Windows - cleaning the glass ceiling

4th of August 2016
Windows - cleaning the glass ceiling

Some windows are harder to clean than others – particularly these days when challenges such as solar panels and angled glass are becoming more common. Ann Laffeaty asks window cleaning companies their opinions on today’s more difficult window-cleaning tasks, and finds out how they cope with them.

What makes a window particularly difficult to clean? On the face of it, glass is glass and cleaning it simply involves the removal of dirt and grime with the aid of either a traditional squeegee or a brush and water-fed pole.

But windows are evolving all the time. Architects are increasingly trying to make their buildings stand out by adding roofs and atriums fashioned from eye-catching angled glass. Meanwhile the growing awareness of the need for sustainability has led to the proliferation of solar panels on roofs.

Indoor window cleaning is a growing sector as building managers seek to retain the clean, bright appearance of their facilities inside as well as out. And each of these developments represents a new challenge for the window cleaner.

Indoor window cleaning can be a major issue, particularly in modern offices according to Ettore president Chris Smahlik. “Today’s employees tend to like to have their desks close to the window, and this makes it hard for the window cleaner – who will usually be equipped with a bulky belt - to gain access to the interior windows to clean them,” he said. “The fact that much of the equipment on the average desk is now plugged in means there are leads and wires everywhere, and this further adds to the challenge.”

Smahlik claims indoor window cleaning in offices is a recognised problem in the industry – and one that most manufacturers are trying to solve. “We at Ettore are working on a solution using traditional tools that we hope to have available by the end of the year,” he said.

Solar panels are another challenge, he says. “People are putting solar panels on roofs and are only then trying to figure out how to clean them,” he said. ”The fact the surfaces of solar panels are horizontal makes it hard for the window cleaner to gain any leverage. And there is nowhere for them to stand in order to clean the panels.”

He says it is all too easy to scratch solar panels as well, and when this occurs they become ineffective. “The best way to clean them is with a squeegee,” he said. “This is lighter than a brush which means there is less weight to support. We are currently working on a tool that enables solar panels to be cleaned in a more traditional way - and I think this will be ground-breaking as no-one else is going in this direction.”

Smahlik says it can also be hard to clean high-rise buildings that have not been equipped with roof-down access. “I think pure water systems should be designed into buildings to aid the window cleaner,” he said. “Rainwater could then be collected on the roof and this could be turned into pure water for cleaning.”

Angled glass

Another issue is the angled glass that is often used in today’s new architectural designs, he says. “Sometimes it is impossible to clean these types of panes since there is nowhere for the operator to stand,” he said. “For building designers it is all about aesthetics and not about the cleaning – and it would save everybody a lot of work if cleaning were factored into buildings at the design stage, particularly if pure water is the future as seems to be the case in Europe.”

Managing director of CAM Specialist Support Matt Johnson agrees with Smahlik that modern buildings often incorporate windows that are difficult – if not impossible – to clean.

“Today’s building designs are innovative and energy-efficient but they involve considerably more complex shapes and detailed architectural features such as cantilevered glass elevations and double-skinned climate walls,” he said. “These make window cleaning more challenging.”

According to Johnson, the large glass roof areas on shopping malls can be another issue. “The glazed canopies above entrance areas also cause problems - particularly in busy locations where factors such as public access and safety need to be considered as well,” he said.

He concurs there should be greater consultation with window cleaners during the design stage of buildings. “Many architects consult with access system specialists and engineers when designing a building, but the contractors who will ultimately clean the building are rarely involved,” he said.

“The insight that experienced specialists bring to the operational and logistical challenges of cleaning surfaces at high levels is extremely valuable. It also significantly reduces the difficulties of cleaning complex buildings, and this can have the knock-on effect of reducing the running costs.”

He agrees with Smahlik that solar panels are an issue because they are easy to damage and hard to reach. “Most solar panels are placed in difficult-to-access areas to maximise their exposure to sunlight and keep them out of harm’s way,” he points out. The best way of tackling these is with the use of de-ionised water fed through a carbon fibre water-fed pole system, according to Johnson. He adds this should be used in conjunction with suspended access equipment or rope access techniques.

Indoor window cleaning can also be difficult – particularly since building managers like their windows to be cleaned without the operatives being visible to the public, he says.

High-rises difficult

“There are now internal water-fed pole systems for cleaning glazing at high level in atria,” says Johnson. “This minimises the need for suspended access equipment, mobile elevated work platforms or rope access techniques. There are also remote controls and robot systems, but these do not currently have the capability of matching a skilled operative in achieving acceptable cleaning standards.”

IPC sales and business development manager Adriano Mariano feels that high-rise windows are among the most difficult to clean. “In Europe we can clean windows that are up to 20 metres from the ground, whereas in other countries such as the US and Dubai it is more common to clean from top to bottom,” he said.

“But this type of roof-down access has to be planned in at the design stage – and in Europe, most of the buildings have already been built.” IPC offers a self-climbing window cleaning system that can be operated via existing roof rigs. The HighRise system is activated wirelessly via remote control.

Cleaning interior windows are another challenge, says Mariano. “You often need to reach up high which means you have to close off the area to the public,” he said. He claims IPC’s Cleano range can facilitate the cleaning of interior windows. “This has a reservoir in the pole which allows the operator to spray the window to be cleaned,” he said. “The latest version also has a rubber interior that is resistant to chemicals which means it can be used with a detergent solution if required.

No consultation

“And it can also be used with a telescopic handle to clean windows up to six metres from the ground. This means it can be used to tackle the high windows of hotel lobbies.”

Mariano adds the system works well for cleaning solar panels. “These represent a challenge for the window cleaner because of their size and inaccessibility,” he said. “The HighPure system uses pure water that passes through four filtration stages to achieve a good finish.”

Moerman’s global sales and marketing manager Marc Roels has a long list of windows that he feels can be hard to clean. “Large glass roof windows – both internal and external – that are difficult to access are among the most challenging,” he said. “Also difficult are windows of an atypical shapes and size; deep frames; super-thin window seals, leaded light windows and those that have some sort of obstruction in front of them.”

He agrees with other manufacturers that the increased use of glass in new building designs makes the window cleaning job more challenging. “This is because window cleaning in these circumstances often requires a more skilled approach,” he said. “Also, accessibility problems make the window cleaner’s job more dangerous. And on top of this come the time pressures involved because the operative must complete the job for the lowest possible cost.”

In his experience there tends to be little or no consultation between architects and professional window cleaners when developing a building. “For this reason there are probably cases where it is almost impossible to clean windows properly in a safe way,” he said.

“We are developing EASE tools for safer working from the ground up. One of these is the Liquidator which enables operatives to clean right up to the edges of the window frame. This leaves little or no water residue and reduces the amount of time spent on prepping with a cloth.

“It removes the need for operatives to have to stretch out with a detailing cloth – which can heighten the risk of falling.”

TG Hylift offers a semi-automatic cleaning system for use on glass roofs and solar panels. Managing director Alfons Thihatmer agrees with other manufacturers that today’s building design makes window cleaning more difficult.

“However a semi-automatic cleaning system provides an alternative – and one that removes any physical stress on the part of cleaning staff,” he said.

According to Thihatmer a major problem today lies in the shortage of skilled window cleaning companies that can take on modern-day challenges. “There are a huge number of window cleaning companies capable of carrying out simple jobs,” he said. “However there are only a few able to focus on the challenges of modern architecture.”

The HyCleaner system comes in a range of options and can be adapted, Thihatmer says. “For example our HyCleaner Black Solar system is equipped with a radio remote control which enables precise cleaning to be carried out on the solar panels,” he said.

In his experience – and contrary to the views of other manufacturers - it is becoming increasingly common for architects to seek professional advice on cleaning and maintenance at the building design stage.

“However it would be helpful for the financier if this were to become compulsory,” he said. “This would allow for a better and easier long-term preservation of the value of buildings.”


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