose it too aggressively. Spray on a flat, clean surface, and clean the shade sail in sections. Do not use a hose or power sprayer on your shade sail if it’s made from vinyl, which could damage it over time.
  • Never put your shade sail in the washing machine, dryer, or scrub it with a stiff brush or the like.
  • Allow your shade sail to fully dry once it’s cleaned — particularly if it’s before storing it away for the winter, when it can grow mold spores if still damp. A large shade sail can take up to 12 hours to dry.
  • Check your shade sail and its hardware regularly. Once a week or so will do. You’re just looking to make sure nothing has come loose or rusted, that the tension is still strong enough on your fabric, and that your shade sail is generally still in good condition.
  • Always check your shade sail and its hardware after a storm to make sure nothing has come loose.
  • Keep your stainless steel turnbuckles properly lubricated. This will avoid you having to replace them every so often.
  • Keep your shade sail clean from chemicals, particularly pesticides, metals, metal oxides, bleach, and halogens.
  • Keep a nylon broom near your shade sail, and use it to scrape away dirt, animal droppings, and leaves from your shade sail on a weekly basis. If your shade sail is installed quite high, ensure the broom has a handle long enough to reach the top.
  • Store your shade sail in its storage bag when you take it down for the season, or, if it didn’t come with a storage bag, you are best storing it in an airtight plastic bin with a snapping lid.