Pole position

15th of June 2010
Pole position
Pole position

With the advent of water-fed poles, is there still a need for traditional window cleaning methods such as detergents, ladders and cradles? Will these die out, or will there always be some applications where they are essential? Ann Laffeaty finds out.

It is becoming increasingly hard for window cleaners to justify going about their business in the old-fashioned way, using a ladder and squeegee. The European Work at Height Directive has revolutionised window cleaning and imposed new restrictions on the industry.

Working at height is an integral part of the window cleaner’s role and the ladder was once his most important tool. But it was also his most dangerous since an estimated two-thirds of accidents that occur when working at height involve the use of ladders.

The new regulations stipulate that if a high-rise task can reasonably be carried out from the ground, that is how it must be done.  And the advent of water-fed poles has made the vast majority of window cleaning tasks achievable from ground level.

Since using pole systems is also faster and more efficient than ladders – while enabling the window cleaner to access greater heights - it is hard to argue that using a water-fed pole is not  a viable alternative in most cases. So, is there still a need for conventional cleaning methods such as the ladder, squeegee and bucket? Probably not, according to Brodex general manager Ann Forde-Johnston.

“Cleaning from the ground is much faster which means window cleaners have more time to carry out their job and earn more money,” she said. “Water-fed poles are also the safest way of cleaning windows. Cleaners are being forced off ladders because of insurance issues – building owners don’t want to run the risk of an accident on their premises.”

Brodex offers water-fed poles reaching heights of around 70 feet, though Forde-Johnston concedes that 60 feet tends to be the upper limit when working from the ground. “You can’t really see the dirt on the window at 70 feet and if the pole is too long or too heavy, the window cleaner can’t control it and it can fall. Using an over-long pole can also lead to back or neck injuries.”  She said a cherry picker was required at heights of more than 60 feet – though even here a water-fed-pole could be used.

“Larger buildings often have a water tank on the roof and window cleaners simply use their poles from the cradle. In fact we often receive calls from architects asking us where to build a water tank into the design to make life simpler for window cleaners.”

Unger’s marketing co-ordinator Axel Droste agrees that water-fed poles are taking over the industry. “Ladders will die out as regulations restrict their use and pole work becomes more widespread,” he predicted.

Unger manufactures three modular pole systems enabling work to be carried out at heights of up to 20 metres. The company also has a Classic range incorporating squeegees, scrapers and accessories. According to Droste there is still a need for traditional hand tools for indoor work, low-level cleaning and hard-to-reach areas.

Unger also offers a detergent for classic cleaning. “Our RO filter has a second pump that sucks soap out of a canister to supplement pure water in difficult applications, such as where windows have not been cleaned for a long time,” said Droste. “In general soaps and chemicals are not needed but in some cases they can help.”

The IPC Group is another organisation that provides both traditional window cleaning equipment and water-fed poles. According to marketing director Walter Tomasi: “Squeegees and detergents are still useful for particular tasks such as cleaning in internal environments, in places where there is no easy access and for traditional window cleaning.

“As for water-fed poles, the limit of this cleaning system has always been the maximum level they can reach  - generally considered to be 15-20 metres. But at IPC we thought to go beyond this.” The company has developed the HighRise system, a robot said to be able to clean glass surfaces of any height from the ground via a radio link. “Compared with manual window cleaning alternatives, HighRise makes the task of cleaning high rise façades both safer and more effective,” claims Tomasi.

Window Cleaning Warehouse director Julian Davies says the need for traditional window cleaning methods is now mainly confined to the domestic sector. The company offers both water-fed poles and traditional equipment. “There are still a great many window cleaners working domestic rounds, and one-man businesses can find the capital requirement of buying the equipment for pure water cleaning somewhat daunting,” he said. “However, even these businesses are becoming more aware of the Working at Height regulations.”

Where ladders are still being used, safety remains an issue. One company looking to address this is Rojak which manufactures a range of anti-slip ladder stabilisers. “Ladders are essentially unstable and need to be brought up to date,” said Rojak director Barry Weatherall. “We are trying to increase the safety of ladders all the time.”

But according to Weatherall, water-fed poles are not without their own health and safety problems. “You see window cleaners using water-fed poles walking backwards into the road where they could easily be knocked over,” he said. “And with all that water being sprayed around you are potentially creating a skating rink during the winter months.”

Ice hazard

Marketing manager of Ionic Systems Philip Hanson agrees that ice can be an issue in the winter. “Industry guidelines advocate spreading rock salt around the area and cordoning it off if there is a risk of the water freezing,” he said. “But personally I have never heard of anyone injuring themselves from ice caused by water-fed poles, and I read every month about people injuring themselves when working at height.”

Ionic Systems launched the Reach and Wash - a mobile, vehicle-mounted water-fed pole system - in 1997. The company also manufactures a range of water-fed poles with a maximum reach of 72 feet.  According to Hanson the scope of the tools is growing all the time. “External window cleaning can be carried out with a water-fed pole to heights of 7o feet - which is beyond the reach of ladders anyway,” he said.

“Abseiling cleaners tend to use normal tools, but what we are finding in warmer countries is that an increasing number of abseiling cleaners use short-reach water-fed poles. This is because if you squirt soapy water on a window in hot weather it will quite often dry before you get a chance to rinse it off.”

Improvements are constantly being carried out in the water-fed pole industry. Brodex’s Ann Forde-Johnston says the company is developing lighter poles to enable the task to be carried out more safely and claims the company’s own 60 feet carbon fibre pole is the lightest on the market at only 2.6 kilos.

Brodex is also working closely with the Federation for Window Cleaners to run training courses. “Using water-fed poles requires a simple technique but if you don’t get it right, it can lead to all kinds of problems,” she said. “We always train customers on how to use our equipment but we are not window cleaners. So we are planning to offer our customers discounted training course from the Federation for Window Cleaners.”

So, are water-fed pole systems replacing traditional ladder-and-bucket methods?  According to Forde-Johnston the only window cleaning tasks that cannot always be carried out effectively via a pole system is indoor work. “Customers don’t tend to like having water inside, so some of our larger commercial customers carry ladders for indoor use,” she said.

Even that is due to change if the water-fed pole companies have their way. Ionic Systems has developed the Pro-10 water-fed pole system designed for use in buildings with high internal glass windows.  This uses a high-powered vacuum to collect, re-purify and re-use the water.

And Forde-Johnston adds: “At Brodex we are in the process of developing an indoor system comprising a large reservoir of water and a high-reach indoor cleaning facility. We were mortified at ISSA/INTERCLEAN in Amsterdam that the system wasn’t ready because people were asking for it, but we’re pretty close to launching it.”

Poles not always the answer

However water-fed poles will never take over the industry completely according to regional operations manager of cleaning service provider OCS Michael Chambers, who says the company’s window cleaners always use traditional tools for high-rise work.

“We only use poles at heights of up to 60 feet - any higher than that and we use a cradle or scaffolding,” he said. “And we don’t use water-fed poles from a cradle since you are swinging about in mid-air and they are much more difficult to control.”

Despite the development of water-fed pole systems for indoor work, he said OCS was still more likely to use a ladder or mobile platform plus traditional tools for internal cleaning. In fact water-fed poles are not even the complete answer for external work, according to Chambers.

“If you had a 60 feet building made entirely of glass with no sun canopies, screens or other obstructions you could clean the entire structure using a water-fed pole,” he said. “But modern buildings often have such features, while older buildings may also have beams or balconies.

“I think water-fed poles will become a dominant method of window cleaning but they can never replace traditional methods completely. There will always be a place for the cradle system.”


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