I love my parents’ house — it’s a monstrosity of gigantic proportions. My favorite parts of the building are the windows that run up the whole side of the house. However, since none of those windows open, they get less transparent as the years go on. That’s why I wanted to talk about how you can approach cleaning high windows from the outside, and some of the best tools and techniques for the job.

You see, that long row of windows in my parents’ house is probably more than 20 feet high. The U-shaped stairs that run along the windows on the inside have a landing right where the light spills into the house. I remember sitting on the landing with a sketchbook when I was a kid, looking out at the spectacular view through the completely transparent glass.

Of course, that glass is nowadays riddled with specks of dust, cobwebs, and rain spots. Naturally, I couldn’t just let all that dirt keep accumulating: I had to find a way to get up there and clean the stains off. As it turns out, in researching the various cleaning methods I could use, I’ve discovered plenty of useful tidbits for cleaning high windows in general. So if you’ve found yourself facing a similar problem, you’ll definitely find a viable solution here.

Why You Should Clean the Outside Parts of Your Windows

To be honest, looking at the 20-feet high windows at my parents’ place didn’t really inspire me to get a glass cleaner. In fact, it just seemed like too much of a hassle. I even contemplated just blasting the windows with the garden hose. Actually, I only gave up on that plan because I didn’t think the hose could reach all the way up.

In retrospect, the hose would have probably smeared the dust that was baked into the glass without completely removing it. No, my particular situation required window washing liquid. So I decided to nix the hose plan.

Still, I couldn’t very well leave the windows as they were. That would’ve been incredibly depressing. The last time they’d been washed was about 20 years ago. In the meantime, my folks had taken to covering them up with opaque curtains, so guests couldn’t see the light streaming in through the filthy glass.

Clearly, something had to be done. Aside from being generally depressing, dirty windows can actually show signs of wear quicker than clean ones. Remember, glass is porous. Therefore, dirt, rain, and ice can really damage it — which can affect the heat efficiency of your home.

What Not to Do When Cleaning High Windows

Most of the knowledge I’ve gathered about washing high windows from the outside of the building is practical. But before I present my step-by-step guide, I wanted to spend some time discussing the most ill-advised techniques people use.

For example, I’ve seen too many silly mistakes happen because of a general reluctance to clean windows from the outside. If your windows swing open, you’ll only be able to reach the outside glass if they open toward you. However, if they swing outwards, people may attempt to clean them by leaning out of the window. Obviously, that method is incredibly dangerous, especially if you’re in a high-rise building.

Now, cleaning a window that doesn’t open is another story altogether. After all, you’d be doing most of your work from the outside — which is what this whole guide is about. But then, that’s where the most dangerous stunts take place.

Some people forget themselves almost as soon as they start climbing the ladder to reach the highest point of the window. They usually try to lean left and right to get the full width of the window. Now, a bit of a lean is usually okay, but you should never lean your whole body outside of the ladder.

Indeed, most of us don’t actually realize how dangerous cleaning the exterior side of their windows is. If you’re dealing with a particularly tall building, you may have to get professional window cleaners. A professional crew might descend from the roof on a window washing platform or strap into harnesses to get the job done. If the situation calls for such measures, you obviously shouldn’t be attempting to clean the windows on your own.

Step-By-Step Guide to Cleaning High Windows from the Outside

Cleaning your high windows from the outside doesn’t have to be a huge ordeal. As always, it’s just a matter of organization. So here’s an easy guide to getting it done.

1. Plan Ahead

Cleaning high windows from the outside of your home is always going to be tricky. But that’s precisely why it’s so important to plan ahead. The first thing you’ll want to decide is which method would be the most appropriate for your particular situation.

To go back to the case of my parents’ house, those windows were about 20 feet high and several feet wide. If I were to clean them the same way I would the more accessible windows in my house, I could only get so far with my 7-foot ladders. So I had a choice.

I could stand on a hydraulic rising platform while I cleaned the windows, build temporary scaffolding, or simply get 16-foot or taller ladders. On the other hand, if I didn’t want to wipe down the whole 100 square feet of glass by hand, I could have settled for shorter ladders or scaffolding. Then, I could have used extension poles to reach the top half of the windows. Either way, I had to set aside a whole day or two for the entire operation.

Of course, your situation could be completely different. If you have a single window on the second or third floor, you could easily get up there with ladders. It would still require preparation, but it would certainly be more manageable. Once you figure out how to get close to the window, you’ll have to get your hands on the supplies you’ll need.

2. Gather Your Supplies

In my household, we usually use the combination of a commercial glass cleaner and newspaper to clean all our windows. However, I don’t think crumpling up newspapers is a viable option if you’re using an extension pole. That brings us to the supply list.

No matter which method you go for, there are certain things you’ll need. By now, you should already have ladders or scaffolding that can reach the window in question. Actually, you can even rent the scaffolding for about $15–$50 per day if you don’t think you’ll need it again. Aside from these things, you may also need:

  • Buckets (one for the cleaning solution and another for rinsing)
  • Squeegee and microfiber sponge combos like this one with a matching extension pole (there are even products like this one that has a 6-foot reach and a built-in spray)
  • If the window can be opened, you can also get one of these magnetic cleaners to clean both sides of the glass at the same time
  • A chamois for drying without streak marks (though a basic microfiber cloth or an old cotton T-shirt would work too)
  • Rubber gloves, if you’re sensitive to cleaning liquids
  • Windex or white vinegar, if you’d rather go with a homemade solution

However, not all of these items are absolute requirements. For example, if you get a squeegee, you may not need any of the drying cloths I’ve mentioned. The same goes for the cleaning liquids: you don’t have to get a commercial product if you plan to make it yourself. I’ve already told you how to make your shower cleaner — you can just take out the essential oils and dish soap for this one.

3. Prepare the Windows

After you have everything you need, you can finally set a date. If you have a huge surface to clean, you’re going to want to set aside a full day — maybe two. Make sure to check the weather report, you don’t want to clean the windows on a rainy day. If you want to avoid streaking, you shouldn’t wait for summer to do this, either.

Before you start spraying everything down, you’ll want to remove any big pieces of debris you find. Dust off any leaves, bugs, and cobwebs you find on and around the window sill. Then, put your gloves on and take any old rag to dunk in soapy water. You can use dish detergent for this — you just need to wipe the frame around the glass and the window sill.

4. Safety First

Finally, you get to do what you set out to do! But before you hop to the task, there are some safety precautions you ought to implement. As I’ve previously mentioned, many people act pretty reckless when cleaning their high windows and overestimate the amount of wiggle room they have on the ladder.

As a general rule of thumb, you want to keep your center of gravity firmly within the confines of the platform you’re standing on. That’s a good tip whether you’re using a scaffold tower or a ladder. If you’re using a ladder, you also don’t want to get too close to the top step. Your body should only give you an additional 4 feet on top of the height of the ladder, so you should have your knees firmly on the ladder.

Additionally, you should have someone on the ground to hold your ladder or scaffolding. Some scaffold towers come with swivel wheels instead of a sturdy base, so your partner could even move you around as needed.

5. Clean the Glass

Now, there are two ways to wash your windows. The first involves Windex spray and newspapers or microfiber cloth. Basically, you just need to be able to take the cloth and the spray bottle up the ladder or to the platform. You’d also need to use circular motions, which isn’t the best option if you’re working with an unstable ladder.

The second method you can use involves sponge and squeegee attachments and an extension pole. First, you’ll need to submerge the sponge in your cleaning liquid. It can be as simple as one part white vinegar, four parts water. On the other hand, you can also put the sponge in a bucket with a bit of dish soap.

Once the microfiber has soaked in the cleaner, you can screw it onto the extension pole and liberally apply it to the glass. After you finish the first pass, you could rinse out the sponge and do another for good measure. Finally, you can completely dry off the window by passing a rubber edge squeegee downwards until all the droplets are gone. Of course, the squeegee needs to be dry and clean before it makes contact with the glass.

If something is baked into the window, you’ll need to spray the spot with Windex and wait for it to sink in before cleaning it.

Of course, there are also some new window cleaning techniques that may be worth looking into. For example, there are plenty of new window washing tools on the market. The magnetic squeegee I mentioned earlier is particularly interesting, as you can see in this instructional video.

6. Put Away Your Tools

Unless some spiteful bird decides to decorate your windows, you shouldn’t have to deal with them for at least another 6 months. So make sure that your gear is ready for you. Put away your ladder and return the rented scaffolding (or, if you own it, dismantle it and store it away).

If you used reusable washcloths, sponges, and squeegees, you’ll want to wash and dry them before storing them. At least that’s one big advantage of washing your windows with newspapers — no cleanup.

7. Alternately: Call in the Professionals

Now, if everything we just talked about seems like too big of an undertaking for you, that’s alright. Honestly, I almost balked at the challenge of cleaning the 20-foot high windows of my childhood home. Knowing that they hadn’t been cleaned in close to 20 years was nerve-racking. And the fact that I’d calculated the surface area to be about 100 square feet wasn’t reassuring.

So if you’ve found yourself in a similar pickle, you can always call in the professionals. The window washers who work on high-rise buildings use several different methods to get to the windows they need to clean. Some of them get there on rising platforms or window cleaning gondolas, while others propel down from the roof in harnesses. Either way, they know how to get the job done much better than we do — so there’s no shame in letting them have this one.

Final Thoughts

Fortunately, all this is pretty much a yearly affair, so you won’t have to stress about it too much. But trust me, you’ll feel so much better when you’re able to see through your windows. I know my parents’ staircase looks much sunnier now that the windows don’t have rain specks and dust baked into the outside of the glass.

In any case, I discovered that washing the windows was pretty therapeutic — even if my back was a bit sore tomorrow from handling the extension pole! And the results are certainly less depressing than what you start with.

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