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How to Wash 11,000 Panes? Ingeniously

For Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral, a company's solution is design and sweat.

December 09, 2002|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Randall Edwards wants to see some identification.

You can't be too careful these days, says the manager of Mr. Crane Inc. -- he could inadvertently be talking to a spy from the competition.

Other crane companies have tried to lure away its high-profile customer, Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral, Edwards insists.

But a spokesman for the cathedral says that's not likely to happen. Mr. Crane has provided the resounding answer to a longtime prayer for the 3.5-million-cubic-foot church, home to the weekly "Hour of Power" broadcasts to millions worldwide and now presenting its elaborate annual "Glory of Christmas" pageant.

The question posed by the prayer: How to wash the estimated 11,000 windows from which the cathedral derives its name? The answer: Lots of elbow grease. Oh, yes, and a huge crane with a brush-equipped basket designed specifically for the purpose.

"We designed it, we built it, and only we know how to operate it," Edwards assures his now-clearly identified visitor from the press. That expertise is exercised for three grueling weeks each August.

"Being 260 feet up in a basket, you can see a long way," says Edwards, 46, whose company is based in Orange. "When we're over there washing, we get lots of attention."

The prayer at issue was first uttered in 1988 after three cathedral employees -- hoisted aloft by a rented crane -- spent two months painstakingly washing each glass pane with a paper towel dipped in Windex.

"It was so expensive," Edwards recalls, "that they had to find another way. A guy appeared in our office and asked if we could figure out a better way to wash the windows. An employee sat down, thought about it and started coming up with ideas from his head, which he chalked on the floor."

It took former employee Ron Lytel about a month to draw up a plan. The problem, in addition to the sheer number of windows involved, was the slope of the cathedral and its lack of footholds -- all of which made access almost impossible. So Lytel designed a basket that could hang from a 175-ton hydraulic crane.

Weighing about 2,000 pounds, the 4-by-10-foot metal basket -- owned by Crystal Cathedral and stored there -- carries five workers aloft. Water mixed with industrial-strength ammonia is supplied from a diesel pump below to several long, rotating brushes on the basket's bottom and side. As the crane guides the basket's brushes along the building's glass roof and walls, designers say, the men in the basket hit the tough spots by hand.

"You have to wear a full mask, because the stuff is lethal," says Edward Quiroga, the cathedral's 49-year-old head rigger, who, as part of his responsibility for maintaining everything above ground level, oversees the annual washing of the windows.

"I used to tell my friends that I don't do windows," says the rock musician-turned-electrical engineer, "but I guess I can't say that anymore."

The task is performed in three steps. First, the basket crew tests each pane with tiny suction cups to identify those needing repair. Windows that come loose -- usually about 500 a year -- are immediately caulked and resealed. Second, the washing is done. Finally, all leaks are repaired.

"It's hot up there in August," he says. "With the reflection off that glass, there's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. It requires strong protective glasses and lots of Gatorade."

But the job also has its charm. "There's a real sense that you're doing something special and unique," Quiroga says. "You're more than 200 feet in the air and you look around and the world is going about its business, but there are five guys up in that basket experiencing something different."

The real satisfaction, though, comes when the task is completed. "For the first couple of weeks," he says, "it's breathtaking, truly awesome. Everyone is elated to see the cathedral clean. I get a lot of compliments and feel a sense of achievement."

Then reality sets in.

"I cannot tell a lie," Quiroga reports: "It doesn't take but a month or six weeks before the windows need cleaning again."

Church officials have considered washing them more often, he says, but the job costs $85,000 a crack.

"It's frustrating," says the window washer who's really an electrical engineer. Shading his eyes with a cupped hand, Quiroga surveys the sparkling glass mountain of a building on a November afternoon. "It doesn't look as bad as it will in eight months," he announces finally, "but I can see the dirt already."

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