Over the ledge
Dangling over the sides of buildings is all in a day’s work for this Madison Window Cleaning professional.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Angel Ortiz, 41, operations manager for Madison Window Cleaning, prepares to lower himself over the side of the 15th floor at The Edgewater hotel. The morning’s heavy cloud cover has melted into a glorious afternoon as Ortiz carefully checks and rechecks all his gear, securing ropes and carabiners. He’s strapped into a five-point leather harness and loaded up with all his tools. Once he leaves that ledge, the only way back up is with an elevator.
High-rise window work is measured in “drops,” Ortiz explains. One drop equals one row of windows, from top to bottom, and a 15-story drop should take less than 45 minutes to complete. Around the property, other crewmembers will drop and re-drop until the work is completed. Weather permitting, the entire job should take about a week.
Angel Ortiz methodically checks and rechecks that all ropes and connections are secure as he prepares to climb over the Edgewater’s 15th-story ledge.
Ortiz carefully swings one leg and then the other onto the wall, taking his position on a simple, padded board called a bosun’s chair. He swings legs-free in the breeze, and rappels to the level below.
“Normally you can reach across two windows, so you line up your rope in the center of the windows and as you go down, you wash the right window with the right hand and the left window with the left hand,” he explains. Everything he needs is either clipped on or tied on for safety, including buckets of water. A large jug of pesticide also hangs from Ortiz’s airborne workstation. With warmer weather on the way, the application should keep bugs and spiders at bay.
Floor by floor, Ortiz cleans windows. As he approaches each level, he attaches a suction cup to the building to hold his position, grabs his strip washer (mop) and smears the cleaning solution onto the glass pane, careful to reach all corners. He works left, then right. A squeegee swipe wipes the glass clean, and rags catch extra fluid and prevent liquids from blowing onto other surfaces.
On to the next floor …
A drop and a bucket
Ortiz has worked for Madison Window Cleaning, a fourth-generation family owned business, since May 2010, but he’s been cleaning windows since age 19, making him somewhat of a dinosaur in the industry. “The average window cleaner lasts about three years,” he says. “So it’s pretty rare to see a guy like me who’s done this for over 20.”
High above The Edgewater’s patio on Lake Mendota, Angel Ortiz begins his first “drop” of the day.
He never aspired to hang from buildings, but his window-cleaning cousins in Chicago roped him in. He’s never forgotten his very first day—Feb. 6, 1995. “It was freezing cold outside and extremely scary,” Ortiz recounts. “I was hyperventilating.” Luckily, his cousins positioned him between them so he’d get the feel of hanging outside the side of a building. Several trips later, he was handed a bucket and a squeegee. Before long, he’d be cleaning windows on a 72-story skyscraper.
“In the 72-story building we were expected to do one drop a day, which took about five to six hours a day plus setup and takedown,” Ortiz recalls. Madison hardly compares, with the tallest of buildings just 15-stories high, but the risks of the job are consistent.
The higher the building the more physically demanding the job becomes, Ortiz explains. Ropes get longer, heavier, and more buckets and equipment are required. He revels in making once-filthy windows sparkle, and he loves working on a variety of buildings, like the Constellation or the Hovde Building on West Washington Avenue. “I enjoy being downtown and the skylines and the views,” he says. He especially appreciates the sense of freedom and fresh air the job provides. “When you’re up there you don’t have a boss breathing down your back. You’re there by yourself.” For safety reasons, headphones are not allowed.
Wind plays a huge factor, and often determines which side of a building is cleaned first. It can also cancel a job altogether. “The wind interrupts your water,” Ortiz says. “So you’re swinging your mop out of the bucket to put it on the glass and the wind blows water onto windows you’ve just completed.” Not good.
Ortiz’s legs and feet will keep him off the building as he descends, but wind still plays with his balance. “You get tired more quickly in wind,” he says. “You don’t realize that you’re fighting the wind when you’re hanging up there, but you sure notice it at the end of the day.”
What about bathroom breaks? “It depends on the urgency of the emergency,” Ortiz laughs. “The safest thing to do is rappel all the way down, go inside the building, and then drop from the top again, but most workers hold it because you can lose a lot of time.”
Madison Window Cleaning cleans windows in almost any kind of weather except rain and extreme cold (below 10 degrees). Ortiz regularly checks a weather app on his phone for updates and, if necessary, he’ll adjust the schedules around inclement systems. The company handles both commercial and residential cleaning, and much is done from the ground level.
In winter, workers wear neoprene gloves that help keep their hands warm, big boots, hats, and “lots of layers,” he notes, and a chemical can be added to water to prevent it from freezing.
Ortiz was born and raised in Chicago but spent most of his window-washing career in Miami, Fla., including four years with a company that had cleaning contracts with several cruise lines. In addition to cleaning stateroom windows for Carnival or Royal Caribbean, Ortiz and his team scaled and cleaned glass elevator shafts and dusted and polished hard-to-reach sculptures and light fixtures hanging high above ship floors.
Sitting in his bosun’s chair and suspended entirely by ropes, Ortiz cleans windows at The Edgewater hotel. All of the equipment he needs is either strapped on, clipped on, or tied on, including a five-gallon bucket of water.
Sometimes they were allowed to travel with the ships, other times they were flown from port to port to meet ships in dock. Ortiz saw much of the world that way — from the Caribbean to Alaska to Greece.
In 2008, after a tornado ripped through downtown Atlanta, the company he was working for at the time was asked to help out at the Westin Hotel, an all glass, cylindrical building that had lost 900 windows in the storm. The team was hired to knock shards of broken glass still clinging to the window frames inside the building to prevent the glass from raining down on the street below. “These were huge shards of glass!” Ortiz recalls. I did that for one day before deciding it was just too dangerous, so I went home. I didn’t want any part of it.”
Not long after, he moved back to the Windy City until it, too, lost its luster. “There was just too many people and too much traffic,” he says. “I was looking for a smaller city. My daughter was 13 and I wanted to bring her to a place with more of an educational spirit.” He discovered Madison almost by accident one day after visiting a brother working in Janesville.
Now, Ortiz frequently oversees hands-on demonstrations and training for Madison Window Cleaning employees in the company’s warehouse, where newer recruits can also practice rappelling from a height of about 15-feet to acclimate to equipment before venturing out on their own.
Weekly staff meetings also address safety issues, concerns, new tools, and hazards. Madison Window Cleaning requires employees interested in rappelling to obtain a certification from the International Window Cleaning Association, although the industry itself does not require the certification, Ortiz notes.
It may take a year or two before he determines that an employee is ready to begin rappelling. During that first year, employees clean windows on the ground level or up two to three stories using an extension pole. They might go up on a roof and learn to rig the ropes and prepare equipment. “It takes a lot of time to get comfortable,” Ortiz states.
These days, he’s also interviewing new candidates on a daily basis, hoping to hire four people over the next month. “Unfortunately, we’re not finding enough people for these jobs,” he laments. “It’s not an easy job and you have to keep yourself in decent shape,” he says, but talk about an office with a view!
And what about Ortiz’s windows at home? Are they kept clean and sparkling? “You know, they’re not,” he sighs. “It’s hard for me to pull out a squeegee when I get home.”
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