Sean Thompson has found steady work in the window-film industry

Precision Tinting owner Sean Thompson works on a BMW. Vicky Broadus/Staff
Precision Tinting owner Sean Thompson works on a BMW. Vicky Broadus/Staff staff

Through a lot of glass darkly: The best way to appreciate the value of window tinting is to forget your sunglasses at home and head down Nicholasville Road on a hot and sunny afternoon, with gas at $4 and the A/C making the needle on the gas gauge scamper over toward "empty."

After some wrong turns in the maze of access roads and parking lots that warm the earth beyond Fayette Mall, and an unplanned excursion through the service area of Courtesy Acura, driver and gas hog arrive at Precision Tinting, as indicated by the large Formula One sign on the front of the building. "The Formula One sign is bigger than the Precision Tinting sign," the woman giving directions on the phone had said.

"None of this was around here in '92," says Precision Tinting's owner, Sean Thompson, who bought the company that year. "There was a field next door. Everything's been built up." He's watched as the old Man o' War Ford was torn down and the Fayette Mall multiplex and other businesses moved in around him. But rather than curse the dark, he lit a candle in the form of a second sign on the back of the building where people in the theaters' parking lot can see it. He hopes word-of-mouth will make up for whatever's lost in visibility.

A cool customer: Thompson, 44, grew up in Lexington. It was through his first business that he got to where he is now. An enterprising sort, he had his own lawn service from the time he was a teen. Precision Tinting belonged to one of his customers. "I had my first car tinted there in 1986, and the friendship grew," he says. Back then, of course, he wasn't thinking about cutting energy consumption or blocking UV rays. He just wanted to look cool. Precision Tinting can still provide the "cool" factor, but its focus has shifted since Thompson took over.

"In 1992, the business was 90 percent or more cars," he says. "Over the past 10 years it's become 60 percent commercial/residential and 40 percent vehicles." Tax credits for adding window film to increase home energy efficiency have played a role. The fact that it lowers cooling bills in summer and helps keep the heat inside during winter makes it a fairly easy sell. And as more homes are built with soaring atriums and skylights, the need for tinting has grown. "Even though I don't like heights, I'll get up on an extension ladder three stories high," Thompson says. Some bigger commercial jobs have included the University of Kentucky's agriculture building and Best Buy. Doing that magnitude of work wasn't something he imagined when he first started out.

Thompson's residential business picks up in the spring and fall because of the angle of the sun. Besides helping with energy bills, window tinting blocks 99 percent of the harmful UV rays that unprotected glass lets in, helps prevent fading of upholstery and keeps the glare off the TV when you're trying to watch Extra or Judge Judy. After nearly 19 years in the business, Thompson says, he's persuaded that every window needs the treatment.

A little less elbow room: Back in the day, a sign of a satisfied motorist used to be an arm extended or an elbow hooked over a rolled-down window. The position was so common it was memorialized in a roadside poem: "Don't stick your elbow/ Out so far/ Or it might go home/ In another car / Burma Shave." In nice weather you'll still see plenty of arms extended. There's even a Facebook page devoted to the practice, with 425 "likes." But factory-installed A/C and concerns about skin cancer have changed many people's driving postures. Reports have suggested cancer is more common on U.S. drivers' left arms.

All glass shuts out UVB rays, the ones most to blame for sunburn. But UVA rays are more prevalent and penetrate the skin more deeply. They pass through glass but not through modern window films. So baby boomers who happily dangled appendages out in their youth are now encasing themselves in window film, and babies are sitting in car seats behind tinted windows. Besides the long-term health benefits are the more obvious short-term ones: less use of the A/C and greater privacy.

See the light of day: On this day, Thompson is working on a BMW sent from the dealer before the owner takes possession. It's getting one of the newer ceramic films, which Thompson recommends for luxury cars because they don't interfere with the electronics. Every state has its own laws about the percent of tint allowed. In Kentucky, it's 35 percent light transmittance on the front windows and 18 percent on the back for most vehicles, which is what this BMW is getting. Many people like a uniform look and get 35 percent all around, Thompson says. The pieces of film are cut to fit from computer patterns provided by vendors. It's a technology he's had since about 2000; when it fails he relies on the old-school ways.

Thompson has tinted just about every make and model except a hearse, he says. He's done cars so full of stuff it looked like the owner lived inside, and cars where he expected something living to jump out and bite him. He's done official vehicles packing heat in full view, limousines, boats, a bus with 58 windows. He's done a vintage Cadillac shaped like a Batmobile and an itty-bitty Smart car. "Small cars are easy," he says. "The VW Beetle is like tinting a football." Thompson's now seeing third-generation customers. His lifetime warranty means he's replaced work for free that is 14 years old.

It's no joke: Thompson is probably one of the few businessmen in the state whose only employee is his mother-in-law. Brenda Bradshaw started working there shortly after Thompson bought the business, and handles "everything except for tinting," she says, "from problem solving to cleaning commodes." She cuts the film and gives reporters directions. "You have to give him a hand," she says. "He has to look at his mother-in-law every day."

"I'm always in trouble," he says.

Thompson has two boys. The older one sometimes helps him out and talks about franchising the company someday. But Thompson's personal motto is "Keep it simple."

The first three months of this year were good, but the rainy April cut into business. "As soon as you think you can predict it, it fools you," Thompson says. "We're just happy to still be here and have our doors open."