Government services include …

Government servicesGuidelines on Historic Building Restoration and Government Pressure Washing

(Note: This is an excerpt from

Most government pressure washing projects include cleaning Masonry buildings.  Masonry cleaning methods generally are divided into three major groups: water, chemical, and abrasive. Water methods soften the dirt or soiling material and rinse the deposits from the masonry surface. Chemical cleaners react with dirt, soiling material or paint to effect their removal, after which the cleaning effluent is rinsed off the masonry surface with water. Abrasive methods include blasting with grit, and the use of grinders and sanding discs, all of which mechanically remove the dirt, soiling material or paint (and, usually, some of the masonry surface). Abrasive cleaning is also often followed by a water rinse. Laser cleaning, although not discussed here in detail, is another technique that is used sometimes by conservators to clean small areas of historic masonry. It can be quite effective for cleaning limited areas, but it is expensive and generally not practical for most historic masonry cleaning projects. Although it may seem contrary to common sense, masonry cleaning projects should be carried out starting at the bottom and proceeding to the top of the building always keeping all surfaces wet below the area being cleaned. The rationale for this approach is based on the principle that dirty water or cleaning effluent dripping from cleaning in progress above will leave streaks on a dirty surface but will not streak a clean surface as long as it is kept wet and rinsed frequently.

Water Cleaning

Water cleaning methods are generally the gentlest means possible, and they can be used safely to remove dirt from all types of historic masonry.* There are essentially four kinds of water-based methods: soaking; pressure water washing; water washing supplemented with non-ionic detergent; and steam, or hot-pressurized water cleaning. Once water cleaning has been completed, it is often necessary to follow up with a water rinse to wash off the loosened soiling material from the masonry.*Water cleaning methods may not be appropriate to use on some badly deteriorated masonry because water may exacerbate the deterioration, or on gypsum or alabaster, which are very soluble in water.


Prolonged spraying or misting with water is particularly effective for cleaning limestone and marble. It is also a good method for removing heavy accumulations of soot, sulfate crusts or gypsum crusts that tend to form in protected areas of a building not regularly washed by rain. Water is distributed to lengths of punctured hose or pipe with non-ferrous fittings hung from moveable scaffolding or a swing stage that continuously mists the surface of the masonry with a very fine spray. A timed on-off spray is another approach to using this cleaning technique. After one area has been cleaned, the apparatus is moved on to another. Soaking is often used in combination with water washing and is also followed by a final water rinse. Soaking is a very slow method—it may take several days or a week—but it is a very gentle method to use on historic masonry.

Water Washing

Washing with low-pressure or medium-pressure water is probably one of the most commonly used methods for removing dirt or another pollutant soiling from historic masonry buildings. Starting with very low pressure (100 psi or below), even using a garden hose, and progressing as needed to a slightly higher pressure—generally no higher than 300-400 psi—is always the recommended way to begin. Scrubbing with a natural bristle or synthetic bristle brushes—never metal which can abrade the surface and leave metal particles that can stain the masonry—can help in cleaning areas of the masonry that are especially dirty.

Water Washing with Detergents

Non-ionic detergents—which are not the same as soaps—are synthetic organic compounds that are especially effective in removing oily soil. (Examples of some of the numerous proprietary non-ionic detergents include Igepal by GAF, Tergitol by Union Carbide and Triton by Rohm & Haas.) Thus, the addition of a non-ionic detergent, or surfactant, to a low- or medium-pressure water wash can be a useful aid in the cleaning process. (A non-ionic detergent, unlike most household detergents, does not leave a solid, visible residue on the masonry.) Adding a non-ionic detergent and scrubbing with a natural bristle or synthetic bristle brush can facilitate cleaning textured or intricately carved masonry. This should be followed by a final water rinse.

Steam/Hot-Pressurized Water Cleaning

Steam cleaning is actually low-pressure hot water washing because the steam condenses almost immediately upon leaving the hose. This is a gentle and effective method for cleaning the stone and particularly for acid-sensitive stones. Steam can be especially useful in removing built-up soiling deposits and dried-up plant materials, such as ivy disks and tendrils. It can also be an efficient means of cleaning carved stone details and, because it does not generate a lot of liquid water, it can sometimes be appropriate to use for cleaning interior masonry.

Chemical Cleaning

Chemical cleaners, generally in the form of proprietary products, are another material frequently used to clean historic masonry. They can remove dirt, as well as paint and other coatings, metallic and plant stains, and graffiti. Chemical cleaners used to remove dirt and soiling include acids, alkalies, and organic compounds. Acidic cleaners, of course, should not be used on masonry that is acid sensitive. Paint removers are alkaline, based on organic solvents or other chemicals.

Chemical Cleaners to Remove Dirt

Both alkaline and acidic cleaning treatments include the use of water. Both cleaners are also likely to contain surfactants (wetting agents), that facilitate the chemical reaction that removes the dirt. Generally, the masonry is wet first for both types of cleaners, then the chemical cleaner is sprayed on at very low pressure or brushed onto the surface. The cleaner is left to dwell on the masonry for an amount of time recommended by the product manufacturer or, preferably, determined by testing, and rinsed off with a low- or moderate-pressure cold, or sometimes hot, water wash. More than one application of the cleaner may be necessary, and it is always a good practice to test the product manufacturerís recommendations concerning dilution rates and dwell times. Because each cleaning situation is unique, dilution rates and dwell times can vary considerably. The masonry surface may be scrubbed lightly with natural or synthetic bristle brushes prior to rinsing. After rinsing, pH strips should be applied to the surface to ensure that the masonry has been neutralized completely.

Acidic Cleaners

Acid-based cleaning products may be used on non-acid sensitive masonry, which generally includes: granite, most sandstones, slate, unglazed brick, and unglazed architectural terra cotta, cast stone, and concrete. Most commercial acidic cleaners are composed primarily of hydrofluoric acid, and often include some phosphoric acid to prevent rust-like stains from developing on the masonry after the cleaning. Acid cleaners are applied to the pre-wet masonry which should be kept wet while the acid is allowed to “work”, and then removed with a water wash.

Alkaline Cleaners

Alkaline cleaners should be used on acid-sensitive masonry, including limestone, polished and unpolished marble, calcareous sandstone, glazed brick, and glazed architectural terra-cotta, and polished granite. (Alkaline cleaners may also be used sometimes on masonry materials that are not acid sensitive–after testing, of course–but they may not be as effective as they are on acid-sensitive masonry.) Alkaline cleaning products consist primarily of two ingredients: a non-ionic detergent or surfactant; and an alkali, such as potassium hydroxide or ammonium hydroxide. Like acidic cleaners, alkaline products are usually applied to pre-wet masonry, allowed to dwell, and then rinsed off with water. (Longer dwell times may be necessary with alkaline cleaners than with acidic cleaners.) Two additional steps are required to remove alkaline cleaners after the initial rinse. First, the masonry is given a slightly acidic wash–often with acetic acid–to neutralize it, and then it is rinsed again with water.

Abrasive and Mechanical Cleaning

 Generally, abrasive cleaning methods are not appropriate for use on any government pressure washing jobs, especially historic masonry buildings. Abrasive cleaning methods are just that—abrasive. Grit blasters, grinders, and sanding discs all operate by abrading the dirt or paint off the surface of the masonry, rather than reacting with the dirt and the masonry which is how water and chemical methods work. Since the abrasives do not differentiate between the dirt and the masonry, they can also remove the outer surface of the masonry at the same time, and result in permanently damaging the masonry. Brick, architectural terra cotta, soft stone, detailed carvings, and polished surfaces, are especially susceptible to physical and aesthetic damage by abrasive methods. Brick and architectural terra cotta are fired products which have a smooth, glazed surface which can be removed by abrasive blasting or grinding. Abrasively-cleaned masonry is damaged aesthetically as well as physically, and it has a rough surface that tends to hold dirt and the roughness will make future cleaning more difficult. Abrasive cleaning processes can also increase the likelihood of subsurface cracking of the masonry. Abrasion of carved details causes rounding of sharp corners and other loss of delicate features, while abrasion of polished surfaces removes the polished finish of the stone. Mortar joints, especially those with lime mortar, also can be eroded by abrasive or mechanical cleaning. In some cases, the damage may be visual, such as loss of joint detail or increased joint shadows. As mortar joints constitute a significant portion of the masonry surface (up to 20 percent in a brick wall), this can result in the loss of a considerable amount of the historic fabric. Erosion of the mortar joints may also permit increased water penetration, which will likely necessitate repointing.

Sandblasting has permanently damaged this brick wall. Photo: NPS files



Abrasive Blasting

Blasting with abrasive grit or another abrasive material was the most frequently used method for government pressure washing in the past.  Sandblasting is most commonly associated with abrasive cleaning. Finely ground silica or glass powder, glass beads, ground garnet, powdered walnut and other ground nutshells, grain hulls, aluminum oxide, plastic particles and even tiny pieces of sponge, are just a few of the other materials that have also been used for abrasive cleaning. Although abrasive blasting is not an appropriate method for most government pressure washing jobs, it can be safely used to clean some materials. Finely-powdered walnut shells are commonly used for cleaning monumental bronze sculpture, and skilled conservators clean delicate museum objects and finely detailed, carved stone features with very small, micro-abrasive units using aluminum oxide. A number of current approaches to abrasive blasting rely on materials that are not usually thought of as abrasive, and not as commonly associated with traditional abrasive grit cleaning. Some patented abrasive cleaning processes—one dry, one wet—use finely-ground glass powder intended to “erase” or remove dirt and surface soiling only, but not paint or stains.

Cleaning with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is another patented process. Baking soda blasting is being used in some communities as a means of quick graffiti removal. However, it should not be used on historic masonry which it can easily abrade and can permanently “etch” the graffiti into the stone; it can also leave potentially damaging salts in the stone which cannot be removed.

Most of these abrasive grits may be used either dry or wet, although dry grit tends to be used more frequently. Ice particles, or pelletized dry ice (carbon dioxide or CO2), are another medium used as an abrasive cleaner. This is also too abrasive to be used on most historic masonry, but it may have practical application for removing mastics or asphaltic coatings from some substrates. Some of these processes are promoted as being more environmentally safe and not damaging to historic masonry buildings. However, it must be remembered that they are abrasive and that they “clean” by removing a small portion of the masonry surface, even though it may be only a minuscule portion. The fact that they are essentially abrasive treatments must always be taken into consideration when planning a masonry cleaning project.

In general, abrasive methods should not be used to clean historic masonry buildings. In some, very limited instances, highly-controlled, gentle abrasive cleaning may be appropriate on selected, hard-to-clean areas of a historic masonry building if carried out under the watchful supervision of a professional conservator. But, abrasive cleaning should never be used on an entire building.