Funny thing about pressure washers: There always seems to be something else you can clean with them. Also called power washers or water blasters, they use a gasoline or electric motor to drive a pump that takes water from a garden hose and forces it through a wand and nozzle at extremely high pressure. Because that high pressure makes cleaning time- and water-efficient, such pressure washers -- until recently the province of the professionals -- are becoming the next must-have garage toy, right alongside the riding mower and power edger.
You still need a gas-powered washer for the big or tough jobs, such as cleaning the siding on your house, dislodging grease from garage floors, or stripping paint from a fence. (If you suspect the paint contains lead, consult a professional.) Their higher pressures, from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per square inch (PSI), can be focused down to a powerful stream for better scrubbing or fanned out to cover bigger surfaces. They cost $250 to $500.
But it's the light-duty electric pressure washers that have captured the homeowner's fancy. Pressures have increased, and prices have dropped: You can get small electric models that produce more than 1,000 PSI for as little as $80, and even the best ones, at 1,500 to 1,800 PSI, are less than $200. Typically, the pressure at the end of your garden hose is no more than 60 PSI.
To get a feel for the differences between electric and gas washers -- and for how easy they are to handle -- I tried two models: the 1,500-PSI electric PowerWasher HD1500 ($119) and the 3,000 PSI gas-powered Ryobi Premium Pressure Washer ($498), both from Home Depot. (HD
) Whoa! The first time out with the small one, I managed to strip a good deal of the decal pinstriping off my car. Lesson learned: Always start with the lowest water pressure possible. Gas washers come with a series of snap-on nozzles, so pick the one that produces the widest fan of water. With an electric model, there is one adjustable nozzle; twist it so that the nozzle is wide open. Another tip: The pressure becomes greater as you get closer and closer to your work, so start out with the nozzle tip at least a couple of feet away and move it only as near as you need to get the job done.MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU
The high pressures raise another issue, and that is safety. These water blasters are vastly more potent than the toy squirt guns of the same name. You need to keep them away from children, and wear shoes and safety glasses when you're using them. And the gasoline models are as noisy as power lawn mowers, so some kind of ear protection is a good idea, too.
In general, I found that the electric models are good at blasting away surface dirt -- from cars, lawn furniture, and first-floor windows, for example. They'll sweep dirt and leaves off driveways and decks faster than you can with a garden hose. One limitation: You have to have an electrical outlet handy. But because they don't spew out carbon monoxide in the way the gas-powered washers do, you also can use them indoors -- to clean soap scum and mildew from tile in a shower stall, say.
For bigger projects, you're going to need the power of a gasoline model. The wider swath means you can clean large surfaces such as a driveway or the side of a house -- or a boat or RV -- two or three times as fast as an electric washer can. Cleaning speed is related to the volume of water the pressure washer can push through, in gallons per minute. You can think of the PSI, or pressure, as cleaning power and the GPM as rinsing power.
There's also enough oomph in them to push the water up roof overhangs and second-story windows. Or you can dial down the spray for the higher pressure you'll need to break the bond between the surface and any built-up grime or mildew.
The higher pressures of gasoline models require a little more skill to use. You can easily raise wood fibers or put grooves in soft cedar or redwood decks -- or punch holes through your wooden siding. And they require a lot more maintenance, such as oil changes and tune-ups. In cold climates, you'll have to winterize them with antifreeze to protect the pump. If you're considering buying a gasoline pressure washer, you should try renting one first. That costs from $50 to $90 a day, depending on how powerful it is.
If you're shopping for one, here are some features to look for. If the washer is heavy enough to need wheels, big wheels move across muddy lawns and stone driveways better than small ones. Quick-connect fittings will make it easier to hook them up to a garden hose. If you're going to use them to dispense detergents or chemicals, some pressure washers have built-in soap tanks.
Think about where you'll keep your gear: Both of the washers I used were designed for easy storage. The PowerWasher came with a wall-mounted docking station with a reel for the hose, and the Ryobi model was designed so the handle twisted and collapsed and the whole unit could be shoved under a shelf or workbench.
Not that they'll stay there for long. I quickly discovered that once you have a pressure washer, you're always on the lookout for something else to clean. By Larry Armstrong