Several years ago, my first attempt to clean the dirty windows outside my Arizona home became an exercise in futility. They wouldn’t come clean. It was just after monsoon season in Phoenix. That’s the three-month stretch during late summer when the Sonoran Desert whips up an aerial concoction of wind, rain and dust.

The monsoon storms and haboobs leave behind a thin, dusty and oily film. Without the right cleaning method, this unwelcome residue clings to glass surfaces. It’s extremely difficult to remove with typical under-the-sink solvents.

You might be experiencing the same frustration. Don’t despair. In a few minutes, you will be on your way to sparkling-clean windows in your home.

Out, damned spot!

At first, I mistakenly used successive applications of Windex, foaming glass cleaner, and even a home-made vinegar solution. None of the traditional or consumer-label cleaners worked. As I scrubbed, the brown desert dust on the outside of the windows only smeared and streaked across the glass. It was binding to the surface. No extra amount of consumer-label glass cleaner would give me a streak-free shine. I even began to think that my window glass might be defective.

There is precious little information on the web specifically about washing residential windows in desert environments like Phoenix. The dust on windows here in the Valley acts unlike residue I have cleaned off windows anywhere else. Perhaps the clay content of our soil changes the electrostatic properties of the dust and renders conventional glass cleaners worthless. I would be thrilled to hear from a chemist on that supposition.

Over the years, through trial-and-error, I developed a system that now works quickly and reliably. Spotless windows and sliding glass doors every time.

My $32 tool kit

Here is a photo of my window washing tool arsenal. My ultra top secret window-cleaning weapon is in the blue bottle on the lower left. Dish soap. It’s the least expensive part of my kit. You can save the pricey glass cleaning products for your car and the interior of your home.

Everything you need can be purchased at a hardware or big-box store like Home Depot.

My grime-busting window washing kit contains:

  • 5-gallon bucket with handle
  • dish soap
  • 10″ Unger blue scrubber brush with washable microfiber sleeve
  • 18″-inch wide Unger rubber squeegee
  • Scotch-Brite heavy-duty kitchen scrub sponge
  • flat screwdriver (to pop out window screens)
  • 3 clean old rags
  • a few razor blades

One of the benefits to having a narrow 10″ scrubbing brush is that it fits squarely inside the soap bucket. It’s small enough that I don’t have to tilt it in sideways. One vigorous dunk in the suds and I am ready for the window.

Conversely, use a wide squeegee. Mine is 18-inches. A sizable squeegee gets the job done faster than smaller ones with much less elbow grease. In the photo below, you’ll notice a small 8-inch squeegee on this Unger scrubbing brush, but I always opt for the larger squeegee unless I am cleaning tiny windows.

For tough spots like bird droppings, I will use the abrasive side of a Scotch-Brite kitchen scrub sponge. The razor blade is my go-to tool for tree sap and insect goo.

Step by step

Start out with a clean 5-gallon bucket. If you will be washing several windows, you’ll need lots of water. This type of container with a handle is easy to haul around the yard.

Whenever possible, use softened water on glass surfaces, not the garden hose. (I’ll use the hose later to rinse off the window screens).

In Phoenix, our municipal water has high amounts of dissolved minerals. That will add spots to your windows instead of leaving the desired streak-free look. If you don’t have softened water in your home, you can purchase a few gallons of purified water at the grocery.

I mix in about 2 tablespoons of dish soap for every 3 gallons of water. That’s enough volume for the 5-gallon bucket. When it comes to the dish soap, less is more. Bubbles are good, but a bucket with overflowing suds will work against you. The soapy solution should have just enough dish soap that it feels slippery.

Once outdoors, remove the window screens first. I set them aside against a wall in a shaded area of the yard to wash last. More on cleaning the dust off of the window screens in a bit.

Next, take a damp rag and wipe down the dusty window sills and dirty corners. Get rid of the cobwebs. If the dirty sills get wet a few minutes from now, a “mud cake” will coat your scrubbing brush and make the task more challenging.

Keep the rags handy. I use one rag for dirty window sills and edges, one to keep the squeegee blade dry and one to wipe the residual water spots off of the windows.

With a wet and soapy scrubbing brush start high with vertical sweeps. One window at a time. Attempting to cover too large of a surface or washing several windows at a time means that the water will begin to dry behind you before you can get the squeegee on it. Small bites.

After the window is soaped up (and before things begin to dry), grab your squeegee and a clean rag.

Draw the squeegee horizontally across the top of the window first. Use a slight angle, perpendicular to the floor. Then vertical motions with a slight downward angle to the rubber blade to direct the water to the side of the window that is still wet. On each sweep, continue to angle the squeegee to sweep water to the side.

Window washing tips for best results:

  • Wash the windows when they are not in the direct sun. Sunbaked glass will dry the soap solution on the window surface faster than you can get a squeegee on it. I wash my windows on rotation when they are in the shade.
  • Remember that softened water in your bucket of soapy solution works best
  • Wipe the excess water from the squeegee blade after each pass
  • Don’t rush the squeegee or you will sling dirty water on to the windows that you just cleaned.
  • Spend $19 on a premium 18-inch-wide squeegee. Don’t chintz on this tool. The short squeegees require much more labor and seem to be made with low-quality rubber blades.
  • If you need to use a razor blade to remove hardened residue, make sure that the window surface is wet first. Otherwise, you may scratch the glass.
  • Use vertical strokes on the exterior and horizontal strokes on the interior. If you have water spots or streaking at the end, you will be able to locate them quickly.

Window screens and sunscreens

Your windows are only half-clean if the screens and solar screens are still caked with dust. When I clean my window screens, I use the microfiber window scrubber with liberal amounts of sudsy water. The key here is a gentle touch. Too much pressure and you could stretch the screen in the frame. Work on both sides of the screen to fill all the little holes with soap. Before it dries, blast the loosened dirt with the garden hose. Softened water is not as critical on the screens, so the hose is a great tool here.

Now you’re finished. You’ve sent the spiders packing and your windows look great. However, don’t rest on your laurels. Keeping up with the task means doing this 2 or 3 times annually.

Second story windows

Don’t take a risk on a ladder if you are uncomfortable with heights. There are window cleaning on telescoping poles available for purchase. Prefer to hire it done? There are plenty of affordable Phoenix window cleaning companies to help you accomplish the task if you would prefer to stay flat-footed.


I did some research once on the way people in the past imagined the year 2000. They tended to picture the things they already had getting more sophisticated – flying cars, self-cleaning windows. – Gail Collins, American journalist and op-ed columnist for The New York Times