Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How do you clean a 30 year old Jimmy Carter solar panel?

Good question, and one we didn't have much of an answer for until Interim Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Witham and I figured it out today.

These are the panels that were on the White House roof between 1979 and 1987, placed there at President Carter's order as a boost for his energy policy. Unity College has had them since 1993, gained through the foresight and alacrity of former UC development director Peter Marbach, who obtained them through the federal government surplus program..

We placed 16 of them on our cafeteria roof where they remain. We have more in storage.

We had the realization several years ago that they were perhaps best used for museum donations and for PR projects for boosting renewable energy and energy efficiency. We have donated one to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library museum, loaned one to the Canadian architects' association, who sent it on a traveling display, and donated another to a museum being established by NRG Systems in Vermont, our supporters in wind assessment work.

Aaron and I were cleaning three of the stored ones prior to being shipped for another museum display soon. As you can see, they are scratched and weathered. But still usable, and clearly a major artifact in American memory despite the scratches.

We learned a little about caring for them as museum artifacts from our various loans and donations of them to other museums. But this was the first time we've been involved in the cleaning and conservation process ourselves. Aaron and I began by placing each panel on sawhorses and then gently cleaning the base. We then flipped each one and removed the rubber seal and the glass, very, very carefully, and vacuumed out the interior. We cleaned the glass both sides and then reassembled them.

After the first one taught us the various tricks, and we devised a safe and suitable technique, the rest went well. We used ordinary household cleansers, as mild as we could find that would still remove the dirt, and a good bit of ordinary elbow grease.

You can see how filthy the glass was in one of these photos.

The only serious conservation problem we found was a little corrosion around the screw holes inside the panels. Not knowing exactly what to do, I imagine that a little steel wool, followed by some of the same kind of flat black paint originally sprayed in the interior of each panel, would fix it for years to come. But that's what you would do to fix an ordinary solar panel.

What you might do about corrosion in an honest-to-goodness American presidential history artifact, we didn't know for sure. But my gut feeling was, we could clean up the surface rust with a rag and shop vac, button the whole thing up again, and wait to ask someone who does know with a fair amount of certainty that nothing terribly bad would happen in the meantime.

Which is what we did.

Still, after 30 years of not being cared for particularly well, these panels are in decent shape. A couple are broken, how we don't know. Perhaps in removal from the White House, perhaps in transit, possibly by a student experimenting. Those can be fixed by students who want a project. They won't be original, with some new parts, but they might be the ones the college keeps for itself.

Made to last, Mr. President, made to last.

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