If you’d like to have a tool around your house that will do everything from gently cleaning off an awning to blasting off loose paint from siding and decks, look no further than a pressure washer.
Pressure washers can help you with a wide variety of tasks year after year, and they’re probably more affordable than you thought — and they even do windows.
A pressure washer is about 25 to 100 percent or more powerful than a garden hose alone, but is easy to use and, with the proper common-sense precautions, also safe.
An electric motor or gasoline-powered engine is used to run a small, high-efficiency pump. A garden hose is attached to one side of the pump to supply the water from any exterior faucet, and a high-pressure hose, wand, and spray nozzle are attached to the other side of the pump to do the washing.
Shopping for one
As you might expect, what you’ve paying for with a pressure washer is the quality and power of the pump and the engine. Gas engines are rated in horsepower, from as little as around two to over six or seven, and almost all of them have a simple recoil pull-rope starter. Electric units, while easier to use and maintain, have less power and are more limited in their uses.
More important than the horsepower of the engine, however, is how powerful the pump is. Pumps are rated in two ways: PSI (pounds per square inch, a rating of pressure), and GPM (gallons per minute, a rating of water flow). Both are important considerations, and the higher each number is, the more powerful the pressure washer is.
Lighter-duty electric units will be in the 1,500-to1,800-PSI range at about 1.5 GPM, and smaller gas units will typically be in the 2,100-to-2,300-PSI range, and will move around 2.0 to 2.2 GPM of water. These are best suited for washing cars, patio furniture, smaller decks and patios, barbecue equipment and similar tasks. In this range, expect to pay under $150 for an electric washer, and between $250 and $300 for a gas one.
Larger units will be in the 2,500-to,3,500-PSI range at about 2.5 GPM and up, and you can expect to pay $400 and up. They'll do everything the smaller units will do, as well as cleaning siding, removing paint, and more.
You can continue to go up in both PSI and GPM, depending on what work you need to do — heavy-duty cleaning or paint removal, for example — and prices can start getting up toward the $1,000 mark.
The engine and pump are mounted on a metal frame and obviously represent quite a bit of weight, so another consideration is portability. Some of the lighter-duty models utilize a frame with a handle but no wheels, an inconvenience if you plan to move it around very much. Better units have wheels — the bigger the unit, the bigger and more rugged the wheels — along with folding handles, on-board storage for nozzles, and quick-connect hose fittings.
Most pressure washers come standard with 15 to 25 feet of hose and three or four interchangeable nozzles. Most units also have a small tube attachment called a soap pickup, which can be placed into a bucket of soap, degreaser, or any of a variety of other chemicals. With the soap pickup in place, when the trigger is pulled on the wand the pressure of the water will siphon the soap or chemical into the water stream and spray it out of the nozzle as well.
Operation of a pressure washer is simple. Electric washers have a long cord with a GFI (ground-fault interrupter) plug that plugs into 110-volt outlet. Just plug it in and turn it on to use it. Gas washers are 4-cycle, with separate gas and oil. Make sure the takes are filled, then start the engine.
With either type of washer, it's then just a matter of attaching the hoses and pulling the trigger on the wand. The only adjustment is done through a pressure-regulating knob on the pump, which allows you to regulate the force of the water pressure.
At the end of the wand is a nozzle, which is a brass fitting with a tiny hole in the end to accelerate and direct the stream of water. Switching nozzles will allow you select the overall spray pattern of the water, from a wider, lower-pressure stream for cleaning to a very narrow, high intensity spray for paint removal or spot degreasing.
Beyond that, operation requires a little bit of practice to get a feel for how close you need to be to the surface being washed, and how fast or slow to move the wand. For general washing, for example, you would typically utilize a wide-pattern tip which allows you to clean a wide area quickly without risk of damage to paint.
Narrower tips will focus the water in a smaller area at greater pressure. Be careful, however, as too hard and narrow a stream can do a lot of damage to your siding in a real hurry — so start with the widest, lowest-pressure nozzle and work up from there. In addition, always follow all manufacturer’s recommendations for safe operation.
Pressure washers are available from most home centers, paint stores, larger discount outlets and specialized dealers. For infrequent use, they can also be rented at just about any rental yard.
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