by Diane M. Calabrese / Published September 2023
Glass isn’t exactly synonymous with beauty. But thanks to glass—in mirrors and windowpanes—we reflect and look upon our surroundings. Wonderful—because there’s endless beauty to be had; less wonderful because reflective and transparent surfaces reveal smudges and dirt that opaque surfaces conceal.
Dirty windows cloud our view of the world. They are dispiriting, but they are not a great liability to build-
contrast, gutters loaded with leaves and other debris cause problems. Leaves can move into downspouts and impede the flow of rainwater. Water then cascades over the edges of the gutters and falls next to the building, so that gutters actually contribute to the sort of damage they were designed to protect against.
Sub-freezing temperatures and debris-filled gutters add to another danger: a mass of wet debris that freezes can instigate an ice dam.
Gutters should be cleaned for safety. Windows should be cleaned for aesthetics. (There is some crossover.)
We have seen gutters laden with debris so rich and voluminous that it had composted, thereby enabling seeds of maple trees to germinate in the mix. (Tree seedlings sprouting from gutters does seem to get the homeowner’s attention, though.)
Residential and commercial customers benefit from regular window and gutter cleaning. What’s the situation like from the contractor’s side?
“Cleaning the windows on a home or building just after you have cleaned it is gratifying because it completely re-stores the property,” says Henry Bockman, president of PowerWashCompany.com in Germantown, MD. “And it leaves a great impression on the client as well as the neighbors, which makes them say, ‘I want to hire that same company for my building.’”
Forward-looking building owners often look on gutter and window cleaning as routine maintenance. “Window and gutter cleaning are done at least once a year, but usually two to three times a year, so it’s ongoing work that can be locked into a maintenance contract,” says Bockman.
Both the contractor and the building owner benefit from a maintenance contract. It can be profitable for the contractor and a significant contributor to building preservation for the owner of the structure.
Should gutter cleaning and window cleaning be offered as a bundled service, or is there a downside to such an approach? “It should be a bundled service, and it should also be included in a maintenance contract,” says Bockman. “If you’re going to be at the property twice a year, it makes sense to make it as profitable as possible.”
Gutters cannot be accessed from ground level, while some windows can. To offer the services, a contractor will have to commit to many safety requirements.
“Safety is always the most important thing to focus on,” says Bockman. “Even a seven-foot fall can result in death or a permanent disability. Always make sure employees are properly trained to use ladders and rope and harness systems.”
Because cleaning windows entails work inside a property, liability concerns for a contractor increase. Bockman points to the “liability of working inside of customers’ homes” as perhaps the most difficult dimension of window cleaning.
Why is that? “Even if employees are honest and careful, clients can still blame them for damage, theft, or other things that can destroy your company’s reputation,” explains Bockman.
For contractors committed to completing all the preliminaries—training, certification, and local/federal-level regulations—cleaning gutters and windows offers a
genuine opportunity to increase the bottom line while providing an important service.
The boost to revenue comes because building owners generally contract for gutters and windows more frequently than they do for power washing exteriors, and con-tractors can typically charge more
for cleaning gutters and windows.
Of course, achieving the correct balance between price and time requires experience and a clear-
eyed appraisal of how much time it takes to complete the job correctly. Bockman has deep experience in
pressure washing (commercial and residential) and industry standards.
Suppose an old house that’s going to market has not had windows washed in 20 years. That’s going to be a tough job, although if it has been vacated, worries about possessions on the inside are alleviated. Getting the pricing correct will require careful assessment. Never undersell with the promise (e.g., from a realtor) that more jobs are in the queue.
The IWCA [International Window Cleaning Association, IWCA.org] offers information and courses from the vantage of windows first. PWNA [Power Washers of North America, PWNA.org] and UAMCC [United Association of Mobile Contract Cleaners, UAMCC.org] each offer
relevant training courses in conjunction with a variety of training useful to their members.
OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has an Alliance Program through which it partners with professional organizations and others that are committed to safety and health. The alliance partners are labeled OSHA ambassadors. IWCA is an OSHA ambassador organization.
Alliances are established for a period of two years with renewal at the discretion of OSHA. They serve to raise awareness through outreach and communication (e.g., seminars, venues for OSHA speakers) and to develop training and education programs.
All products derived by alliances must be made available for free to the public (e.g., others in the industry). The alliance programs (see OSHA.gov website) offer a good opportunity for industry groups to strengthen the emphasis on safety.
With organizations and regulators committed to safety, the contractor’s main responsibility is to follow suit. Trying to sort through which regulations apply to a business can be daunting.
OSHA standard 1910.140 (Personal fall protection systems) is one of many that a contractor must follow, as applicable. Sorting through standards in the eCFR alone to determine which of them apply to a company is not recommended. Tapping into organizational knowledge is.
Working high up makes safety challenges greater. When is a body harness required, and how is it distinct from a body belt? How does an owner ensure that each team member scrupulously follows the requirements for using a personal fall arrest system?
An employer is responsible not only for ensuring systems for fall protection (e.g., fall arrest, positioning, travel restraint) are understood and used by trained employees, but also for the integrity of the systems used (see 1910.140(c)).
For instance, connectors must be made of drop-forged, pressed, or formed steel (or equivalent materials) with a corrosion-resistant finish. The minimum breaking strength for lanyards and vertical lifelines is 5,000 pounds (22.2 kN [kilonewton]).
Chemicals must also be thought through. What to use as a cleaning solution will be best determined
by consulting the window manufacturer’s recommended instructions for care. Know the composition
of frames and be careful not to damage them.
A company that’s already doing power washing cannot just add window cleaning as a service without updating insurance coverage. An insurer must know whether its client works high so that it sets coverage rates for exposure appropriately.
The short of it: Don’t just leap in or climb up, or wield a pole, without training. There’s a lot to know.
For instance, water-fed poles improve safety when used correctly. An owner might consider an employee with feet on the ground and extender in hand to be quite a safe pairing.
But an untrained team member walking around utility lines to a building with a pole held high enough to tangle with the lines, or losing a grip on a pole, can cause damage to property or worse.
On the gutter-cleaning side, it’s not enough to simply give a team member a bucket and a ladder. The employee must be trained in ladder safety.
Effective gutter cleaning includes ensuring the downspouts are open. Many homeowners, especially new ones, have no understanding of the relation between gutters/downspouts and preservation of a foundation.
Contractors can hook some exterior cleaning clients on gutter cleaning by including a clear graphic on their website. The graphic should illustrate rainwater flowing over a gutter and pounding (even cutting) the substrate around the foundation.
The Latin root word for gutter designates a trough. In the progression (across millennia) of the strategies for collecting runoff from the tops of dwellings, troughs became elevated and attached as gutters aligned with eaves.
Regarding word meanings, it’s worth recalling windows or spaces in walls were not always filled with panes of glass. Fiber—fabric or parchment—covers for the openings antedate glass. The glass itself was not clear, but black, when first used to fill the space in a window.
Opportunity, as in plenty of it, is one certainty about cleaning gutters and windows. In 2022 more than one million single-family homes were completed in the United States.
Using the conservative estimate of eight windows per house, that would be more than eight million more windows in need of cleaning. (Some sources put the average number of windows per house at 10 or 11, which is more opportunity still.)
New construction itself calls out for window cleaning contractors. Brokers of new homes hire companies to clean the homes and particularly the windows when construction finishes.
Less-than-easy work, but making the world a more beautiful place always is.