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Choosing and Using a Pressure Washer

These handy tools are a great way to handle heavy-duty cleaning jobs around the house. Here is what you need to know to choose the right pressure washer (also called a power cleaner or power washer), use it safely and maintain it.
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Less-expensive pressure washer models will come with one, adjustable tip, Pierce says. Higher-end ones will have a set of all four tips.

What You Can Clean
Pressure washers can dispatch a lot of grunge and grime, Wilson says. They’re wonderful for cleaning concrete and stone walkways and driveways, pavers, garage floors, siding, brick, masonry, wood decks, pool decks, cars, trucks, boats and patio furniture.

Wilson says he doesn’t recommend them for washing mold and moss off an asphalt shingle roof because of the risk of ripping the grit off the shingles. Since they put out a tremendous amount of water, they’re generally not intended for indoor use at home unless it’s a basement floor with a drain. And they’re never appropriate for cleaning anything that’s alive or growing, no matter how muddy your dog or your soccer player is.

The Right Size Washer for the Job
The biggest, baddest pressure washer isn’t necessarily the best one for the jobs you need to do. A unit that’s too powerful can do more damage than good. The

Transformation: Here’s the end result after the floor was cleaned with a pressure washer and coated with Thompson’s Water Seal Garage Floor Epoxy Coating. Photo courtesy of Thompson’s Water Seal.
Transformation: Here’s the end result after the floor was cleaned with a pressure washer and coated with Thompson’s Water Seal Garage Floor Epoxy Coating. Photo courtesy of Thompson’s Water Seal.
general rule of thumb is to use the lowest pressure and the largest tip size that will get the job done to reduce the risk of damaging the surface that’s being cleaned.

For example, Thompson’s Water Seal’s certified contractor manual recommends using a PSI of 1,500 to 2,500 for cleaning decks made of hardwoods, such as pine. For softwoods, such as cedar, it recommends a PSI of 1,200 to 1,500 because they’re more easily damaged.

A unit that produces 1,000 to 2,000 PSI and generates two to three gallons of water per minute (GPM) is ideal for cleaning cars, light trucks, boats, gutters, windows, decks, patio furniture and brick, Sucato says. For major jobs, such as stripping paint from a house or removing heavy grease stains, he recommends a unit with 3,000 to 5,000 PSI and four to five gallons per minute. Unless you plan on using the washer enough to justify the expense, that’s probably a unit you would want to rent for the occasion.

Detergents
Power washers work great in conjunction with cleaners; many have a built-in cups to dispense them, Pierce says. If you’re going to run a cleaner through the pressure washer, he recommends sticking with products specifically manufactured for that use. Household dish soaps and cleansers can damage the pump. And never run bleach through the pressure washer, Sucato says, as it will eat up the seals.

Safety Tips

Pressure washers are powerful tools. If they’re used incorrectly, serious injury can result.
Here are six important rules for using a pressure washer safely.

Dress appropriately. Pressure-washing can generate a lot of flying debris. The pros recommend wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, closed-toe and slip-resistant shoes, gloves, a hat and safety goggles. You’ll be soggy but safe.

Stay on the ground. When the trigger is pulled on the sprayer wand, it produces a recoil akin to shooting a gun. It can easily knock you off a ladder.

Use two hands. The sprayer wand will be easier to control with two hands—one on the trigger and one on the barrel of the wand.

Check the connections. The hose and tip attach with connectors. Make sure they’re secure and locked. Otherwise, when the trigger is pulled, the hose can pop loose and the tip can shoot off like a bullet.

Don’t point. Remember, the pressure is strong enough to scrape paint off a house. You don’t want to think about what it could do to skin. Never point a pressure washer at yourself or anyone else. Don’t use it to wash your hands or feet.

Ventilation matters. Never use a gas-powered pressure washer in an enclosed space because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.


Pre-Wash Checklist
Make sure the water supply is hooked up before you turn on a pressure washer. “You’ll fry out your pump if you don’t,” Pierce says. Check the tips to make sure they’re not clogged, and secure the connections. Test the pressure on the lawn— “the grass can grow back,” Pierce says—to get a feel for the force. It’s better to test there than put a dent in your car or obliterate the top layer of wood on your decking. Pull back a bit on the sprayer wand if the force is too strong; move in closer for additional force. For recommendations on nozzle distance for cleaning patio furniture to concrete, check out EveryPressureWasher.com’s project guide.

If you are using chemicals to clean your siding and there’s a chance of them getting on the shrubs, spray them down first with a garden hose, Sucato says. Water them again after the job is finished to wash off any remaining chemicals.

Also, keep in mind that pressure washers use a lot of water. If your house has a well, it might have trouble keeping up with the amount of water the washer pulls, Sucato says. “People can pump water into a 55-gallon tank and use that as a backup,” he says.

And if you live in a part of the country that has restrictions on outdoor watering, check with your municipality before starting your project. There’s nothing like a hefty fine to spoil the satisfaction of a squeaky clean driveway.

Maintenance
Maintenance on a gas-powered pressure washer is “very similar to a lawn mower,” Sucato says. Service it once a year; change the oil and check the filters. Electric pressure washers are virtually maintenance-free. The one thing you need to do with both kinds of units is make sure it’s completely drained after each use, he says, especially if you get freezing temperatures during the winter—otherwise, the water will freeze, expand and damage the unit.

Check the pump seals periodically, but they probably won’t need changing more than once every five to 10 years. Also, there are washers in the hose and tip connections that will sometimes pop out. It’s a good idea to keep a couple of extras on hand. Store them out of the weather.

For an easy-to-follow video and step-by-step written instructions, check out Renovate Your World's "How To Pressure Wash."

Text by Pat Curry
© 2008 Renovate Your World

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