It’s not the most hated cleaning chore there is—getting behind the toilet wins that prize—but washing windows is high on the procrastination list of household tasks. Maybe it’s the little things, like not being able to see the streaks until you’re down off the ladder, never mind which side of the glass they’re on. Or maybe it’s the sheer size of the task, which has grown as houses have gotten bigger. If you have 2,800 square feet, according to one U.S. government estimate, you’re also likely to have 28 windows, and that’s a lot of glass.
But think how wonderful it feels when you’re done. The sun pours in, delivering warmth and light. The view sharpens. You’ve even improved your sense of well-being. As one commercial cleaning service puts it, “Smeared, smudged, and dirty windows can make a person feel more bleak when they look outside.”
In the interest of a cleaner, less bleak world, we found tools and techniques to get you started, whether the challenge is reaching windows with divided lights (on the second floor) or dispatching streaks, inside and out. Less fun than lying on the couch, but look at it this way: no need to do it again for another 6 to 12 months. Or longer if you coat those sparklers with a grime-resistant film. Read on to learn how to clean glass windows.
Shown: Conquer corners with a natural sponge, and use a natural chamois to buff. Pros favor a strip washer-squeegee combo to clean and wipe. If you’re working outside, use one that screws onto an extension pole, swap the spray bottle for a bucket—and think about wearing a rain hat.
- A BUCKET OR SPRAY BOTTLE filled with glass cleaner or a DIY solution. Some pros use a tablespoon of Dawn dish detergent in a gallon of water. Prefer bottled? Rust-Oleum’s NeverWet Glass Cleaner leaves behind a light grime-repellent film ($10; The Home Depot). Benya Concentrated Glass Cleaner makes 40 quarts of solution ($20; Go Clean).
- A WHISK BROOM or hand vac to clean out tracks and brush off sills.
- A 10- TO 18-INCH STRIP WASHER and a SQUEEGEE with a fresh rubber blade. If you need to reach upper windows from outside, the tools should be able to screw onto a pole. Unger’s VP250 Visa Versa washer-squeegee combo means you don’t have to stop to reload ($24; WebstaurantStore), and Casabella’s Mini Window Washer is sized for divided lights ($11; Casabella). Unger makes a telescoping pole that stretches to an unwieldy 30 feet, but to reach a more reasonable 8 feet, there’s the Mary Moppins Fiberglass Extension Handle ($40; Go Clean). If your sashes tilt in, think about a window vac that couples a squeegee with battery-powered suction. We’ve had good luck with Karcher’s WV50 PowerSqueegee ($32; Walmart).
- A NATURAL SPONGE is ideal for getting into corners. Look for a durable, absorbent type called Seawool ($6.59; Ace Hardware).
- TERRY TOWELS or rags for cleaning sills and drying off frames; and microfiber cloths or a chamois for buffing (see Wipe Right, below).
The Game Plan
• Choose the right moment
“Use the weather as an advantage, rather than something to fight,” says Jack Evans, a past president of the International Window Cleaning Association. “Stay ahead of the sun or behind it.” A dull moment when the sky is overcast and the air is still will slow evaporation (read: less streaking) and reduce spray-bottle blowback.
• Do the whole thing
Sills and tracks can be vacuumed or swept with a broom or toothbrush and wiped down with all-purpose cleaner. If screens are grimy, remove and label them so you know where they go and vacuum on both sides with an upholstery or dusting attachment. Or scrub and hose them down.
• It’s all in the wrist
When working outdoors on multiple windows, fill a bucket with soapy water and use a strip washer, taking care not to overload it. Follow with a squeegee, holding it lightly, keeping your wrist relaxed, and angling the blade at 30 degrees (the width of two fingers). Work horizontally, or, with large panes, start by angling the squeegee tip to clear a 1-inch margin at the top. Wipe it off on a rag, then pull it down the glass. Use a terry towel to mop the frame and a microfiber cloth or chamois (see below) to buff out streaks. Once you’re in the groove, try a double-fisted approach, squeegee in one hand and a cloth in the other.
• What a pane
Divided lights: so many corners! Scrub them with a strip washer—left to right, top to bottom—and attack corners with a pliable natural sponge. Use a squeegee sized for the pane, drying it off between strokes. Keep a towel handy to wipe down the frames. Then buff.
• Both sides now
Picture windows, casements, bay windows, even skylights require an outdoor approach. And while newer double-hungs tilt in, so you can clean both sides without leaving the house, older ones require window washers to stick their heads out over sashes that have been lowered from above, then under sashes that have been raised from below. At ground level, you may have luck with a spray bottle designed to work off a garden hose, like one made by Windex, or a power-spray attachment, such as the WORX 20V Hydroshot Portable Power Cleaner ($120; Worx).
Windows beyond easy reach, including those you’ve had trouble making streak-free, require a dependable ladder—held firm by a horizontal bar, or stabilizer, which will allow you to directly face the window without resting the ladder on it.
When in doubt, hire a pro. Or indulge yourself and rent a scissor lift (from about $100 a day), which will allow you to rise to the challenge without risking your life—maybe neighbors will want to buy in, too.
Window Cleaning Tips
To extend the time between cleanings, finish the job with a spray coating of an invisible polymer sealant, such as 3-Star Barrier Protectant ($40; J. Racenstein). Clean-and-protect sprays, like Rain-X 2-in-1 Glass Cleaner + Rain Repellent ($5; Target), buy less time but, hey, every extra day counts.
To remove tough mineral stains caused by runoff from metal frames, rub with an oxalic-acid paste—Barkeeper’s Friend plus water will do the trick.
Microfiber, something of a miracle product, is now found in cloths, mop heads, and window- and floor-cleaning pads. It’s made by weaving infinitesimal polyester and nylon threads into a tangled, grasping mass that can pick up dust and dirt without soap or water. Indeed, microfiber works best when it isn’t wet, and it’s impossible to wring out effectively, a problem if you’re doing a dozen windows. (Incidentally, microfiber should be laundered separately because it likes to grab lint off the rest of the load; avoid fabric softener and dry on low.) When windows have a light film of dirt, polishing them with a dry microfiber cloth may do the job. More likely, you’ve scrubbed and squeegeed and now you want to mop up slicks and streaks. A type of easy-care synthetic chamois made by S.M. Arnold, called Water Sprite ($6.45; Hands on Tools), was invented for serial window cleaning. But the ultimate buffer is natural chamois, once made from the skin of an Alpine antelope, now with sheepskin. Able to absorb and shed water, a chamois can clean as well as dry hard-to-squeegee surfaces like leaded glass. It has long been an essential for auto detailing—the four-wheel equivalent of window washing—and if rinsed out and allowed to dry naturally, out of direct sun, it will last for many years. Brands include Tanner’s Select (from $8.27; Walmart).
Terry A. Parkinson, general counsel, S.M. Arnold Inc.
Jim Cantonis, Acme Sponge & Chamois
Jack H. Evans Jr., 20/20 Window Cleaning of NC