Unluckily for me, every home I've owned or rented in Australia has come with a west-facing back yard or deck. Which is bad luck when you live in a country with the highest risk of skin cancer.
The summers here are unforgiving, but most Australians have the sense to think ahead when buying a property. With an outdoor lifestyle, they know how important it is to consider the cover for their deck, balcony or other outdoor areas, and if there is none, they budget for it. Unfortunately, it's no quite so straightforward when you are renting.
The one house we did own here had every Australian man's dream of a deck. It was what real estate agents like to call an "entertainer's delight" - a massive space that took up half the garden - but because it was only semi-covered and west-facing, it was as hot as an oven by 2pm each afternoon.
In my quest to avoid sun blindness and skin cancer, over the years I've come up with a myriad of cost-efficient, DIY solutions to provide me with shade. I've designed my own sail shades and I've tacked an
interesting assortment of billowing Moroccan-style canopies to existing rafters, but nothing is quite as effective or looks as stylish as blinds or a good umbrella.
Few renters want to invest in blinds, and they're not always possible to hang at the front of apartment blocks anyway, whereas you can take an umbrella with you, from rental to rental. What is more, umbrella design has come on in leaps and bounds since the ones I grew up with, which had one position and generally blew over with the slightest gust of wind. You can now buy compact, half-size umbrellas for smaller areas such as apartment balconies, they now tilt and swing, and some even have LED lights. And I'm certain that there must be a design out there with an Esky for its base. And if not - why not?
But they're not cheap. They range anywhere from $300 to $4000 - something I've discovered in my recent research since, once again, we find ourselves in a west-facing property with a balcony that resembles a tanning salon from midday.
So what do you need to think about when you purchase a new umbrella?
1. Position - Check out where the sun rises and sets in your property. Watch its progress over several days to determine the size and functional requirements of your umbrella. A cantilever umbrella, with its 360 degree coverage will give you the most flexibility, because it allows you to follow the track of the sun, but they may be too large for some spaces. And personally, I would never buy the old-fashioned brolly that sits in the middle of the dining table and offers no flexibility as the sun moves.
2. The shade/protection it offers - This will depend on the the size of the canopy and the fabric it is made from. Ideally you want an umbrella with a canopy that blocks at least 90% of UV radiation and don't go for too large an umbrella if it is perched on the edge of an apartment balcony - it is likely to get swept away by the wind.
3. Durability - The warranty is important, especially if you live in a harsh climate - ie. close to the beach, where you may need to consider the grade of the aluminium and cloth more seriously. Timber poles snap easily in strong winds and you need to know how resistant your umbrella is to rain, mold, and fading, so spend as much as your budget allows. Do invest in a cover or cable ties, at the very least.
4. Weight - Most umbrellas are costed separately to the base, and if you live by the beach with its unpredictable winds, I would select the heaviest base you can afford - although, sadly, even that might not be enough. Our concrete base has been known to fall over in high winds.
5. Functions - Like most things you pay for, you get what you pay for to a degree and if you want a tilting, mold-proof, cantilever umbrella with an air vent, it will cost more than a bog-standard one. And remember, the sun shifts through the day, so an umbrella that tilts can be worth its weight in gold for the sake of a few extra dollars.
For local and online stockists, at the more economical end of the range, you can't go far wrong with Bunnings - which is where I bought my umbrella in the end. Although they are yet to set up their outdoor products ahead of summer, they promise to have a good selection. Ikea now also stocks a couple of outdoor umbrellas. Instant Shade Umbrellas offer the Paraflex wall umbrella, Shade Australia have an extensive range, as do Barbeques Galore and Shelta.