Shadecloth investigation

CHOICE has uncovered an alarming gap between the level of protection stated on a typical shadecloth and the reality once it is installed.
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01 .Introduction


In brief

  • The shadecloth installation industry is largely unregulated in Australia. This means the installer may have little knowledge about the correct method of design and installation to ensure proper protection.
  • Some shadecloths are susceptible to stretching, whether through incorrect tensioning during installation, or deterioration. This may reduce its UVR protection.

A range of smart shade devices come in trendy styles and vibrant colours and many offer reassuring claims of maximum ultraviolet radiation (UVR) protection. CHOICE has found, however, that the UVR rating of the shadecloth is only half the story.

The shadecloth industry is largely unregulated and serious knowledge gaps exist in the way these devices should be designed and installed. Ignorance of the level of shade coverage necessary, the wrong choice of materials, such as shade fabric with too low a UV protection level and where a shade structure should be orientated in relation to the sun may all contribute towards a structure that provides dangerously inadequate protection.

If the shadecloth is improperly stretched due to incorrect installation, this could alsohave a negative impact. “The UVR block is the single most important determinant of assessing the degree of protection against sunburn. But when a shadecloth is stretched due to improper installation, its UVR could be lowered,” says Christopher Nolan, managing director of Nolan Warehouses.

Please note: this information was current as of December 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market. 

Can you trust the industry?

With the exceptions of Queensland and Victoria, where installers must be backed with valid builder’s licences, anyone can set themselves up as a shade installer.

Even with a builder’s licence, there is no guarantee an installer will have any specific qualifications, experience or advanced knowledge of shade devices and their correct installation process. This means your installer can use a high-protection shadecloth, but he may install it in such a way that its stated UV protection is compromised.

“There is no formal education process of how to put up a shadecloth, so the only way is to go out there and do it,” says John Simmonds, director of Billabong Shades in Victoria. “The problem with this trial-and-error method is that sometimes the error is made and the customer has to pay for it.”

Stretching the truth

To our knowledge, no shadecloths have been tested for any change in UVR protection level resulting from being stretched when in use.

Currently they are tested for how much UVR the materials transmit, according to the requirements of Standards Australia and for tear and tensile strengths. There is no standard test method to test the change in UVR transmitted for material under stretched conditions

The School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of NSW has performed tests on shadecloth to the Australian Standard. Professor Stephen Dain, director of its Optics and Radiometry Laboratory, says that how much a shadecloth stretches will vary with installation, which is a problem for devising a test method that includes a stretched state. “How much shadecloths stretch depends on how and where they are supported in the installation. So a shadecloth manufacturer should not be governed by what is out of their control,” says Dain. “Generally, knitted shadecloths do stretch and would transmit more UVR than unstretched." Woven shadecloths, he says, do not stretch much at all.

Classification of sun protection levels

The Australian Standard for sun-protective clothing includes a classification system that is similar to that used for sunscreen. Depending on how much UVR is blocked out by the cloth, the cloth may be described as offering ‘Good protection, ‘Very good protection’, or ‘Excellent protection’.

The Cancer Council of NSW believes there is a need for a similar system for the UVR protection of shadecloth. “An Australian Standard for shadecloth similar to the classification for sun-protective clothing will improve consumers’ ability to identify products with a low or high UVR protection level.”

A Standards Australia spokesperson explained that shadecloth differs from sun protective clothing in that factors such as the design and size of the shade structure, distance from the subjects, the level of reflected and diffused radiation, as well as the physical location of a person within the shade structure, can affect the level of protection provided. This is why the sun-protective levels of shadecloth, or a classification as such, is not included in the Australian Standard for shadecloth.

Standards Australia told CHOICE it has not received any proposals or requests to review the existing standard for shadecloth but welcomes anyone who wishes to do so (go to

CHOICE Verdict

Given that the performance of a shadecloth depends on the way it is designed and installed, it is important to find a skilled and experienced designer and installer. See Council Cancer guidelines for things to look for.


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Since the nationwide SunSmart Early Childhood Program was introduced in 1998, more than 3500 childcare centres across Australia have been certified SunSmart. The program is voluntary and provides sun protection guidelines for participating centres to follow, including identification and use of shaded areas for outdoor activities.

The Cancer Council recommends centres conduct their own shade audits to ensure shade protection is adequate. However, Cancer Council Australia does not itself inspect or carry out shade audits as part of its SunSmart certification. According to a spokesperson: “Regulation is the responsibility of state governments, each of which has its own recommendations or guidelines for sun protection, shade in outdoor spaces and duty of care.”

With responsibility falling across different organisations – many with stretched resources to adequately police the sun protection policies of so many childcare centres – accountability is hard to pin down.

NSW under the microscope

Centres come under the responsibility of the Department of Community Services (DoCS), whose regulations specify that they must provide “adequate shade” based on Cancer Council NSW and NSW Health Department's Shade Guidelines for Childcare Services.

A DoCS spokesperson told CHOICE that departmental officers carry out “comprehensive inspections” of the physical environment of childcare centres to ensure they have an appropriate sun protection policy in place. However, what actually constitutes adequate shade is only broadly described in the official regulations.

Cancer Council NSW’s guidelines recommend that shadecloths have at least 94% UVR block (essentially a measurement of the amount of UV blocked out). But in NSW, using a shadecloth rated lower than the recommended 94% is not necessarily grounds for non-compliance.

“A shadecloth is but one of the physical aspects of outdoor play space that contributes to it being an adequately shaded area,” says the DoCS spokesperson. “It is unlikely that a children's service would be deemed non-compliant merely for not having a shadecloth with a minimum of 94% UVR block.”

She also says officers conduct unannounced and random checks on centres to check compliance with all regulations, including the centre’s sun protection policy and practice. One preschool in Macquarie Fields had its licence revoked in January 2008 for several breaches, including failure to provide adequate shade for outdoor play areas.

Archicentre, the building advisory service of the Australian Institute of Architects, voiced its concerns with the lack of understanding of what “adequate shade” means. “The regulation is in place, and self-regulation in part is already in place – the real problem is that people do not understand the regulation, much less comply,” says Angus Kell, Archicentre’s NSW/ACT state manager.

Between January 2007 and November 2008, WebShade, a professional shade auditing company, conducted audits of seven childcare centres and found none complied fully with regulations, despite two being SunSmart certified.

“The three key areas of non-compliance were inadequate UV protection levels of shadecloths, poor shade design and ineffective shading in open play areas. The managers of the centres also did not know how much UVR protection their shadecloths provided,” according to WebShade’s director, architect John Greenwood.

03.Childcare directors are key to providing adequate shade

In order to implement an effective sun protection policy in NSW, childcare centre operators must rely on correctly interpreting Cancer Council NSW guidelines, including proper shade installation. Putting faith in shadecloth suppliers and installers to get it right is fraught with risk.

Given there are about 65 DoCS officers charged with overseeing regulation and compliance throughout the state’s 3419 licensed children's services, childcare centres that play a proactive role in ensuring SunSmart practices will make a difference in providing adequate shade. Juliet Ranieri, director of KU Wahroonga Preschool told CHOICE she contacted five different shadecloth installers and was quoted between $19,000 and $30,000 for the job.

“One shadecloth installer came for just five minutes, gave me their quote and left,” she says. “Another tried to convince me I needed multicoloured shadecloths. Another told me he could put the new shadecloth over the old poles, which I was later told caused the sag in the old shade sail. Another took out two business cards; he was both a shadecloth installer and an electrician."

On the end, Ms Ranieri chose the installer who offered the most detailed explanation of what the school’s $24,000 was being spent on. He explained the properties of the shadecloth material, claiming it had a 94% UVR block, and his credentials included references from past jobs.

Ranieri then applied for KU to be a SunSmart school once the shadecloth was put up and certified. She has not had a professional shade audit done but stuck very closely to the recommendations of Cancer Council NSW.

CHOICE set up a preliminary shade audit of KU with auditor John Greenwood. The preschool scored 9.5 out of a possible 10 for having the right shade materials and shade projected in the right areas.

"Ms. Ranieri understood the shade needs of her site. She knew what material the shadecloth was made of and what protection it offered,” says Greenwood. “This is rare as many people we have done shade audits for do not know where shade is really needed or what UV protection is required.“Her efforts in getting the right installer have also had a tremendous effect in achieving a successful shade outcome," he added.

CHOICE asked DoCS and the Cancer Council for possible solutions they may have considered in ensuring what “adequate shade” is in practice, but no one seems to want to take responsibility for solving the problem.

A Cancer Council spokesperson says that the Cancer Council is non-government organisation, not an enforcement agency and cannot regulate for shade in early childhood services.

A spokesperson from Department of Community Services (DoCS) told CHOICE: “DoCS supports moves to improve the quality of equipment used in children's services. However, the installation of equipment in children's services, whether it be shadecloths, playground equipment, or kitchen facilities is managed by the individual children's service. DoCS does not have a mandate to regulate the shadecloth industry.”

However the licence conditions that adequate shade must be provided as part of a childcare services facilities and equipment requirement falls under DoCS’ jurisdiction.

Types of shadecloth

There are two types of shadecloth – knitted and woven. Most shadecloths for domestic and commercial use are usually knitted fabric, each available in several grades and available from light to extra heavy.

Commercial grade fabrics generally offer superior protection in terms of UVR block and strength as they are generally designed for larger spans. Domestic grade shadecloths are generally sold at hardware stores, offering between 50% and 99% UVR protection.

When looking for shadecloth, look for its UVR rating. Cancer Councils across Australia recommend shade structures should have as high a UVR block as possible – or at least 94%.

Cancer Council guidelines

Cancer Council NSW suggests you follow these guidelines before installing shadecloth:

  • Choose fabric that is dark, closely woven and heavy, as it blocks or absorbs more UV radiation.
  • Conduct a shade audit of the site where shade is required. You don’t have to be professionally qualified, and Cancer Council Australia’s publications can be used as a guide (go to A shade audit includes assessing the current shade of a site as well the types, times and months of use. A shade audit will help to plan a shade design that meets the needs of the site and its intended use.
  • Confirm with your local council whether you need a permit to put up the shadecloth.
  • Check the credentials of the shade installer and quality of the shadecloth:
    • Does the company include a structural engineer’s report for the site and structure?
    • What warranty applies?
    • Do they provide ongoing services such as safety checks, maintenance and cleaning?
    • What are the specifications of the cloth used?
    • Has it been independently tested to confirm the UV radiation protection level?
    • What is the durability of the cloth?

    Examples of shadecloth materials

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