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Monday, January 18, 2010

On the Job:

Mauna Kea: Working on Top of the World

 Every professional has at least one story they like to tell of an exceptionally challenging project. The job typically involves one or more of the following: scaffolding, lifts and tall ladders, unpleasant and unpredictable weather conditions, extremely rough substrates, super-size surfaces, awkward reaches, poor access, environmental restrictions--and sometimes, unusual requirements of the property owners. Sound familiar? Well, contractor Gerald Yamada faced all of the above (and at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet above sea level) to paint two observatories on the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's big island. If you think you've had some rough days on the job, read on.

Keck Observatory  

The W.M. Keck Observatory domes are perched near the summit of one of the island's five dormant volcanoes, almost literally on top of the world. According to the observatory's 2008 annual report, the twin, 10-meter telescopes housed inside the domes are "the most powerful and productive telescopes on Earth." Much credit for their exceptional performance is owing to the high location amid clear, still air and away from any light pollution. Unfortunately, an ideal spot for viewing the outer limits of the universe is one that is also exceptionally harsh on exterior finishes--with its exposure to harsh winds (as high as 150 mph), extreme temperature drops, intense UV exposure, etc.

The steel-skin domes, each 101 ft. high and more than 120 ft. in diameter, were built in 1992 and in 1996. Before they were 10 years old, their exterior finishes were peeling, and rust was forming; conditions that threatened the delicate environment in that area, as well as the longevity of the structures themselves. After researching a number of industrial coatings and interviewing potential contractors, observatory officials recruited Gerald Yamada Paint Contracting, and they selected Benjamin Moore finishes to handle the job.

Yamada and his crew had the gear (including a 132-ft. lift) and the experience for painting round structures; they had worked on some of the other (smaller) Mauna Kea observatories. They were familiar with the effects of altitude sickness and had the needed rock-climbing (rappelling) skills, which gave them an edge on the job's unique physical demands. Nonetheless, winds can exceed 100 mph (work stops at 25mph) and temperatures can drop to below freezing in a matter of minutes--even in summer--while the crew also had to contend with condensate forming on the steel surface due to changes in humidity.

You might wonder what coatings could endure such conditions. For a lasting finish, the job required primer and top coats that were two-component epoxies--another aspect that complicated the work. Benjamin Moore's Epoxy Mastic P45 is a high-build primer with tenacious adhesion, making it ideal for the not-quite-perfect substrate. The Aliphatic Acrylic Urethane P74 film creates a durable (almost baked-on) finish coat. To be that tough however, both products have strict requirements, such as limited open times and sensitivities to humidity and temperature. As a result, Yamada's crew would sometimes have to redo portions of their work, which involved abrading the surfaces again and waiting for better weather conditions.

Amazingly, given the obstacles, four guys managed to complete the job in just four months--nothing in a place that measures time in billions of years.


wow, job well done. I'm going to share this with my employees. I'm sure they'll appreciate it.

Ray N. Rahni, PaintTrack.com

Amazing story..I thought I had challenges. As well as the Interior Design aspect of my business..I also do quite elaborate murals..involving scaffolding and ladders...that cannot always reach those tight spots. You do wonder sometimes will you ever finish this..and not kill myself in the process!

Suzanne Olsen, Olsen Design

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