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Let the Sunshine In: A Guide to Washing Apartment Windows

By Elizabeth Wolff | April 2, 2013 7:39am

UPPER WEST SIDE — No one would openly volunteer themselves for vertical living if they weren’t tempted by the prospect of good views and lots of light.

Even on the second or third floor, every square inch of blue sky counts. So why do so many New Yorkers ignore the state of their windows? Next time you’re walking down the street, look up at the millions of city dwellers trapped behind their dusty, dirty, darkened windows. 

Hiring a window cleaner is one of the great privileges of urban life. Unlike plumbers or exterminators, who often come to your aide during great domestic crises — and are the source of both humiliation and shame — window cleaners can bring with them of one of those rare "Aha!" moments. Finally, after all these years, perfectly clean windows! You won’t want the window cleaner’s visit to end.

This was my joyous realization when I ambushed my aunt’s apartment one recent afternoon. With me were Nic Yashchuk and Nic Ivaniuchenko, a window washer for Big Apple Window Cleaning.

The two Nics, who have nine years experience cleaning NYC windows, agreed there are well over 400 different kinds of windows in New York City. 

“No window is the same,” said Ivaniuchenko, 27, while putting on his cleaning boots for the job. He’s been washing New York City windows for seven years and is one of 30 employees at the citywide agency.

“But have you seen windows as bad as these?” asked my aunt, an artist on the Upper West Side, gesturing to her loft-like wooden multi-paned windows.

“That’s what everyone always asks,” Ivaniuchenko said. “But yeah, these are up there.”

It had gotten to the point that the main purpose of my aunt's Venetian blinds was to shield her from her dirty windows rather than prevent others from seeing in. But despite two decades worth of grime, we should all be so lucky to have windows like these.

The hardest windows to clean are in prewar buildings where the windows have not be replaced. They don't snap out and often have storm windows or screens that are stuck in and rusted to their frames. The longer they go without being moved, the harder they are to pull out. My two Nics recommended using WD-40, but they used screwdrivers and some delicate prying to shimmy the windows out.

Yashchuk also used this as a cautionary tale: If you’re not gentle, the windows can very well break.

Old windows are also the most expensive to clean. I spoke with a handful of NYC window cleaning companies, and here’s a general price range you should look for:

Standard double-hung windows (up to 6 feet that pop out): $12-$18/window

Multi-paned paned windows: $25-$30/window 

Storm window: $5-$10 dollars/panel

Bug screens: $2-$5/screen

Removing AC: $25-$75

Chemical wash: as much as double the cost of the window type

After cost, many people are deterred by the mystery of how they do it. Many old buildings have bolts on the exterior so the professionals can hook harnesses and clean from the outside. But don't panic if your building doesn't have these. Professionals know how to get at the most difficult-to-reach places.

 Grime from the window surface.
Grime from the window surface.
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DNAinfo/Steven Meyer

If you live in one of those modern all-glass buildings where you hardly even open the window, your building should already be paying for window washing about twice a year — complain about your smudgy views if they’re not.

If you’re in a co-op or condo, there may be rules about regular cleanings or cleaning fees that are already built into your maintenance. The majority of New Yorkers live in brick and limestone rentals that leave window cleaning up to the discretion of the renter.

Standard windows snap out and can actually be cleaned without the need of a professional. Follow guides online like this one or ask your super to help you out. Superintendents will clean your windows if you agree on a fee. This is often a cheaper solution than hiring professionals, but if you don’t know what you’re doing it could become a muddy mess. 

One DIY trick is to use a cheap paint brush and dust the dirt off onto a drop cloth before taking soap and water to it. This decreases the mud-bath scenario.

But the equipment window washers use may be worth the few extra dollars. Their familiarity with a variety of windows, squeegees, chemical solutions and shammies all ensure streak-less perfection. (They're also ridiculously good at keeping your apartment clean.)

If you’re determined to do it yourself, at least invest in a shammy, like the ones used to wax a car. The two Nics from Big Apple Window Cleaning use concentrated soap and water, and noted simple dish soap would do the trick.

One major obstacle when dealing with old windows and especially storm windows is oxidization. If you don't wash your windows, enough acid rain actually oxidizes the panes, leaving cloudy spots and streaks. This is also what happens when rain water drips from concrete or metal onto old glass.

Sometimes you can fix the problem on your own with 0000-grade steel wool. Professional services use a chemical wash that must be dried off so it doesn't burn the glass. It usually costs double the price, and there's no guarantee how long it will last.

After the professional cleaning, my aunt's windows were so clean a bird could have flown into it. She could finally read the awning across the street advertising "colon hydrotherapy." When the two Nics were packing up, we were jumping for joy. Through those big beautiful windows on that clear afternoon, Manhattan looked like the shiniest, most colorful place on Earth. We ran down to the street below and gazed up; we could see clouds and blue sky reflecting in the windows.

But with traffic tearing down every street and delivery trucks idling on every corner corner, and now this revelation about the effects of acid rain on the view, how long can you really expect clean windows to last?

The Nics said you see the difference after two months, but that "all windows after six months look about the same."

That's comforting for New Yorkers who have been wrestling with the embarrassment of dirty windows — you're no worse than the rest of us!