Window cleaning - water or chemicals?

4th of July 2014
Window cleaning - water or chemicals?

Window cleaning used to be something of a craft in which specialists on ladders would work hard to produce a streak-free finish using a detergent solution and a sgueegee. But factors such as speed, efficiency, safety and sustainability have become increasingly important and perhaps even more valued than craftsmanship.

Enter the water-fed pole solution. But what are the pros and cons of using pure water versus traditional window cleaning systems? Ann Laffeaty finds out.

Window cleaning used to be something of a craft in which specialists on ladders would work hard to produce a streak-free finish using a detergent solution and a squeegee. But factors such as speed, efficiency, safety and sustainability have become increasingly important and perhaps even more valued than craftsmanship.

Enter the water-fed pole solution. This removes the environmental impact of chemicals by using pure water alone while also allowing operatives to clean windows safely – and more quickly - from the ground. So why would anyone ever again require a traditional window cleaner?

Marketing manager of Ionic Systems Philip Hanson says the benefits of water-fed pole systems can be summed up in three words: safer, faster and higher.

“Using hand tools requires working at height and unfortunately, falls from height have always been the biggest killer of window cleaners,” he said.  “Most companies we deal with switch to our Reach and Wash system for safety reasons.”

He says most window cleaning companies can double their productivity by using poles.  “In window cleaning where time is money, this increased efficiency is a serious benefit,” said Hanson.

And he adds that water-fed poles can clean at greater heights without the need for access equipment. “Currently poles can clean to over 24 metres from the safety of the ground, and cleaning companies are using poles where previously they would have used hydraulic platforms or even rope access,” he said. “This means the work is not only safer, but it is also much more cost-effective.”

According to Hanson, the effective use of hand tools such as an applicator and squeegee is a skill that takes many weeks’ practice.  “In contrast, even a complete beginner can use a water-fed pole to clean effectively with only a little training.”

And he claims sustainability is a further advantage of water-fed poles. “Since only highly purified water is used, no cleaning chemicals are required,” he said.

The company’s managing director Reuben Reynolds concurs that traditional window cleaning methods are already dying out. “UK squeegee sales have dwindled and I think this will soon be the case all over Europe and across the rest of the world,” he said.

Ionic’s Reach and Wash system was launched more than 20 years and the company considers itself to be a pioneer in water-fed pole cleaning. However, Reynolds concedes the system might not be ideal for use on older, damaged windows.

“If a building has poor wooden frames from which the putty is coming out, it might be a problem,” he said. “But if you can’t afford to have windows replaced, why would you have them cleaned?”

Both he and Hanson are convinced that the water-fed pole market is on the up. “Traditional hand tools will never be replaced completely because they are still the best way to clean in certain circumstances, such as for interior windows,” said Hanson. “But while squeegees will continue to be used in these cases, I think window cleaners will increasingly use poles for external use.”

Unger’s strategic business unit director Torsten Deutzmann also believes that pure water systems beat traditional cleaning methods hands down. “Pure water dries without leaving the spots from dissolved solutes that can be found in ‘normal’ water,” he said. “It also delivers a better result - and it does so without the need for chemicals. This ability to clean without leaving spots and streaks delivers a better, faster solution that boosts productivity. And because a thorough clean can be achieved without the use of chemicals, environmental goals are attained.”

Unger offers a range of window cleaning equipment including squeegees, washers, scrapers and accessories, many of which are designed to work with the company’s Nlite water-fed pole system.
According to Deutzmann, pure water is particularly suited for solar panel cleaning.

“Solar panels have to be cleaned regularly to ensure they are working sufficiently effectively to recoup the financial investment needed to install them,” he said. “Cleaning with chemicals can leave a film on the panels that could prevent the sun’s rays from getting through. This may prevent solar panels from producing the required energy levels.

“Water-fed poles allows solar panels and high windows to be cleaned safely from the ground which not only makes the work safer, it also increases profitability since it avoids having to hire equipment such as mobile elevating work platforms.”

Lehmann’s marketing director Pepijn Carlier also believes the increasing popularity of solar panels is helping to boost the water-fed pole market. “Some solar panel manufacturers say their products are naturally cleaned by the rain – but try leaving your car out in the rain for two weeks and see how clean it will be,” he said. “In order to be viable, solar panels need to be cleaned as fast as possible and as cheaply as possible - and this is a job for water-fed poles.”

Lehman’s Qleen system uses light aluminium poles and pure water along with a range of specialised brushes for various applications and surfaces. The company also makes squeegees and other traditional tools.

Ettore vice-president Niels Ysbrandy feels safety is a huge advantage of water-fed poles. “The authorities are trying to prevent people working on ladders for long periods of time, which means people have started to look at alternatives,” he said.

Large areas of glass

According to Ysbrandy, water-fed pole cleaning is particularly suitable on large areas of glass. “It is all about manpower,” he said. “If you use a ladder you have to reposition the ladder all the time. And you can clean glass very well with pure water. It is also faster than using a squeegee and the results are streak-free.”

Another advantage is that cleaning with a water-fed pole is relatively easy, he said. “A squeegee takes more practice which means training is easier with water-fed poles.” Ettore offers traditional window cleaning products as well as water-fed pole options, and Ybrandy believes both solutions have a place in the market.

“Although climbing up and down a ladder can be exhausting, you still face a physical challenge when working a water-fed pole,” he points out. “It is particularly tiring when working at heights above the third of fourth floors of a building.”

He says safety guidelines discourage the use of poles of more than 12.5 metres in length in any case. “Window cleaners still often go up to 18-20 metres, however - and with poles of over 12 metres in length there is the safety risk of the pole falling.”

He adds that an advantage of using a squeegee is the fact the operator remains close to the glass being cleaned. “The window cleaner scrapes the dirt and moisture away from the glass and leaves the surface dry,” he said. “This means he or she can instantly see if the window is clean. But with pure water you need to follow a strict pattern of cleaning and rinsing to avoid missing any areas of the glass. And you can only see the areas you have missed once the glass has dried, which can take up to half an hour in some cases.”

He says water-fed pole cleaning is not always the best solution when cleaning the windows of older buildings or those with damaged facades or cracked paintwork. “With a water-fed pole you have to wet the whole frame and if the paintwork between the floors is old and cracked, the water running down the walls could repollute the glass beneath,” he said. “And of course, you can’t use a water-fed pole system for indoor windows.”

Director of Moerman Marc Roels adds that the market for squeegees and detergents is still strong. “Detergents are still more efficient than ionised water for removing heavy grease,” he said. “And while a growing number of people are becoming concerned about sustainability, there is an increasing trend towards using detergents that are more environmentally friendly.”

Moerman has manufactured traditional window cleaning products for 125 years and among its latest products is the ProClean system which includes squeegees, handles and rubbers.

According to Roels the market for traditional window cleaning products is sustainable - and is also likely to grow. “We are seeing an increase in new types of families where both partners work, which means people no longer have the time to clean their own windows,” he said. “Traditional methods are more commonly used in domestic homes than water-fed pole systems so there is potential for growth.”

He does admit that there has been a recent trend towards the use of high-reach water-fed pole systems. “This sector is growing but it is still a relatively small part of the overall market – and I wonder if it will grow in the long term,” said Roels. “High-reach pole systems use a lot more water than traditional methods, and as water becomes increasingly scarce it will become more and more expensive.”

Ettore’s Niels Ysbrandy agrees that there will always be scope for traditional cleaning methods. “They won’t die out altogether since there are a lot of situations where water-fed pole cleaning is not ideal,” he said. “With pure water systems you have to bring a truck and a water tank with you to the job - and sometimes it is simply quicker and more flexible to use a bucket and squeegee.”

And Lehmann’s Pepijn Carlier agrees with this verdict. “If you have only a small area of glass to clean - say two square metres – someone with a ladder will have completed the task before you can even get a machine out,” he said. “

“And in any case, there will always be customers who prefer to have their windows cleaned by a person on a ladder because some people simply like the traditional ways of doing things. That’s why so many cleaners still use brushes and smaller vacuums - because that’s the way things have always been. Though if this situation is still the same in 20 years’ time is anyone’s guess.”


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