Inspecting Fabric Blinds & Shades

Inspecting Fabric Blinds and Shades


No self respecting blind cleaner wants to see a honeycomb shade morph into a pleated shade on their drying rack!  If you want to make money in this business, learning to do careful pre-inspections is one skill that must be mastered.  Then you will be in a position to best evaluate whether your cleaning methods, knowledge and equipment allow you to profitably offer them one of your services as a solution to their need.  Taking on a job that isn't a good fit to your skill set or capabilities, or when the results won't meet their expectations, is to simply invite problems.

   Without a carefully executed thorough pre-inspection, you are apt to miss things that will come back to haunt you later.  For instance, sun rotted shades may look just fine on the window - just don't try to really touch or handle them.  Better to establish the existance of a problem and its cause with the client before you clean a blind, than to try to explain things later, when they are apt to blame your cleaning for the now much more obvious problem.   The first critical step, therefore, in successfully cleaning any type of blind or drapery is a qualifying pre-inspection.  Whether done during an earlier appointment to quote the job, or prior to setting up to do the actual cleaning, a careful inspection of every piece to be cleaned should be executed before any work is performed on the product.

   One of the first things that should be assessed in your inspection is the age of the shade.  The effects of time and aging have multiple implications, as we will discuss later in this article.  Have you asked the resident how old it is?  Is it subject to direct sunlight all day long?  A shade in a sunnier climate, like Florida, will likely have a shorter effective life than one in northern Canada.  With age, some fabrics change color, plastics discolor or become brittle, and other changes occur that all impact your ability to safely handle and clean the blind.

   Next, check the composition of the blind.  Is it a room darkening shade?  Is it a spun woven fabric composed of sythetic fibers, or does it contain natural fibers?  Some polyesters and other materials darken or change color over time when exposed to the sun.  Other fabrics may become brittle (sun rot, etc.) and disintegrate or tear when touched - even lightly.  If the shade is a room darkening fabric with metalic layers, if water soluable glues hold the layers together, or if ultrasonic cleaning is under consideration, then one is just inviting disaster.  If cotton or natural fibers are present, there are implications that must be considered in the cleaning process.  Browning due to slow drying, or an imbalanced pH after cleaning, can be avoided if one is knowledgeable in the proper techniques for the various fabrics.  Using dry cleaning solvents with an injection-extraction method may be the best alternative for some fabrics - when laminated layers which are water sensitive, or which are damaged by ultrasonics exist. 

   How is the fabric held together?  While the type of glues used by the fabricator may not always be known, sometimes you'll find clues.  Check the glue lines for evidence of pending failure.  Put a bit of stress on them near the top of the shade, and see if there are any signs of cell separations.  Some older glues brown as they crystalize with age, others don't.  Many honeycomb fabrics used by Hunter Douglas and other fabricators have a natural indicator built into the shade, because of this phenomenon.  The glue lines in these fabrics are clearly seen as two clear stripes down the side of new honeycomb fabrics.  As the shade ages and the glues dry out and crysalize, or are damaged by UV, the glue line color shifts to yellow, then amber and finally brown.  The color may vary from shade to shade, and even zone to zone within the same shade, depending upon how they are used.  Don't forget the back of the shade, near the top or the center, may be far worse than the front due to more direct sun exposure.  Cleaning an old shade with dried brittle glue can be a risky proposition at best.  As the glue absorbs water, its crystals break and the weakened adhesive fails, creating a pleated shade to finish drying.  Don’t get caught with any liability for attempting to clean shades that should be replaced.

   Is there any damage to the fabric?  Are their any tears in it due not just to sun rot or deterioration, but from abrasion to the fabric?  Check the back of Silhouette shades for holes from window levers or handles.  Are there any snags or slashes from the cat, kids, or the cleaning lady’s vain attempt to stick a vacuum into a cell chasing dead bugs?

   How is the shade operating?  Don't assume that it works, or that it works smoothly.  Better to point out a problem needing repair before you clean it, than to be surprised when you go to adjust the shade during or after cleaning.  If the shade operates with flat tapes (Easy Rise, Easy Lift etc.) or internal strings, can you assess whether or not they are about to fail or in good shape?  If it is driven by a cordless motor, does it operate smoothly throughout the full range of it's movement, or is it loose at the top, or harder to pull when nearly open?  Are cord loops showing signs of fraying where they are fused together?  On corded blinds are there strings that are flat, spiraling, or with fuzzy edges?  Check them in both open and closed positions.  Top-down bottom-up shades are used differently in each home.  Are the edges of the cord lock showing evidence of wear, such as grooves or channels from the cords?  On older Easy Rise shades, the flat tapes can degrade into fuzzy strands that may still operate, if the outer tapes are still holding together.

   How about the surfaces of the top and bottom rails of the blind?  Is the paint dull or oxidized, scratched, or otherwise compromised?  Are plastic end caps cracked or missing?  What about cord plugs or other plastic parts that may be split, become brittle, or go missing over time?   

  If you find a cleaning sticker from another company, or signs of water on the paper manufacturer’s tags, be cautious.  Were they cleaned before?  How?

  Finally, assess the prospective customer's expectations?  Are you reasonably confident that the outcome will be satisfactory to them?  It isn't worth the risk to your business risk to do the job, if they aren't likely to be happy with the work that was performed.

  When you've finished your inspection, review anything you've found that may be of concern or should be brought to the attention of the customer.  Only after you have established the existing conditions and what the extent of your liability will be (if any) should problems arise, should an agreement for providing services be signed.  If you overlook existing problems, they very easily can become your problems in the customer's eyes, and the solution won't be cheap.  

Gold, Amber and Brown Aren't What You Want to See

   While golds, ambers and browns may be acceptable fall colors, they aren't what you want to see when inspecting blinds or shades for cleaning.  If you ignore the effects of UV and aging on plastics, it will be to your own peril.  Who wants to have shades falling apart as they hang on the drying rack or in the window?  How about broken clips that make it impossible to rehang the shades again, until they are replaced - if you have suitable replacements?

   As the typical window treatment is exposed to plenty of sunshine and hangs for a period of time, the plastic or vinyl parts that are present will age and become brittle.  Some of these materials will go from a clear to amber to brown as they get "sun burned" with age, and become very brittle.  The new vertical channel panel (groover), that may be bent into a loop and spring back flat when new, will explosively scatter shards all over the room - if you tried the same trick when the sides of the channels are brown.  Some clear or white plastic parts, in the header of faux wood blinds for instance, may not change color.  However, they will crumble under stress.  Hanging in the window they may appear just fine, but when taken down, handled and cleaned, will they still be fine or will pieces break on anchor tape drums or will bottom rail buttons pop off or crumble?    

   Over time, many plastic products loose some of their elasticity and flexibility as their molecular composition changes slightly from exposure to ultraviolet light, environmental factors and simple aging.  While it is easier to detect this change when the plastic leaves visible warnings, it may also be easily overlooked when it is invisible or more subtle.  Asking the client, "How old are your blinds?" is certainly a question that aught to be an ingrained part of your conversation in any pre-inspection before cleaning or repair quotes are discussed.  You won't always read or find a production label or date, so take their answer under advisement as "time flies" and the treatments are often a "few" years older than they may believe them to be.   

   Having been forwarned by their answer or the colors you see, you can then address any concerns about possible degredation of the plastics with the owner.  Pay particular attention to the sunny side of the vane, and the bottom edges as broken or cracked edges may be present - which they hadn't even noticed.  Sun burn spots or discolorations on slats can not be removed with cleaning.  While vertical channel panels that are light yellow may still be cleaned with careful handling, at some point you take a risk of damage as the color or their age increases.  Dark amber or brown discolorations are signs that recommending replacements may be a better choice than cleaning.  Don't forget when dealing with verticals that the vane clips also may be brittle and may break if you are flexing them, or removing and replacing vanes for cleaning.  

  Careful pre-inspection and taking the time to insure the client understands the aging process could become a factor with cleaning.  The water from the cleaning or the soaps don't cause the plastics to break, age, or stress, but their existing condition may.  Don’t assume liability for cleaning these amber oldies unless you like buying new channel panels or repairing parts in headers, instead of selling new blinds to the client.  Don’t allow their problem to become yours.

   Offering clients the option of replacing yellowed valance channels on mini blinds with new ones, or simply removing the panels makes sense in many cases.  Brittle valance clips are just a part of life for a professional blind cleaner.  Stocking an ample supply of the most common clips is advisable. Also, incorporate into your pricing the cost of these parts, or have the client pay for them as needed, if that works better for you.  Using velcro tabs or buttons are a practical alternative in some instances or in emergencies.

Honeycomb Shade Cleaning 101

 Honeycomb Shade Cleaning 101

 Pre-inspection is THE most important prerequisite to any successful shade cleaning.  Don’t be quick to quote a job when the shade's condition or mounting will present problems you can not solve.  Are the shades held in place by obsolete brittle plastic brackets, whose sun-rotted back will disintegrate when you touch it?  Is there mildew hiding on the back of a bathroom shade?   Did you check the glue lines by applying a little tension on them to check for separation (weakest area will be upper back)?  Old crystallized glue lines are brittle and often prone to failure when softened by water during cleaning.  Discuss any concerns with the owner and don’t accept liability for pre-existing conditions - including holes and tears from brackets, window cranks or the family cat.   While you can often work wonders, especially with a smoker’s shades, be sure customer expectations are in harmony with your ability to deliver.

  Room darkening shades with the metallic foil aren’t designed for ultrasonic cleaning.  If the shade is already delaminating or showing damage from a prior cleaner's actions, how will you handle it?  Injection extraction methods that allow low moisture or better yet dry cleaning is the best route - especially if you don't want to void the owner's warranty. 

  Finally, have you inspected the cords, tapes or mechanisms that raise and lower the shade?  It’s a good time to recommend fuzzy cords be replaced with new ones, or fraying Easy Rise tapes be replaced with new ones (as the ultrasonics or cleaners often damage them).  Cordless blinds can be ultrasonically cleaned.  However, it’s not recommended you get the headrails and motors inside them wet.  Injection extraction cleaning methods, whether water or solvent based, will handle any type of fabric shade - as long as the fabric and glue lines have sufficient integrity and the cleaning technician uses proper techniques.


   Open the shades 1-2 feet to allow enough movement between the pleats in the cleaning tank for the ultrasonics to work their magic.  Tip them to remove air pockets and rotate them a bit during the cleaning process.  Older shades shouldn’t be left in longer than a minute or so.  Colored shades shouldn’t be cleaned in wash solutions containing any strong cleaners, degreasers, or chemicals that may affect the dyes.  So, plan your order of cleaning if other blinds or shades are involved in the job.  Close the shades before removing them from the water and tip them, squeeze out excess wash water, and then slosh them in the rinse tank enough to allow all the residues from the wash tank to get out of them.  Close them and remove them from the rinse tank, squeeze out excess water and use a wet vacuum to suck out water (while they are closed), before hanging them on the drying rack. 

Clamps or clips should hold the shade firmly.  Be sure the clamps have rubber or sleeves to protect the headrails from scratches, or from shifting and tearing the fabric.  Heavier shades can be double hung by clamping both rails until they are light enough to hang straight, without stressing the upper part of the shade.  Fragile or large shades also can be dried on wire shelving racks, or similar, to allow support and air flow without stress to the glue lines.  The more air circulation the better.  Faster drying minimizes wicking of residual soils, allows any softened glues to harden faster, and yields better outcomes.  Glue line failures often show up after things are drying - so work to minimize any such unpleasant discovery through your cleaning procedures.

   This article is under construction.  Please see free to suggest content.  For those interested in hands on training be sure to check out the training class schedule for an upcoming class.

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