Specialty Imprinting On The Road

written by:  Larry Cohn, April 2004


Part I 

Introduction - So you want to go on the road, huh?

Section 1: Be prepared for everyday emergencies

1) Power provided by event? Don't bet on it

2) Generator(s)

-OSHA requirements
-Noise level
-"Clean" power signal

3) Power backup unit

4) Surge Protectors

5) Emergency Bag of Hardware Goodies

6) Spare computer and press equipment

7) Personal emergency bag

Coming Soon - Part II & Part III highlights

Section 2: Getting organized and set up to go mobile vending

1) Lighting

2) Canopy, Trailer or both


3) Setup

-Physical considerations
-Ventilation and comfort
-Preserving the mystery
-Curb appeal
-Do they "get it" as they hurry by?
-Do you project a "Low-key vibe" or a "Trap-a-customer vibe"?
-The human touch

4) Equipment

Keep your stuff on the leading edge.....
.... But not on the "bleeding edge"

5) Stock

6) Where are we going, anyway?


7) Contacts, Agreements, Politics... What's your gig?

-Expect to get "jerked around"
-Put on your happy face to the powers that be
-The carnival option
-Events with multiple vending options

8) Employees

Section 3: Pulling it all together, and pulling yourself together

1) Paperwork

2) Competitors

-"Battle" scenario
-"Ignoring" scenario:
-"Friendly" scenario:
-Reality check... a competitor is still a competitor

3) "Bad Guys"

-Is your "big mouth" tipping off the "bad guys"?
-Does your routine make you an easy mark for a robbery?
-Are you an easy mark for passing counterfeit money?
-The worst thieves can be the ones you hire
-Things that go bump in the night...
-Being neighborly can pay off
-Check out your motel/hotel surroundings

4) Operating plan

-Perfection or Profit?
-Assembly line operation or "We'll do anything you want, right now"?
-Other options for keeping a difficult or delayed sale

5) Lifestyle decisions

Conclusion: Going on the road... is it for you?



Introduction - So you want to go on the road, huh?

Have you been bitten by the wanderlust bug? Do you get misty-eyed when you see a fellow subber plying their goods at the local county fair or street fair? Do you love cars, dogs, cats, or horses, and wish to try some mobile vending at these kinds of outdoor shows and events? Some people seem to love it, and some hate it, but if you want to try it you definitely need to be prepared. It's not as easy as it may look, once you ask yourself the following questions:

1) What if you are out in the middle of nowhere and some equipment dies on you or messes up? Are you prepared to handle almost any problem you may have?

2) Are you prepared to take the time and money to come up with an efficient setup from a hardware and equipment standpoint? Some people actually spend a year or more just on this step alone.

3) Can you handle the lifestyle changes, separation from family and friends, operating decisions for maximum profits, and dealing with sometimes cut-throat competitors? In other words, is your head in the right place for this mission? :-)

When you go on the road you essentially are putting all your eggs in one basket, and that basket can be quite fragile and unbalanced. You've done all the planning, all the financing, all the traveling, all the setup, and spent all that time when you are spending money instead of making it, in preparation for your "journey into riches". That can add up to a big nut to crack... especially if you've invested in serious equipment, in a vending trailer, and/or a vehicle that can pull it. And now here you are with a line of customers, about to get some of that much dreamed about payback. Whether that goes smoothly is a test of everything you've done up to that point, as well as some luck or fate mixed in.

Section 1: Be prepared for everyday emergencies

1) Power provided by event? Don't bet on it

You need to keep power requirements in mind when taking your act on the road. Power is a precious commodity since most places expect you to bring your own, and even if they "provide power" they may be hooking up 5 people to one 15 amp source, mostly for lights etc. Or they may have power available only in certain sections of the event and you got moved into an area that doesn't have power. In any event, regardless of what you are promised, be prepared with your own generator "just in case".

If it is an indoor event and you therefore don't have the option of running your own generator power, you need to be extremely explicit about your power needs and pay for whatever surcharge is needed in order to assure adequate power to your booth. If you can't be guaranteed at least 30 amps @120v (about 3600 watts) then I'd be reluctant to book the event. If they can only guarantee 15-20 amps (about 1800-2400 watts) then I would either try to design an extremely low powered booth setup for that event, such as only using a small Hobby Lite heat press rather than a larger one, and only turning on a mug press if I first turn off the flat press... or I would pass.

Note that you need less power for indoor events because as a rule they light up the area pretty well and you only need a small amount of lighting for your individual booth presentation, (not counting any photo lighting you may need).


2) Generator(s)

More than likely you are going to be looking very seriously at some 3000W and up generators before you wind up hitting the road. Here are some considerations for what kind of power you need and which generator(s) to choose.

One thing that you will find to be very important when doing fairs is ample lighting. You will need lots of lighting for people to notice you and your displays at night, and lighting is a power hog. So unless you are planning on only doing daylight gigs, you'll need to basically double your power needs when you add nightlights.... 1500-3000 watts is usually a bare minimum for running an equipment setup, and another 2000-3000 watts is needed to properly light up an average sized concession trailer, to make it look inviting, safe and open for business..

OSHA requirements

Be aware that there are OSHA requirements for how high the generator exhaust needs to be ported before reaching open air. Setting up an exhaust system is not trivial, but you need to be prepared with this or you can be thrown out from an event simply due to one complaint from another vendor. The law is the law and if called on it, show management will have no choice except to enforce it. Remember that the proper/improper porting of your exhaust can in fact be a health issue to those around you.

Noise level

Most events will promptly shut you down if a neighboring vendor complains about the noise level of your generator. All it takes is one complaint. The quietest generators are, by far, the most expensive ones, but in your case they are worth it. If you must buy a noisy generator then you'll need to build a heavily noise-dampened enclosure for it, designed in such a way as to get lots of air flow into the enclosure so that you don't fry the generator. Back in my super-poor days at the swap meet, 15 years ago, I built a big well noise-dampened enclosure on top of my van and had the generators permanently installed inside, then I had fans pulling the air through the enclosure through vent holes. Since it was all sitting on top of my van it satisfied the OSHA height requirements for porting the exhaust into the open air. But I don't see the average Joe wanting to go through all that. Just buy the quietest generator and be done with it if you possibly can.

For those of you who don't know how the db, or decibel system works, be careful because for instance, 67 db is over 3 times as loud as 57 db.

"Clean" power signal

The "inverter" type generators available today from Honda and Yamaha have the cleanest power signal, a true sine wave. This is a very important consideration when powering up sensitive electronics and computer equipment. The cheaper units will generate a square wave, or what they may call a "pseudo-sine-wave". The cheaper square wave power is fine for things like lighting, a t-shirt press without digital electronic controls in it, or for a portable heater. Consider grouping your power needs into mission-critical power and cheap power. Of course the cheap power is also going to be the noisiest, but we'll get to that later.

The inverter-type generators are the smallest size and weight for a given power rating. Of course you will have to pay a big premium for them compared with the other loud, big and bulky "Home Depot" type generators. The best choice for inverter-style generators is the Honda EU3000, or the EU2000 for smaller setups. They are extremely quiet, operate up to 20 hours on one a tank of gas, and have a very steady current producing a true sine wave so that you don't mess up your computers and other sensitive equipment. <http://www.hondapowerequipment.com/gensup.htm>

The Yamaha series is similar for the 1000W and 3000W models, EF1000iS and EF3000iSE. The 2800W model is slightly less money per watt and still gives you a clean sine wave power signal, and it is quiet, but compared to the Honda or the newer Yamahas it is noticeably louder, 67 db max vs 57db. http://www.yamaha-motor.com/products/gen/ef3000ise-b.html

Another nice feature of inverter generators is that you can set it to a variable throttle mode that saves you lots of gas if you have times where you need to keep it on but you are not drawing very much power for certain intervals. It also saves you from having to gas up at short intervals throughout the day, since depending on the model it can go for up to 20 hours in low power mode. Regular type generators burn roughly the same amount of gas per hour regardless of the load.

The other way to go for clean quiet power is to go with one of the big RV-type generators such as Onan. If you are planning on traveling with a motorhome then you've probably already got that problem licked, but otherwise you might have a hard time deciding on the bulk and expense of such a generator.

3) Power backup unit

A power backup unit is basically a big battery that is controlled by special circuitry, that you plug your critical equipment into. If there is a power failure even for a split second, the battery power will take over and keep your stuff running. When the power comes back on, your equipment is connected once again to the regular power source. This battery power can last, on average, anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes depending on how big of a battery backup you bought and how much power your critical equipment draws. The bigger the better... if your critical equipment draws 500 watts, and you want to have a longer maximum power backup time, then double or triple this wattage for 2 or 3 times the backup time. Be sure and read the specs before buying, since there can be a major difference in backup times for a given wattage load.

A very important feature to look for on a power backup is "undervoltage protection". If, for example, we really did have 105 volts, or 100 volts, coming down the line, the power backup will sense that and will boost the voltage up to 120 volts by using it's battery power to do so. Obviously this can not go on forever. If you have an occasional few minute period of low voltage, the battery backup will boost it up, and beep at you to let you know it's doing that. But if you continually have too low a voltage coming in, your battery in the power backup will soon become depleted. In that case you have no way out of your problem unless you supply your own power with a generator.

By the way, another important feature to look for in a power backup unit is to make sure it will generate a sine wave output, not a square wave, or what they call a "pseudo sign wave". APC makes a good line of power backup units, and it's a good line to use as comparisons with other brands.

4) Surge Protectors

While a power backup unit will protect you for a short time from either a low voltage or no voltage, a surge protector will filter out any high voltage spikes from your line. This is especially important at fairs and events where you have no idea who else is tapping into the same power line. Some things that others plug into the power line can cause power spikes and surges. Again, shopping is critical; you need to look for a surge protector that has the highest "joule" ratings in terms of the size and duration of voltage spikes that it can handle. Don't buy a $10 surge protector, look for the ones in the $40-$50 price range, and buy at least two of them. The reason for this is that you should only put about 12.5 amps maximum, less than 1500 watts, through a given surge protector, and chances are you'll be running more power than that with the various equipment you'd want to protect from surges. Generally people leave out their big flat t-shirt press since they can draw 1500w to 1800w all by themselves, but mug presses are usually worth protecting because they tend to have alot of expensive electronic controls inside and most of them only draw around 350-400 watts.

On a related note, it's important, as you can see, to understand what power ratings mean, so that you can distribute your power requirements for your various equipment in the best possible way, to make the most efficient use of your surge protectors and your battery backup unit(s), as well as your generator power if used.

Also keep in mind that if you have been in a situation such as lightning striking close to you, your surge protectors may need to be replaced. They are a consumable item. Once they protect you, the protection devices inside get burned up and you no longer have protection. The better models have light displays to tell you if you are still being protected.

5) Emergency Bag of Hardware Goodies

Indispensable tool #1 is a VOLTMETER, even one of those teenie-tiny ones that you can buy for $20 at Radio Shack. Check your voltage at the provided outlet before you plug anything in. I saw one vendor lose about $30,000 in equipment at a show; it all went up in a big puff of smoke in a matter of 1 second. Turns out the guys doing the setup for the show had accidentally wired the booths for 240V instead of 120V. A voltmeter can also be a big help to make sure that your supplied voltage is indeed a full 120V instead of getting dragged down to a lower voltage. Often, too many show operators are running too much power off of one overtaxed power line, and/or the line may be strung out over too long of a distance and/or is not a thick enough gauge to handle the required power. In any of those cases you will see a voltage drop (if the circuit breaker or fuse doesn't pop first). If your voltage is reading 105 volts or less, you have a serious problem which can destroy or greatly reduce the lifespan of your expensive equipment. So your first line of defense is to be aware that you have a problem, thanks to your trusty voltmeter.

Tool #2 is a soldering iron, 15 watt/35 watt complete with the right kind of solder and the knowledge of how to use it. You would be amazed at how many electrical problems you can fix yourself with a soldering iron and some black electrical tape to finish it off. 15 watt setting for circuit board problems, 35 watt setting for small wiring problems.

Next, include a toolbox of all the little tools you need for your specific equipment, if need be. This probably includes a set of hex wrenches, crescent wrenches, screwdrivers, etc.

Include any backup of small yet mission-critical parts. Small spare parts you'll want to include would be things like:

A) Spare flash cards and batteries for your digital camera and for any external flash.

B) Spare small light bulbs such as for halogen lights you may be using for set lighting.

C) Spare video connectors and adapters if you do video work, such as BNC to RCA, (and make sure you have the male/female polarities right).

D) Include any owner's manuals for critical equipment such as a digital camera or printer.

E) Include backup CD's or DVD's of any critical programs and/or data on your computer.

F) Make sure that you have all the key codes, passwords, serial numbers, etc that you need in order to re-install programs if necessary.

Cords and cables can get damaged and you'd hate to be shut down for the cost of one cord. Have spare cables on hand such as USB cables, SCSI cables, even power cords. For example, Wal-Mart may or may not stock a generic power cord, but it's not going to stock the special power cord/"brick" that goes to your scanner. And even if it did stock a generic power cord that you need, how long are you going to be out of business while you make a road trip to Wal-Mart to fetch it?

One thing that always has driven me crazy is that usually you have to label the power bricks yourself or you can wind up not knowing what power brick goes to what. Most equipment that comes with a power brick uses some kind of a generic brick for that voltage, and the brick is not labeled to match the scanner or other device. You have to be sure and do that ahead of time using labels that won't fall off. There are, unfortunately, not just various voltages and maximum wattages supplied by these bricks, but they also can be wired in one of two ways, with the ground path on the outside or the ground path as the center conductor. Using the wrong brick can easily fry your equipment, and to have duplicate bricks for each equipment you'll need to do some homework ahead of time. Radio Shack as well as various electronic supply houses can set you up with a multiple use brick, in which you can change:

A) The voltage.

B) The polarity of the signal (which way the ground wire goes compared to the "hot" wire).

C) The size, shape and inside diameter of the plugs you need.

Make sure that the maximum amperage ("A", or "mA") of your brick is as large or larger than the original brick you are trying to replace. For example, if your original brick said: "Output: 120V at 750mA", then if the new brick says: "Output: 120V at 1000ma" you are home-free. If it says "Output 120V at 500ma", then you won't have enough power.

For those quiet times at night you might want to get very familiar with ink jet printer cleaning techniques and have the tools of the trade on hand, such as:

A) Cleaning cartridges (the ones you buy filled with cleaning solution), or "Virgin" cartridges (empty, never been filled)

B) O.E.M. ink cartridges (the normal ones from Epson, or a good cheaper substitute).

C) Syringes, with various tip diameters.

D) Cleaning fluids appropriate to the task, such as Windex, Fantastik or plain, clear ammonia.

Chances are at some point in your travels you are going to have one of your printers clog up, and while replacing it with a backup printer is a good plan to get through the day, you'll want to be fixing it at night so that you have a backup printer again at the ready.

6) Spare computer and press equipment

Believe it or not, you should basically bring an entire duplicate set of every piece of equipment, (and every cord, every tool, as we previously discussed) you plan to use. Including a cloned hard disk for your cloned computer, not just a backup tape or a set of CD's or DVD's. This is not just cheap insurance, it's probable that you will in fact need it at some point during a multi-event road trip.

If you happen to be in a busy part of your day, and you suddenly have some kind of a computer problem, the last thing you'll want to do is to be trying to fix or debug your problem. The much better solution is to simply swap out the hard disk with a perfectly cloned identical hard disk and 5 minutes later keep on working... and selling. The prices on computers nowadays are so low that I feel better saying this today than I used to, and I firmly believe in having a spare computer on hand which is set up the same identical way, with the same cards in the same slots, and using the same motherboard. That way you can stick a removable hard disk into either your main computer or your backup computer and the hard disk will not know the difference.

You'll need to set up your hard drives in removable hard drive chassis in each computer in order for this to work, as well as become familiar with programs like Drive Image or Ghost in order to make a cloned hard disk copy, as well as cloned DVD copies for a cheap extra level of protection.

And you must have at least one backup printer unless you are one crazy Gonzo. With the never-certain operation of ink jet printers, and with all the extra variables that can mess you up with sublimation ink in an ink jet printer, this is a must. The best bet would be to have a new set of sub ink carts as an emergency backup to the bulk setup, because bulk ink setups can have their problems as well. If you have more than one type of printer in regular use for your given setup, then you need a backup printer for EACH printer. The exception is if you have standardized on a given model printer in which case you might get by with only one backup printer..

It's hard to tell people that they need to bring a spare heat press, but what would you do if yours died when you are on the road? No time for shipping back to the factory, waiting for it to get fixed etc. I truly believe that even in the case of a heat press you should have a spare at the ready, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a big expensive one. Perhaps you can get by with a Hix Hobby Lite press as your backup press. It's cheap, versatile, relatively small, and great in a pinch. It's not really designed for massive use, so it's best to just keep it handy in case you need it for an emergency. Think of it as your "emergency tire" that so many new cars now come with. It's not a "real tire" but it will get you by in a pinch. A side benefit of this press is that it only draws 7 amps, 850 watts, so it can be used as an emergency press in case you don't have enough power to run your bigger press. All in all, $300 or so is cheap insurance for something so important to your day to day livelihood.

If you don't bring a spare mug press you should at least bring a spare mug blanket for it in case yours decides to fry at the worst time. Depending on the maker of your press, spare mug blankets can cost anywhere from $65 to $130, but that's only a fraction of the price of the whole press, and this one item is the most likely to need replacement as it is in fact a wear item.

Here's a review of the spare equipment you should have on hand:

A) Cloned hard disk as a backup

B) Several Cloned backup sets on DVD

C) Spare identically setup computer

D) One backup printer per unique printer used

E) Backup set of sub ink cartridges

F) Spare heat press

G) Spare mug press or

H) Spare mug press heat blanket

7) Personal emergency bag

You'll need to be as self sufficient as possible on the road, and that includes your health and safety. . Remember, once you are on the road and in the middle of nowhere you might be subject to Joe's Tacos as your only food source...you need to be prepared! On the road, you can never assume that things like toilet paper will be there when you happen to need it!

You should have on hand:

A) A first aid kit handy as well as any medications or medical devices you may need, and some basic medications such as aspirin, cough drops and cold medicine, anti-diarrhea or upset stomach medicine, etc

B) Toilet paper

C) Cell phone backup batteries and/or charging cord

D) Spare tire and tire-changing equipment for your vehicle

E) Spare tire for trailer

F) Flashlight with fresh batteries

G) Road flares.

H) AAA road service membership or something similar.

I) Master list of important numbers, in some other place than your wallet. Include phone numbers to call if your wallet is stolen, and write down all the credit cards, bank accounts etc that need to be notified.

J) List of any medications you are taking as well as your doctors phone #, in case of any medical emergency.

K) List of any emergency contacts for you and for anyone in your group.

L) Clothes and accessories (gloves, umbrella, etc.) for hot weather, cold weather, rain, heavy wind.

Continue to:  Part II Section 2: Getting organized and set up to go mobile vending

Larry Cohn

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