In The Beginning
When I began this business, I had little idea what was needed in the way of equipment, so I went to a large janitorial company in the city and asked for their recommendations. That initial purchase included a Pro squeegee handle, two lengths of metal channels (8″ and 12″) with rubber blades, a brush, a telescoping pole that extended 14 feet, a strip washer, and some generic window cleaning detergent. That initial investment was under $50 in 1978, and would cost under $100 today. I experimented with various equipment through the years and purchased new equipment as it became available.
I recommend beginning with a 12″ squeegee channel until you become proficient. (The channel of the squeegee is the strip of metal, shaped like the letter “J”, that holds the rubber strip used to remove water from windows.) I primarily used one 18″ long but used 22″ or longer for commercial windows. Squeegees now come in many lengths, from 4″ to 50″! It’s best to be equipped with the right length channel for the job. I carried many different length channels with me and changed them in the handle as needed. A label stuck on the channel identifies the job for which it is needed.
Always carry extra rubber blades to replace worn ones. I know some window cleaners who replace their rubber blades daily. I sometimes used one for a week or so before it needed to be replaced. Turn them over in the channel to get extra mileage. Don’t let the “sharp” edge of the rubber get too worn down before you change it as it will lower the quality and efficiency of your work. When installing a new rubber blade in the channel, cut it with a razor, leaving 1/8″ on each end of the channel. There is also a tool available that cuts a fresh edge on worn out blades.
The squeegee I used has a handle with a snap-locking device for quick change of channels. It’s very easy to use. With a flip of the lock, the channel slides in and out, or the handle converts into a scraper using a 5″ blade in a holder. The handle adjusts to lock anywhere on the channel. You can position it to provide maximum length on the right or left sides for a little extra reach. Several companies offer mail order catalogs, and more and more local window cleaning supply companies are opening up.
Several manufacturers now produce handles that automatically adjust to any angle. These enable you to reach difficult corners and unusual angles without contorting your body, or clean store-front windows without moving merchandise.
Squeegee handles also provide a quick release button now. Itís on the back side so you donít have to turn it around to change the channel. Also, many handles now come with a soft rubber grip to keep them from getting cold. You can also attach an adjustable handle to an extension pole and clean and squeegee those same higher up, hard to reach areas. There are some basic window cleaning equipment kits available if you wish to buy a package. You can buy them from most mail order catalogs and window cleaning or janitorial supply stores. Most kits come with a booklet explaining the window cleaning process. Each kit comes with different equipment so investigate before purchasing. Squeegee blades are now being made in silicon as well as rubber, and many cleaners say that they glide easier and last longer than the rubber blades.
Strip Washer Wand
Brushes, formerly the standard window cleaner’s tool, have been replaced by the strip washer, because it’s lightweight and easy to use. It consists of a plush fabric sleeve that holds water like a sponge and slips over a lightweight T-bar frame and can be unsnapped and removed for cleaning and replacing. The strip washer can be hand held, or slipped onto any tapered-end wooden or extension pole for high work.
The one I used was 14″ long, but they also come in 10″, 18″ and 22″ or longer lengths. There are different styles of sleeves; some hold extra water and have a scrub patch on the end, and some have a tuffy-like surface on one side. I found I had to do a whole lot less scraping after first scrubbing the window with the rough side of this strip washer. Strip washers require little attention and maintenance. I threw mine in the washer with the towels when it was extremely dirty.
Some window cleaners, however, will warn you that sand and grit can get trapped in the fabric of the strip washer and then scratch the glass–especially if you are working on an exceptionally dirty location or a construction site–but this will not happen with a good quality brush. This may be the one type of situation where the brush is superior to the strip washer. Watch for sand and grit while razor scraping or using fine steel wool as well–one grain can scratch glass!
Chamois, Towels And Sponges
Chamois have been in use by professional window cleaners since before the turn of the century. In Europe, they were used for both wetting and drying windows. Squeegees weren’t introduced to this country until 1915 and only more recently in Europe and other parts of the world. Some window cleaners swear by chamois over all else, to the point of a passionate devotion, feeling that a “true” window cleaner always has a chamois. Others are uncertain just what a chamois is and how it works, and prefer various types of towels–some expensive, others more economical, but each with their own unique qualities.
A chamois is an actual hide or type of leather, and thus its expense over towels and the benefit of having no lint. The best ones used to be from France but now are apparently from England. Because it is a hide it initially contains oils and residues from the tanning process and so must be thoroughly washed before use. Soak a new chamois for 1/2 hour in whatever cleaning solution you will be using, to “condition” the chamois. Rinse thoroughly and hang to dry. After each day’s use, rinse well to remove the dirt then hang to dry–never leave a chamois balled up. You can recondition the chamois every few months.
The key to using a chamois is that it must be a little damp in order to be absorbent–which at first seems illogical, but a dry chamois will just shove the water around. Chamois are mostly used for trimming the edges of window panes and sills, and for glass touch up. Don’t ball them up while using–drape them over fingertips or hand. Using them for spills or wiping equipment will just dirty them faster, so save your towels and sponges for this. Many cleaners feel that chamois are too expensive for anything but the glass.
Irish linen, also called scrims, is a type of towel used by many window cleaners. They are very good but correspondingly expensive, and are often hard to find in the US. They must be kept as dry as possible to work best. A scrim is a closely woven cloth, very stiff when first purchased–many cleaners boil them or wash them many times before use. Scrims absorb water well, and those who prefer them to chamois do so because they say they glide more easily over the glass and dirt seems to adhere more readily.
Blue/green towels, also referred to as surgical towels, are another and less expensive choice. Most cleaners consider these about 90% as effective as scrims and much more economical at about 1/3 the price. They are best when used and washed many times, and can sometimes be purchased as reclaimed surgical towels.
Today, bar rags (linen, cotton blend rags) are used quite frequently, economically, and successfully, and many window cleaners recommend these soft white rags over chamois.
The use of towels in window cleaning today is primarily to dry around the edges of a window after using the squeegee. With towels of any sort the main rule is: dryness, cleanliness, and friction (elbow grease) will take care of most streaks on glass. But any dirt, oils, or soaps in the fabric will just make the glass worse. And of course there are your die-hard cleaners who insist that nothing should ever touch the glass after the squeegee passes.
Natural sea wool sponges, harvested from the ocean floor, are superior to synthetic ones for use in window cleaning. They are highly absorbent and long lasting. Sponges are great for wiping off your squeegee rubber because they leave the right amount of moisture and will give longer life to the blade. They also cut down on the amount of laundry you have if you use the sponge instead of cloths. They allow the dirt to drain and are perfect for washing small panes of glass and wiping up window sills and floors. It is recommended that you buy uncut sponges because they are less likely to tear.
Razor Blades And Scrapers
I carried a single edge razor blade with me at all times to scrape little spots that the strip washer didn’t remove, such as paint and tape. Razor blades are available in most hardware stores, economical in packages of 100 heavy duty single-edge blades.
Windows that have never been washed and which have manufacturer’s labels, putty near the frame, grease pencil marks and assorted accumulated grime, or windows that have been neglected for so long that there is a huge grungy build-up, must be scraped completely. For that purpose use a 6″ scraper. You can get scrapers from 4″ to 6″ at any window or janitorial supply store, as well as through mail order catalogs. The 6″ double-edged, with easy to change blades in a high quality model that fits in a telescopic pole, is preferable.
Henry Unger says “blades don’t scratch glass (if used properly and with plenty of water)–people do.” However, a razor blade with a nick or burr can cause scratches on glass, so be very careful that you change blades often and check for burrs on the blade.
In addition to blades, try very fine steel wool–either 000 or 0000. With dried cement or bee poop, blades often won’t do the trick–but steel wool will. If you’re in doubt about it scratching, try an area where it won’t show. I found that it worked safely and effectively for removing certain films from the glass. Never scrub any harder than you absolutely have to. Start by using very light pressure and make sure the steel wool is wet and soapy at all times. Never use steel wool under conditions with a lot of sand or grit, such as construction sites. As mentioned with strip washers, one grain can scratch glass.
Also available from distributors are solvent cleaners to remove persistent stains and gunk like silicone or window sealer caulking. They offer a range of products, including environmentally friendly ones which can be very effective.
Telescoping Extension Pole
The extension pole can be useful in reaching windows on the second or perhaps third story without having to resort to a ladder–but beyond that it is not very effective. It consists of telescoping interlocking sections of tapered and usually aluminum tubing to which you attach your strip washer and then your squeegee and basically clean in the same manner just further from your hands. This is of course harder on the arms and shoulders, and is often an awkward operation. Some cleaners have suggested using a swivel and lock type strip washer, tilting it vertically, and then washing the window with back and forth (horizontal) motions rather than up and down ones. This is much easier on the arms and also doesnít wet the upper window frame as much.
Poling on high inset windows often requires a tool called a ledger, which is an angled extension to which you can attach the strip washer and squeegee in order to get all the way to the bottom of the window. My main use for the pole was for large storefront windows, which couldnít be laddered, and for extending above the ladder. The poles come in many lengths from 8 feet to 27 feet extended. Most popular is the 12 foot extended. Also available for the pole is a clamp that can hold sponges, towels, chamois or steel wool. Some companies offer adapters for their poles that enable the user, among other things, to change various sizes of light bulbs. These poles are great for paint rollers, too!
My first ladder was a wooden eight-foot ladder with three legs. I recommend this type over the conventional four-legged ladder because of its stability on uneven ground. Orchard ladders come in aluminum which is much lighter than wood.
My second ladder was a 24 foot heavy-duty construction aluminum extension ladder. Be sure you buy one that is very stable. I designed a sleeve cap (cut from the sleeves of a sweatshirt) to go over the top of the extended portion of the ladder to prevent marring walls. You could use cotton gloves or socks for the same purpose. For one of my commercial accounts, I made a wooden block the exact size of the step. It made two steps the level of one and accommodated the ladder bottom. I stored the block at the business so it was readily available. Remember: When youíre on a ladder–donít step back and admire your work!
Both of my ladders fit on top of the roof rack of my station wagon, the orchard on top of the extension. If you have a smaller vehicle, you can add some bracing up from the front and back bumpers to create a rack over the top. The ladders are secured to the rack with heavy duty rubber cords. They have metal “S” hooks on both ends for attachment.
There is also a Combo Ladder. The combo ladder carries like a suitcase with a handle; itís OSHA-approved, safe, stable, easy to fold and lightweight. Another type of ladder made for professional window cleaners is sectional. The top piece tapers at the end for placement between windows. There are several reasons why many window cleaners use sectional ladders:
- With the pointed top they are easy to set up above, below or on the window frame itself
- They work well in smaller areas indoors since they donít open up like a folding ladder
- They are lightweight and maneuverable
- They can be carried easily atop/in a smaller type of vehicle
Sectional ladders, however, are not much good above 25 feet or so–some state regulations even say they cannot exceed 26 feet.
A ladder stabilizer rack can be a nifty tool to improve ease and range of movement as well as safety. It holds the ladder away from the window as well as stabilizing it.
Ladder safety is very important for the window cleaner engaged in any work above the ground floor. Always follow the 25% rule–base of the ladder 5 feet out for every 20 feet high (or, out one quarter of up). In general, the feet of the ladder should never be less than 4 feet or more than 6 feet from the wall. The ladder feet should be articulated for better friction.You can also purchase ladder levelers which will keep a ladder straight even when set up on a stairway.
For heights of 40 feet or more, some cleaners prefer to use a self-propelled lift of some kind, which can be rented. Some prefer rolling scaffolds, which allow more room for equipment but are too unstable above three stories or on uneven surfaces.
As with squeegees and chamois and most everything else in the trade, opinions differ as to the “best” cleaning solution. There are many “home-made” solutions, most utilizing some brand of dishwashing soap and perhaps a touch of ammonia. Some prefer vinegar to ammonia as an additive–both have strong odor potential and should probably be avoided for indoor work. Ammonia can be very hard on the hands and can be destructive to some types of window tinting and bare wood frames or sills. And many cleaners will tell you that vinegar doesn’t really clean but is just a rinsing agent.
Joy, Palmolive or Dawn are all popular dish soap detergents which work well as a cleaner. You want a mild cleaner that can be used on any surface, metal, painted or not, without harm. Many stronger cleaners will etch or discolor metal over time. A small amount is recommended–one lid or capful into a gallon of water–so as not to create too many suds. Suds can be helpful to show you where you’ve been, but too many can create bleed-back from the frames after squeegeeing.
Another cleaner commonly used by professionals is called The Pill. It’s pre-measured for use with 2 1/2 gallons of water and it’s small, which makes it easy to carry and store. It has a wetting agent which makes the squeegee
Glass Gleam 3 (known as GG3) from Titan Laboratories, seems to be a favored professional window cleaning solution, available in liquid form. It is a super concentrate, so it is important you mix it only according to manufacturer’s instructions. GG3 is reputed to be low sudsing and have a pleasant smell. Some cleaners, however, say that it is not completely effective on oils, such as fingerprints, and can benefit from a touch of ammonia. Crystal Clear 550, by Winsol Laboratories, and Glisten, by ABC, are two other professional window cleaning solutions. Bucket in a Bottle, by Ettore, is an interesting innovation in cleansers. It is a concentrated liquid that comes with a squeeze bottle you can carry on your belt. The solution is applied directly to the washer wand, not the glass, and this eliminates the use of a bucket as well as excess drips and spills. Some cleaners have created their own variation on this theme, using a favored solution in a sports bottle or shower gel bottle (which comes with a built in hook for your belt).
OilFlo, by Titan Laboratories, is a popular and often recommended specialty cleaner for certain problems. It is a water-soluble solvent, reportedly effective on a wide range of soils/stains such as: adhesives, asphalt, caulk, crayon, glazing putty, graffiti, magic marker, nail polish, paints (both latex and enamel), roofing tar, silicone caulking, waterproof sealers, and so on. Sorbo Glide, by Sorbo, makes the cleaning solution more “slippery” so that the squeegee glides more easily. MRD, Mineral Deposit Remover, by Titan laboratories, is for use in removing hard water film, water spots, lime deposits, acid rain run-off, etc.
Sometimes window cleaners find themselves working in cold weather, and the water will start to freeze. Some cleaners add various types of alcohol or other additives to prevent this. You can try automobile antifreeze, but too much can cause smearing. Another possibility is windshield washing solutions, which are made so that they will not freeze in the winter. Polypropylene glycol is sold undiluted in gallon jugs as an antifreeze for mobile home water systems.
I used five-gallon buckets with wire handles. You can also buy one with a sieve to hold the strip washer out of the water, with a two-piece swivel-stick with sleeve, and/or with wheels. Some window cleaning supply stores or catalogs even feature a bucket set-up which can be worn around the waist on a belt or harness type of rig.
For drying edges of windows after using the squeegee, bar towels can be used. I found discarded terry towels very effective; ones which had seen so much use that they had no lint. Another friend recommends linen towels, which are more readily available and are virtually lint free. I carried a large towel for wiping the window ledges, and laying on the floor inside homes and buildings to catch drips. Sponges can also be used for this purpose.
Water-Fed Extension Pole
This is another type of extension pole, and is usually referred to as a Tucker pole, after the primary manufacturer. It consists of a large brush on a long handle made of several aluminum telescoping sections. You connect the attached tubing to a garden hose and the water and a detergent solution is fed up to the brush and onto the window. No squeegee is necessary. After the window is washed, the detergent solution is shut off, clear water rinses the window and the job is done. It allows you to wash and rinse hard-to-reach windows without ladders or scaffolding.
This type of window cleaning is most effective when it utilizes a new technology known as De-Ionized water. A deionizing tank contains resin beads that are both positively and negatively charged. As the normal tap water flows through the tank, the various minerals in the water adhere to the beads, so that the water leaving the tank–and coming out the end of the Tucker pole as rinse water–is “pure.” The window will supposedly dry without streaks or water spots. In fact, some cleaners have claimed that you donít even need the detergent attachment, but can simply use the extra cleaning power of the deionized water, at least on windows that are regularly maintained.
The deionizing tanks are housed on a truck bed or trailer. One hose connects to the on-site water source and another to the water-fed pole. Many cleaners have suggested modifying the system with quick release valves to all the hoses, so changes can be made without having to turn off the water at the source.
Window cleaners are still in dispute as to the actual reality of these claims. If it does work it will mean a larger initial outlay–purchasing the deionizer–but other equipment costs such as squeegees and towels are then lowered, and time and labor are saved as well. Some reported drawbacks of the system have been that since the pole is filled with water it can get very heavy, and the poles have been known to break, especially at the joints where the sections connect. Aluminum poles can also be cold on the hands in cold weather. The manufacturer has been responding to these complaints over the last couple of years. If you are considering working in a city on high office or apartment buildings, contact your local distributor or mail order supplier and ask about this product. Some allow you to try it for free.
New Equipment Line
While there are definitely great new developments in technology–like deionized water–and equipment, like the invention of a tool to speed up the awkward and time-consuming tasks of cleaning louvered windows, most products are simply improvements in the design of existing tools, such as lighter, stronger squeegee handles, handles that adjust to any angle without slowing you down, and solvents that remove dried on particles without damaging the environment. Here are some of the latest innovations:
Squeegees and strip washers now come in numerous sizes, from 4 to 50! inches. Not only do the blade sections swivel, but the handles do as well, for increased ergonomics, less wrist strain and greater freedom of movement. Perhaps the best at this is the new WAGTAIL brand from Australia. Spring and quick-release handle mechanisms are also improving all the time.
You now have your choice between rubber or silicon blades, and rubber blade material technology is continually improving. A microscopic examination will reveal that the fibers and filaments of strip washer pile is becoming ever more efficient at grabbing dirt without scratching glass.
You can get a folding three-legged stand for your bucket, so you donít bend so far up and down so many times each day. You can carry your tools more easily with nifty belt holsters, and keep from dropping them two or more stories with bungee or phone type cords that attach to the squeegee handle and then your work belt. You can get a stylish carrying case for all your equipment, in resistant nylon which zips closed and has a shoulder strap for easy carrying–a bucket in your other hand and you’re mobile!
The cleaning fluids themselves, as throughout the cleaning industry, will continue to become more concentrated and effective while at the same time increasing in environmental preferability.
And, of course, window cleaning has now entered the computer age. Software has long been utilized for running businesses, but there are now software programs created specifically for window cleaners, with features such as a full screen visual calendar, invoice tracking, a report writer, automatic call scheduler, label maker and more.