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Bumperchute shelter targeted at tailgaters, outdoor types

Hey, are you going to do Bumperchute this year?

No, not Bumbershoot, the annual Seattle arts festival.

Bumperchute, a portable shelter produced by a home-based business to keep weather and dust off the open back ends of vans and sport utility vehicles.

Renee and Bill Christenson of Mercer Island hope your plans include one of their ripstop nylon-and-aluminum creations.

Now in their second year of operation, the husband-and-wife team already has cracked one key market: emergency vehicles. Working alone, they've sold more than 800 of the units, costing between $175 and $360, to 254 fire and police departments in New Jersey, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere.

Those vehicles, especially mobile command centers, often carry expensive, delicate radios and computers that need shielding from the elements.

Now the couple are marketing to tailgaters, skiers, picnickers and other recreational drivers. That was the group that Bill, an engineer by training and a general contractor by trade, originally targeted in January 2002.

Inspiration for the product literally struck the company's vice president, now 49, as wet snow dumped on his head while he prepared to ski at Alpental in Snoqualmie Pass. Other skiers were wrestling with tarps to protect themselves, but those weren't working.

"He started engineering, I pulled out the old Singer sewing machine, and we started putting something together, just with bedsheets at first," said Renee, 48, the company's president.

They quit their jobs, incorporated, filed a patent application, and farmed out the construction to Seattle's Evergreen Sewing Inc.

The company grossed $80,000 last year by selling 375 units, but it's not profitable yet.

Bumperchute's fire and ultraviolet-resistant shelters are available from its Web site and from three Eastside retailers. They carry a one-year guarantee.

After 23 years of marriage, the couple still find it easy to spend all day working together, even with all three children still in the home, Renee said.

"Bill's more of the 'Ready, Aim' and I'm more of the 'Fire,' " she said. "We help each other."

The couple would like to enter sales agreements with makers of vans and SUVs, but those companies are demanding lower prices than the Christensons can afford using domestic labor. So they're strongly considering moving the sewing offshore.

"We're not looking at being the 'Amazon Bumperchute' company, but it would be nice if we could have a sustainable business we can live on. That's hard," Renee said.

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