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By Dan Andrews
“I have fear. You got to have a pretty healthy respect for what you’re doing. Our top three priorities on this job are safety, safety, and safety,” stated Rex Richardson.
For Rex and his crew from Apex Window Cleaning, safety isn’t a catchphrase, it is a mode of operation. Mr. Richardson is one of the workers who clean the Sunsphere windows. With its unique shape and complex structure, the only way to effectively clean the windows is to repel via rope from the top of the globe.
It is slightly after 8:00 a.m., and Mr. Richardson has just repelled down the side of the Sunsphere. He approaches me in a calm and pleasant manner, and we begin to discuss in detail what is involved in cleaning the Sunsphere.
Maintaining the Sunsphere presents many unique challenges. The most complex of them is cleaning the windows. Due to the shape of the structure, the glass must be hand cleaned (no robotic devices) and must be performed in the morning hours as the temperature of the glass can reach as high as 160 degrees.
When repelling off the top of the Sunsphere, a window cleaning technician must lay their entire body on top of the window at the highest floors due to the window curvature. However, once a technician gets to the fifth floor, they are then able to clean the windows in a normal, upright position. Since the windows get so hot and due to the amount of direct body contact required to clean them, the cleaning operations must be done in the morning at the first glimmer of sunlight.
The total operation takes approximately five days to complete. Currently, only the top half of the Sunsphere gets cleaned. The bottom half does not get cleaned because the location where the rope would be tethered on the bottom had to be closed due to pigeons flying into the opening and wreaking havoc. According to Mr. Richardson, the Public Building Authority, which maintains the Sunsphere, is actively working on a solution to this situation. It would take approximately two weeks to clean the bottom part of the Sunsphere globe in addition to the five days to clean the top. In past years, the Sunsphere was cleaned twice a year. However, due to budget constraints it is now only cleaned once a year.
Cleaning the Sunsphere windows is a major project, but it is not the only major project that the PBA has undertaken. The Public Building Authority appears to be on a crusade to magnify the potential of the Sunsphere- as both a tourist location and as a place for locals to enjoy. The PBA has implemented a host of new innovations, upgrades, and other actions with the assistance of former City of Knoxville Chief Operations Officer Eddie Mannis. The most noticeable change is the bright lighting that now illuminates the shaft of the Sunsphere at night.
PBA CEO Dale Smith explained the changes: “We replaced the former incandescent lighting (which was not functioning well or bright enough) with LED lighting. We went with a higher lumen level than what is in the rest of the park to highlight the Sunsphere, as well as to address the safety concerns that you and a couple of others had expressed. The LED lighting is much more energy efficient and is cheaper to maintain, since the bulbs last much longer.”
Another major upgrade at the Sunsphere involves the elevators. Heating and cooling have been installed, as well as plush carpeting. The flooring on the observation deck has been upgraded. New signage has been put in place to highlight both the tourist opportunities and business resources available to people entering the Sunsphere. The new signs highlight the popular Icon restaurant and lounge located on the 5th floor. Many tourists were unaware of the restaurant- which has incredible views and a fairly priced menu.
The Sunsphere has become the iconic symbol of Knoxville. A brighter, cleaner, shinier, and more vibrant Sunsphere reflects and echoes the progress being made throughout the City- as the future of the City of Knoxville shines brighter, so does the Sunsphere.