(Yes, is it completely appropriate to have Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in your head while reading this post.)
While we were planning our wedding, my then-fiancé (now husband) did not do much of the planning (cut him a little slack, he’s finishing a PhD), but when I did turn to him to discuss something that had become a stumbling block his first question was always, “Why?” He’s getting that PhD in Engineering and he’s an experimentalist in all ways. His job is to ask “Why?” and then figure it out. I jumped head first into planning our wedding with the notion that, “This IS my first rodeo,” and all of these vendors have done this hundreds of times or more and I should trust their judgment. My husband jumps head first into everything as a skeptic and wants to figure out how it works. By the time our wedding day rolled around, I think we had found a happy medium between the two, knowing whom we could trust and what battles were worth fighting.
Our first surprise after booking our dream venue (a historic restored farmstead in the town where we fell in love) was when we were told that only one company was allowed to pitch the tents in the backyard. This wasn’t a recommended vendor (which was the impression we got); this was a required vendor. And a very-expensive-compared-to-other-local-options required vendor. And not the rental vendor that our caterer has been working with for years. So we asked, “Why?” and got vague answers and were basically told that as much as we pleaded, there was no budging on this issue. Fine. So we rented our tents from them, and then rented everything else (from the dance floor down to each knife and fork) from the less expensive vendor that our caterer preferred.
Our next surprise was when we were told that we needed to rent, to the tune of $2,000, a 45,000-watt generator to power everything under the main tent and under the cook tent. My husband said, “We can BUY a generator with enough power to do what we need to do for way less than $2,000.” When we asked why the generator needed to be so big, we were told that it was the smallest generator that they rented. The generator was intended to power the DJ and the lights under the big tent and any cooking equipment in the cook tent. This is when we really started firing the questions fast: Do you rent LED lights? How much power does the DJ need? Can we run one extension cord from the house, a mere fifty feet away, to power the DJ? If we can run the extension cord, can we rent the cord and trip covers? Will The Fire Marshall approve this? What kind of power does the caterer need? Do we need lights in the catering tent, too? Is there anything else we need to power with this stupid generator?
And most importantly, the question we asked ourselves: What are our other options to make this happen the way we want it to happen?
Turns out the rental company doesn’t rent LED lights—so we bought them at Target, twenty-six boxes of them, for less than our quote for renting regular incandescent lights. If you don’t know anything about LED lights, just know that they are CRAZY energy efficient and ALL twenty-six boxes of lights strung together used less power than one 100-Watt light bulb.
I asked the DJ what his power requirements were. The answer: “Less than a blow-dryer.” Okay, we all know blow-dryers can use some serious energy, but they can plug into a wall outlet, usually with no problem. After passing this info on to the venue, and begging to allow us to use one extension cord from the farmhouse, they checked with their electrician (it is a historic property) and they finally gave us permission to run one extension cord from the house, as long it was approved by The Fire Marshall. (We’ll get to The Fire Marshall in a minute.)
Turns out the caterer didn’t need any electricity in the cook tent because they usually use propane warming ovens. They use the power in the small kitchen in the house to make the hot water for coffee and tea (heating water takes a lot of energy). But they do need lights in the tent.
So once we knew what our power needs were, we investigated possible solutions that did not involve renting a $2,000 generator. Our total power need, after confirming that we could use power from the house for the DJ, was about 100 Watts to power the twenty-six boxes of LED lights. But, as I learned from my husband, the engineer, that’s 100 Watts for six hours—the length of the reception plus time for cleanup. I’ll leave out the mathematical details, but we determined that this amount of energy could be provided by two power packs.
So once we determined our eco-friendly, budget-friendly power source, we had to deal with the The Fire Marshall. The Tent Rental Woman insisted that none of our crazy plan was going to work: that The Fire Marshall was super-picky about what could be put into a tent, our LED lights wouldn’t be approved; we had to have EXIT signs with egress lighting for the tent and the cook tent, and they needed power; we needed to have two or three fire extinguishers for the size of our tent (40′x60′) and they had to be mounted on the center poles, right next to the dance floor, at a specified height; there needs to be egress for the servers, etc., etc., etc…. So many rules and regulations about having a tent that I had never heard of before, and frankly seemed ridiculous!
I decided to go straight to the source and call The Fire Marshall myself. Well, let me tell you, the woman at the front desk in The Fire Marshall’s office quickly and professionally explained what the rules were. We did need fire extinguishers for the reception tent, but only one was required, although two were recommended, and they absolutely did not need to be mounted on the center tent poles. Because of the small size of the cook tent, it would not be inspected at all (no fire extinguisher or EXIT sign or egress lighting required), although the propane would be inspected and needed a separate permit. If we wanted to have all four sides on our reception tent, then we would need two EXIT signs with egress lighting, but if we only had two sides on the tent, then we wouldn’t need them at all. We could have an extension cord from the house, but it needed to be outdoor grade and secured to the ground so that it wasn’t a trip hazard. We could use our LED lights, but it was preferable to have the rental company install them. Basically, she confirmed that the Tent Rental Woman was full of bullshit, and now I had words straight from the horse’s mouth to tell her what we wanted.
Armed with new information, I sent a firm email, with quotes directly from the Fire Marshall’s office, and we got what we wanted. We ended up purchasing our own fire extinguishers for about $25 each, (instead of renting them from The Tent Rental Woman for $40 each) and had them at the venue when the tent was delivered. They mounted them on the outside poles, as per our request. We had two sides on our tent so that we didn’t need to worry about EXIT signs and egress lighting. We used a camping lantern and some emergency LED flashlights to light the cook tent (our caterer said it was brighter than what they usually get with the rental company’s light). We rented an extension cord and ran it from the house to power the DJ and had U-shaped pegs that held it in the ground so that it wasn’t a trip hazard. We had the rental company install our lights for us. We used our two little power packs to keep our tent lit throughout the evening. And The Fire Marshall approved all of it, while noting that the fire extinguishers that the Tent Rental company installed were installed at the wrong height (take that Ms. Know-It-All-Tent-Rental-Woman!).
It turned out to be a windy, chilly day, and my mom is probably still convinced that we should have had four walls on the tent, but I was so happy that we got to see the vista of the farm as the sun set. We got tons of compliments on the lighting and the whole feel of the evening, and even though folks were a little chilly, we’re convinced that it got everyone on the dance floor, even if some of our guests were wearing their coats.
I’m so glad we pushed for what we wanted and made the day our own. And even though our vendors had done this hundreds of times before, they hadn’t done our wedding before. So know what you want and go for it. If one vendor won’t do it, find someone who will, or do it yourself. Know when to make peace with what is available and make it work as best as you can. And most of all, know when to ask “Why?”
Photo of Beth’s tent by Jennifer Cabral