With fall here, we know winter is right around the corner (at least in Colorado anyway). With snow and ice and all those picturesque sceneries comes frozen over windows, what seems like frozen fingers and toes, and an environment you’d probably rather not spend a whole lot of time working in. But, as we all know, even in the winter, life goes on and jobs need to be done. So we asked Jeff Klass to give us some advice, on how to survive and thrive as a window cleaner in the winter months. So he made of this list of things to think about and here is what he had to say about each one.
Gear for the Human
- It all starts with your brain. You have to plan for what you’re about to face. You have to think about which side of the building you’re going after first, maximizing solar heat gain on the glass (and you). You have to expect the unexpected, because the true terrain you’re working on, ground based or ladder based is likely hidden by a layer of snow. Under that snow layer may be hard packed slippery ice. You have to check, re-check and learn to interpret the weather. Don’t count on the meteorologist to get it right. Know what the wind shifts, cloud patterns and sky color(s) mean. Weather changes in an instant, and in winter that can be more dangerous, and affect your daily revenue more than other seasons. You have to think about how, where and how much anti-freeze you’re using and have a plan for safe transport and storage of it. You have to factor in truck warm-ups, gear warm-ups, and gear failures. Plan for it. Your extension poles will freeze shut. Have spares, so you aren’t losing precious sun and daylight waiting for a pole to thaw out. Plan for dropped frozen equipment to shatter. Have an extra on hand at all times. Drop a hip bucket in July, no biggie. Drop one in January at -15 – you’ll be amazed at how many pieces it can break into. Stay hydrated, just like in summer. Many days we’re working up a sweat in winter. That’s fluid loss you need to replenish just as much as or even more so than in warmer days. Use your head, have a plan and you can not only survive in winter, you can thrive in winter.
- For me, it’s always been about warm & dry feet. Many winters, I don’t wear a hat or gloves when I’m cleaning windows, but a great pair of boots will make your day way easier. Not only will your feet stay warm and dry, but proper winter footwear will help you gain traction on snow, ice and hidden by snow uneven terrain. I wear Vasque ® Gore-Tex ® boots with Primaloft ®or Thinsulate ® insulation rated for 30 below. Waterproof, warm and great grip make these a solid choice. Quality, breathable socks are an absolute must have. Even layering your socks on really cold days is not unheard of. I’ve done it, and cannot stress enough how much warm, dry feet can matter in winter conditions.
- A good pair of gloves (or more than one) is a must have for many. Options are varied and vast. Neoprene rubber, waterproof, windproof fleece, thin, thick etc. I even met a window cleaner once that wore cotton liners and dishwashing gloves as his choice in winter. If you do go the glove route, I highly suggest you get a few different styles, and see what works best for you. The type of cleaning you’re doing on a given day may also determine the type of glove you wear for that day. You’ll also want gloves for the coldest days, and for the “It’s 20 degrees out & sunny today” days. If you go sans gloves, you need to learn and do a few things; learn how to keep your hands as dry as possible. In summer you may want to dip your stripwasher and wring it out with a hand. Might be great for warm days, but not good for winter work, especially if you’re not wearing gloves. Buy disposable air activated hand warmer packs. We call it “popping smoke” every morning when our field techs open a couple of these up and place them in their pockets. There are also fuel based reusable hand warmers available.
- Get a hat. Some estimates claim you lose 60-75% of body heat from your head in winter. Again, my personal preference is not to wear a hat, however on really cold days I will don a pair of wraparound earmuffs. Mine are called 180’s, however there are once again many choices to look at. If you go full hat, get something that will allow breathability, and not sweat. Don’t grab the cheapest knit hat that likely will end up causing more trouble than it solves. A lightweight fleece, windproof is even better, that keeps sweat to a minimum and still allows heat retention may be the way to go.
- So we have feet, hands & head covered. What about center mass? No secret here, the key is layering. On cold days, we wear Cabela’s E.C.W. C. S. (Extended Cold Weather Clothing System) base layers. On not so cold days, a good mid or light weight polypropylene base layer may fit the bill. Again, what you’re going for here is breathability. As window cleaners, we usually are not outside 100% of the time in winter, so you need to dress in layers that will allow you to shed one or more layer when you’re working the insides. Jackets, with a fleece liner that can be removed and an outer layer of windproof waterproof breathable material work great for this. Don’t skimp on price or quality. If you’re working outside 6, 7 or more hours a day in winter, you will always regret going cheap on your base layers and outerwear. We also often wear ski or snow pants, with the same weather proof qualities as our jackets. Trudging through snow to get to exterior windows, and having holstered squeegees possibly dripping on your leg (we do not rack our squeegees in hip buckets – especially in winter) can give you cold, wet legs. Not a fun thing. Wearing water & wind proof pants can make a great deal of difference.
So you’re now outfitted for the worst of it and ready to tackle whatever Old Man Winter throws your way. Let’s move on to your gear.
Gear for the Windows
- Squeegee Handles
We wrap our squeegee handles and our extension poles. Yes, many manufacturers have inlaid rubber grip areas on their handles, cute but useless in winter. Go to a sporting goods store. Buy some quality racket grips. When you get good at it, you should be able to wrap 2 squeegee handles out of each grip bought. Wrap the grip from the head down to where it would go into a pole – this way when you’re removing the squeegee from the pole end, you won’t constantly be rolling up the edges of your grip. Not only do you get massively increased slip resistance, they are easier to work with when they have a good grip on them. All of our handles have aftermarket applied grip wraps on them. We use them like this year round, but appreciate them more in winter.
- Grab your favorite pole and hold it like you were going to clean some glass. Note the location of your hands. Apply a quality racket grip to these same areas of your pole. Do the same for your high reach poles – (your hands will be in a different location than your shorter poles) – note this location and apply grips here also. You now have poles that will be a bit warmer on your hands (gloved or not), and easier to use, grip and maneuver in winter.
- You may find yourself climbing ladders in winter. A few things to make sure of; you clear away any snow pack to determine the true terrain you’re setting up on. You have ladders with good feet tread, or even flappable spiked feet (on some sectional and extension ladders) that you can dig in to the ground. You have some concrete form stakes and a heavy hammer that you can pound in between the bottom rung of your ladder to ensure it stays where you want it. You have someone to foot the ladder. Your rungs are not slick with ice and snow. All mechanical/moving parts of your ladder are in good working order. You never, EVER over reach when on a ladder. You are utilizing stand-off or hold back brackets when possible to stabilize the top of the ladder. You are being extra careful if/when you have to transisiton from a ladder to a roof or vice-versa. We often will leave dormers, skylights etc. until a safe return trip can be made, either during a mid-winter thaw or yes, until spring. No window is worth the risk of injury – doubly true on snow or ice slicked roofs.
- If you’re not using rectangular buckets with lids, winter makes these a must have. Minimizing water splashing around your vehicle, and keeping added anti-freeze (usually alcohol based) from evaporating out during transit make lidded buckets an easy choice. I know of window cleaners that use large insulated coolers, fill their buckets with hot water, and transport them in the cooler to retain heat. We use hot water on “warm” winter days when we’re pretty sure anti-freeze won’t be needed. On days when we know we will be using anti-freeze we fill with cold water. (Remember earlier when I said you need to keep your hands dry? This is partially why.)
- Towels & Sleeves
- Your towel use is likely to go up in winter. They freeze and get harder to work with, so make sure you have plenty of clean dry towels available. Your sleeves may freeze as well. Tip: if you’re storing your stripwasher in your hip bucket and it may freeze, always put it in with the snap or Velcro up. This will make it much easier to remove if you come out in the morning and find that it’s frozen in place.
- Some days, none will be needed. Some days you may be able to get away with using just windshield washer fluid – added to your bucket or straight from the bottle. If you’re going that route, make sure that you use washer fluid that doesn’t have heavy dyes in it. We like the Prestone ® yellow fluid for this reason. Plus it works to about 5 below. On really cold days, methanol is your friend. Find a local chemical supplier and buy methanol alcohol. Make sure when you pick it up you get an SDS sheet for your records, and make sure every truck that will have this chemical in it has a copy. Methanol is the anti-freeze ingredient in all washer fluid. Straight methanol will allow you to clean at much lower temperatures, provided you do it right. Remember I said cold water? That’s because alcohol naturally evaporates faster than water. Add it to hot water, and it’s likely to evaporate out in mere minutes. Cold water allows for a slower evaporation. However, we rarely add straight meth to our buckets. We carry 1 gallon jugs of it with us, and add it to the strip washer directly (poured over the bucket) only as needed. Let’s revisit the brain section – how to attack a building and solar heat gain – it’s very plausible that on the south side of a building on a sunny day, even at ridiculously cold ambient air temperatures, you won’t need anti-freeze. Get to the north side of that same building – you’ll need it. A lot of it. But why waste it on glass you don’t need it on? The east side will warm up in the morning, the south side catches sun/heat all day, and the west side will get the last of it. So chase the sun and attack the building properly, if at all possible. Adding chemicals to your water or directly to your stripwasher will increase you CODB, so you want to use as little of them as you can get away with.
- Ice Melt
- We carry ice melt on all our trucks in winter. After cleaning a building, we make sure that any areas we have left any water on due to our window cleaning are well salted down.
- Ice scraper & collapsible shovel
- Two more tools you should have at hand. Invaluable to you if when you come up to a window and it either needs to be dug out to get to the glass (it happens) or if there are melt & frozen water runs on the glass or heavy ice/snow buildup on the bottom of the windows. (It also happens). You could use your wide blade scraper for this, but why risk fouling up your scraper with ice between the blade and insert track? Just use a good automotive ice scraper, clear the stuff off, then clean as normal (or as normal as winter window cleaning will allow).