13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Window Washers
By Suzanne Raga
Window washers are responsible for making the dirty glass windows of homes, offices, stores, and high-rise buildings clean and glistening. Because they often work in difficult, physically demanding conditions–outdoors and high up on ladders, scaffolding, or suspended platforms—window washers have a more dangerous job than most people, but one that’s not without its perks. Here are 13 secrets of their often-perilous trade.
1. THE PHRASE "WINDOW WASHER" MAKES THEM CRINGE.
According to Casey Hooper at Clear Summit Cleaning in Portland, the term “window washer” isn’t ideal. “Most often we call ourselves window cleaners … I'm not 100% sure why, but for some reason most of us cringe just a little when people say window washing,” Hooper tells mental_floss. “Window cleaning technician,” a term that may be more likely to confer respect and professionalism, is more frequently used in postings for window cleaner jobs.
2. WIND IS THEIR NUMBER-ONE ENEMY.
The most dangerous part about being a window washer is the wind. In a Q&A with The New York Times, window cleaner Andrew Horton reveals that scaffolding and wind are a bad combination. “We have to get down off the scaffolding if the wind is above 25 m.p.h., but even 15 m.p.h. is dangerous,” Horton says.
In an interview with HK Magazine, Tsang Hin-tong, a window cleaner in Hong Kong, recalled when a suspended platform broke down: “It just stopped moving. When that happens, if you’re lucky and it’s not a windy day, you can at least try to keep it stable in the air. If it’s windy, it’s very nerve-wracking. There is no way we can try to fight the wind with manpower.”
3. THEY LOVE THE FREEDOM OF WORKING OUTDOORS …
Window cleaners appreciate having the freedom to spend their days outside rather than in an office. They work independently and experience the solitude and peace that comes with being suspended high up in the air, away from the rest of the world. Nate Carr, the owner of Reflection Windows and A Premier Services, tells Westword: “After working in a corporate setting for many years I just couldn't take it any longer. An acquaintance turned me on to window cleaning, and within a month I was sold.”
4. … BUT FEAR IS STILL A BIG PART OF THE JOB.
Despite the sense of peace that some window cleaners feel while they work, fear is still an inherent part of the job. In an interview with The Washington Post, high-rise window washer Hernando Melendez describes how dangerous his job is: “If you don't feel scared doing this job, you can make a mistake … This is one of the most dangerous jobs, and you always have to be really awake.”
In November 2014, two window washers, Juan Lizama and Juan Lopez, were working on the World Trade Center 68 stories up when a cable got loose, flipping their scaffold from horizontal to nearly vertical. “It was definitely terrifying,” Lopez told CBS New York. Lopez and Lizama hit the emergency brakes and were rescued by firefighters after an hour and a half.
5. THEY'VE SEEN SOME UNUSUAL THINGS THROUGH WINDOWS.
Window cleaners are given unusual access to peer inside people’s private spaces (or work inside houses, when they clean the interiors of windows), so discretion is a job requirement. Mitch Jacobsen, co-owner of Better Window Cleaning Seattle, tells mental_floss that his company does residential cleaning, so he and his workers “see all kinds of stuff through windows." The most unusual thing he says he's seen, however, "was not through a window, but inside a house. The homeowner had an inflatable boat, fully inflated, standing on end in their master closet. They had absolutely no room for anything else!”
6. DESPITE THE POTENTIAL DANGERS, DEATHS ARE RARE.
Because they’re serious about safety, window cleaners start work each day by inspecting their equipment to make sure all the safety gear is in working order. And although accidents can terrify window cleaners, they’re usually not fatal. Data from The International Window Cleaning Association showed that between 2010 and 2014, only one high-rise window cleaner was killed each year. That’s a big improvement compared to 1932, when an average 1 out of every 200 window cleaners in New York was killed annually.
7. THE VIEWS ARE A BIG PERK OF THE JOB.
For high-rise window cleaners, a major perk of the job is witnessing the incredible views. “The observation deck of the old World Trade Center was amazing. I especially loved the view from up there in the mornings. It was absolutely beautiful. Being up there alone—before the tourists arrived—was something special,” Horton says.
8. THEY’RE MORE SKILLED THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.
“The biggest misconception is that the window cleaning industry is full of unskilled workers and it's an easy job,” Carr says. According to Chris Trujillo, one of Carr’s employees, window cleaning is a mix between art and rock climbing. “The biggest misconception to me would be that people think cleaning a window is more of a simple task than an art. The high-rise chair work is more like rock climbing, not just dangling from a rope!”
In the US, several organizations oversee training and certification, including the International Window Cleaning Association, Industrial Rope Access Trade Association, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and International Powered Access Federation.
9. THEY DON’T LOOK DOWN … BUT NOT BECAUSE THEY’RE AFRAID OF HEIGHTS.
When they’re working at great heights, window cleaners don’t look down, but not because they’re afraid. Instead, they say they simply don’t have time to look down and watch pedestrians on the street. “The scaffolding is my office. As with any job, I get caught up in my daily work, so I don’t have time to look down. My job is to clean windows, not look at pedestrians,” Horton explains.
10. IT’S A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY, BUT THAT’S CHANGING.
Most window cleaners are male, but female window cleaners are gaining traction and visibility. Sheila Smeltzer, the president of A+ Pro Window Cleaning, tells The American Window Cleaner Magazine that she likes her job’s flexibility—it allowed her the time to be a mom and run her own business. But the job isn’t without its challenges. “Ladder work, roof work, pressure washing … I do it all, but these aspects of the job are challenging for even the most physically capable of women,” Smeltzer says.
11. THEY LISTEN TO PODCASTS WHILE THEY WORK.
Because high-rise window cleaners need to keep distractions away, using radios and cellphones on the job is generally forbidden. “For safety reasons, music and cellphones are not allowed up in the scaffolding, but some of us listen to our own music in our heads,” Horton writes.
Other window cleaners who work on smaller buildings, though, may use cell phones on the job. “I pop in ear buds and go to work. I listen to podcasts mostly,” Hooper says. Small radios, though, are a no-go because they can easily become a nuisance, especially when working at people’s homes. “They don't want to hear your music,” Hooper states.
12. THE MONEY ISN’T GREAT, BUT OWNERS OF WINDOW CLEANING COMPANIES CAN MAKE A LOT.
Many window cleaners only make $12 to $16 per hour, but high-rise window cleaners with years of experience can make $35 per hour. And owners of window cleaning companies can earn more money than you might think. Alexander Tzamburakis, a window cleaner in Chicago, says he makes $125,000 per year as a contractor who bids on window washing jobs at grocery stores.
“The summer is the busiest time, and I work around 16 hours a day. It's tiring, but I'm happy with the salary. It lets me support my family,” Tzamburakis tells CNN Money.
13. THEY COMPETE FOR THE TITLE OF FASTEST WINDOW CLEANER.
Each year, the International Window Cleaning Association (IWCA) hosts a speed window cleaning contest for the group’s convention. Professional members of the IWCA (and their employees) who are registered for the convention can enter, and they must use the equipment—squeegee, detergent, and cotton towel—given to them (in other words, they can’t use their own special gear). Judges and a referee oversee the competition, and competitors are penalized for any streaks, smears, and water residue that they leave on their windows.
All photos courtesy iStock.