Stuff to know: How to power a tent Wedding Reception

Outdoor weddings are wonderful........when planned properly. For some reason however I've had a lot more conversations lately with brides-to-be regarding outdoor events and, more specifically, some of the pitfalls of tent setups. I thought it deserved some attention so here goes. (WARNING: Boring techie stuff follows but stick with me, this stuff is important) We do a lot of tent events and I have to be honest, I usually pull onto the property, cringing because I don't know what I'm up against (power-wise). Let's cover some basic dos and don'ts for powering a tent-based Wedding Reception. For a visual, here's an event we did in Manchester, back in March, 2012.

Power Requirements A typical circuit is 15-20 amps or 2000 watts. An amp is roughly 100 watts. It's important that you always calculate what's needed, then make sure there's twice as much power available as required. Here's a breakdown of items that we often see on tent events:

DJ sound gear < 10 amps
Tent lights (par64, incandescent-style) 5 amps each (2-6 needed)
Perimeter lighting (LED, 20 fixtures) 2 amps
Dance lighting (LED) 2 amps
Dance lighting (non-LED) 10 amps
Leko lights (pattern gobos) 5 amps each (1-2 used)
Coffee makers 10 amps each
Food warmers 10 amps each

As you can see, it adds up quickly. The setup above is fairly modest and uses three full circuits. On the pictures included, our DJ setup included sound, dance-floor effects lighting, 20 perimeter uplights, and 2 Lekos (the gobo pattern at the top of the tent). And that doesn't even count catering or the Photobooth.

Here's a shot from an event we did in June, 2012. This included sound, dance lighting, 20 perimeter lights (hung from the roof-line of the tent), dance lighting and the tent company hung 6, Par64 incandescent cans. These units alone were 500 watts each, or 3000 watts (2 circuits). This entire setup ran off 3 circuits with a generator on-site as backup, in case of failure. By the way, side note here, if you're doing Uplighting (colored perimeter lights), be sure and have the Uplighting contractor coordinate with the tent company. In this case the tent company had too many lights and used yellow gels, which clashed and washed out the gorgeous red Uplighting the bride had requested.

There are two ways to get power to a tent setup; land power or generator. Let's cover generators first.

Generators

Generators come in two varieties; inverter and non-inverter. Here's a non-inverter style:

In short, DO NOT USE THIS TYPE! It's okay for incandescent lights, coffee makers, etc. but DJ gear (computers, audio, controllers) will go nuts. You do want your entire first dance song to play without stopping, right? Keep in mind also that these smaller generators only have about a 3-4 hour runtime. There's nothing worse than having a couple hundred of your closest friends standing in total darkness while dad is out trying to re-fuel and restart the generator. And that's not even to talk about the fact that this probably won't even be enough to power the entire setup either.

If you're going to use a generator, rent a multi-circuit, inverter-style, pull-behind generator. that has at least 8-10 hours of runtime between fueling. It should look something like this:

In the Nashville area Art's Pancake Rent-All is a good source. You'll want something that has a fuel tank large enough to power your entire event at full load for twice as long as you're planning for. These pull-behind units typically will have a break-out panel (multiple circuits) and a couple hundred feet of cabling with it. This lets you put the generator out of ear-shot of your guests and puts the power where it's needed (without a bunch of extension cords).

Land Power Wherever possible, we always recommend land power to be used as it's more reliable but you need to be aware of extension cords. Never run more than a couple hundred feet of extension cords and never use anything less than 10 or 12-gauge wires. If you pull 16 or 18-gauge cable (the common orange extension cords you use for the weed trimmer) that far, the voltage will drop and that's what burns up electrical gear of all kinds.  Bear in mind that you'll need multiple circuits and no, you can just put a multi-strip on the end to power everything in the tent. If you're doing it right, the extension cables should remain cool. If you're overloading them, they'll get hot and that usually means the circuit will fail at some point during the evening (remember that guest in the dark pic?).

One other little "gotcha". Getting proper voltage at the end of the line is important. After everything has been wired up, use a volt meter to make certain you have the right voltage. Good voltage is anywhere between 115 and 124 volts. If your tent power is dipping below that, you may be in for trouble. This is often caused by using too-light gauge or too-long extension cords.

Uplighting (another "gotcha") As a side note, I wanted to address something specific to Uplighting issues. There are two ways to do perimeter lighting on tents. Hang the fixtures at the tent roof-line and shoot the color onto the roof or use sidewalls on the tent and paint the walls from the ground up.

In the case where sidewalls are being used, be sure to stake the walls into the ground. First off, it keeps rain off the lighting fixtures (we lost a fixture due to rain on the purple job above) and it keeps the color hitting where it's suppose to.

Drainage Issues You need to be careful when selecting the location for your tent. Of course, you'll want a good, flat surface but something most people miss is drainage. Be sure and survey the area just after a heavy rainstorm. Is there water running through the area where you want to put the tent? Pick someplace else to put it. Water running through your tent not only makes for muddy shoes (and unhappy guests) but it can also be dangerous if you have electrical cables running across it as well. Better safe than sorry.

Summary If you've made it this far and are still awake, congratulations! You are in the minority that is doing diligence and that is the first rule of pulling off a successful outdoor event. If all this techie mumbo-jumbo is confusing, don't worry. It is for most people. That's what you hire the pros to help you with. If there are any questions we can ever answer for you, even if we're not doing your event, please call or email anytime. We're always here to help.

DISCLAIMER 615DJ is NOT a licensed electrician and makes no claims to such expertise. The article above is offered in the spirit of helpful advice, from the DJ's perspective. We recommend you seek the advice of a competent, licensed professional for your electrical wiring needs. 

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