Under Pressure

Pressure washers deliver outstanding value for specific jobs.

By Steve Maxwell

Pressure washers are great, but probably not in the way you’d imagine. I know because I’ve spent the last 10 years conducting long-term tests on more than a dozen different machines as they’ve emerged on the market. I’ve seen how pressure washer technology has advanced substantially, while prices have fallen more than anyone could have imagined.

I’ve also been surprised by something else. The reasons pressure washers first caught my eye aren’t the reasons I now use them regularly. These tools are terrific, but only if you have realistic expectations about what they can do for you.

All pressure washers operate in the same way. They use an outside energy source (either electricity or gasoline) to boost the force of flowing water at the end of a rigid spray wand. While a regular garden hose delivers water at 30 to 60 pounds per square inch (psi), even the smallest electric pressure washers boost that to more than 1,200 psi. The new breed of affordable, commercial-duty, gas-powered models are now approaching a whopping 4,000-psi at the spray tip. When water flows with this kind of force, it offers a whole new range of possibilities.

Every pressure washer advertisement I’ve seen looks like it was produced by the same ad agency: it has a neatly dressed homeowner washing his car, boat or lawn chairs with a big smile on his face. When I first began using pressure washers, I looked like that, too. But fast-forward 10 years and I hardly ever use a pressure washer for these jobs any more. Truth be told, my vehicles turn out cleaner using a brush on the end of a garden hose. A pressure washer sends my lawn chairs somersaulting across the back yard from the force of the spray. And I’d rather be fishing in a dirty boat than washing a clean one on a trailer in my driveway.

As the novelty of pressure washer ownership wore off, I was left with three enduring uses for the technology: as a prep tool for getting outdoor wood surfaces ready to finish; for spring-cleaning of intricate, exterior building surfaces; and for cleaning dirt-caked machines and recreational equipment. Sure, people are different, but I suspect that most pressure washer users settle on similar tasks for their machines.

If you’re thinking that a pressure washer really does make sense in your situation, your first challenge is assessing the head-spinning variety that’s available. To make this task simpler, start by lumping all models into three main categories: light-duty electric versions delivering up to 1,400 psi; medium-duty gas-powered sprayers up to 2,400 psi; and heavy-duty models approaching 4,000 psi at the spray tip. As you’d expect, the more you spend, the more machine you get, though there’s something else you need to know when it comes to pressure washers.

The companies who market these machines aren’t involved in manufacturing as much as they are in component assembly. That’s because pumps, wands and motors – the three features common to all pressure washers – are typically made by just a few specialty manufacturers operating invisibly in the background. That’s why so many different brands of pressure washers have similar looking wands, for instance. There’s also no discernable difference in the quality of water pressure output within a given class of washers. Pumps are made by a few international companies who supply manufacturers around the world. What you really need to consider as you choose a pressure washer is overall design, engine type and spray wand design.

If you have a small deck or house to keep clean once or twice a season, an inexpensive electric model will do the job. If you need to prep outdoor wood surfaces for refinishing, consider at least a medium-duty gas model delivering more than 2,000 psi of output. Big buildings, dirty construction equipment or large outdoor surfaces to refinish make a commercial-duty model delivering 3,500 to 4,000 psi practical. The cost of these big models has dropped to the same level as 1,800 psi units were selling for 10 years ago. Just remember that many pressure washers need to be stored so remnant water in the pump doesn’t freeze during winter. Even if you can afford a big model, count the cost of lugging it into and out of a heated space twice a year.

Pressure washers have never offered greater value for the dollar. For people that can really make use of the machines, the benefits can’t be beat.