I went to the MV Hospital for an appointment. I ran into Sue, a woman I’ve known for many years. She used to own the camera store in town. I doubt it’s there anymore; can’t remember (are there still camera stores?).
In 1979 she built a passive solar house. We helped her with the design and we installed one of the ingenious monolithic Insulating Curtainwalls (ICW) that were made – in those days – by a Colorado company called Thermal Technology Corporation.
These shades were a form of “night insulation” – open in the day to let the sun in and closed at night to keep the heat in (these days, we have remarkably technical glass that does that, to a degree, without the shades, but in those days we didn’t). ICWs were made of a number of layers of reflective Mylar that rolled up tightly at the top. When rolled down the shade inflated through vents in the bottom, separating the layers with air spaces, and thereby providing good insulating value. The motorized shades worked automatically: a test tube simulated the glass so the sensor inside it knew when there was sunlight entering and activated the motor to open the shade; when the sun went down the reverse happened.
Sue reminded me that she had called me a few years ago to tell me that a worker who was replacing the glass on her south wall had inadvertently broke the test tube and sensor.
She asked me if I knew how she could get a replacement.
I told her that the company had gone out of business 30 years ago when the owner was lost in a rafting accident on a river in the Rockies. Sorry, I don’t think I can help; you may just have to operate them manually with the toggle switch from here on in. She wasn’t happy with that; she loved coming home from work on winter days after sundown and finding the shades already closed.
Then I remembered hearing that the co-inventor of this product, Wendell Colson, now lives in the Boston area. I suggested that she try to track him down and see if he had any ideas.
She found him.
Turns out he has a house on Martha’s Vineyard (there are only 18,000 buildings on Martha’s Vineyard, so how is it possible that half the people you run into either have a house on the Vineyard or know someone that does?).
Next time Wendell was here he and his wife went to see Sue. He scratched his head and furrowed his brow and finally said, “You know, I think I might have one of those sensors in my garage.” Next time down he came and installed it; now the shade is back to automatic operation.
The amazing thing: while all the glass in front of the shade has long since fogged and been replaced, the Curtainwall, which goes up and down twice each day, is still relentlessly operating, with no maintenance, no breakdowns, no repairs (except the damaged sensor) after 36 years.
That’s a pretty long time for something to work. Anything. Even humans don’t generally go that long without repairs, even though we’re pretty well designed too.