What the best pressure washer has

  • A power level that suits your needs. For intensive cleaning, consumer-grade gas pressure washers blast at pressure levels as high as 3,100 PSI, while commercial models can top 5,000 PSI -- but more power doesn't always mean better. Experts warn that getting a machine with a higher PSI rating than recommended for your job is not only overkill, but also makes it easier to damage paint finishes or outdoor products like lawn furniture when used improperly. Select a higher-PSI model only if you really need it.
  • Maintenance requirements you can handle. Gas pressure washers are powerful, but keep in mind that they require regular servicing and maintenance. Electric models may not be as powerful, but experts say they can handle most household jobs -- plus, they don't have the same maintenance needs.
  • An adjustable water spray. There are two ways to alter water pressure and scope: Use an adjustable spray nozzle or change the spray tip. Either method lets you adjust the spray from a hard-blasting jet to a broader fan-spray for better cleaning and protection from potential damage.
  • Easy setup and maneuvering. Moving a pressure washer is easier if there are large wheels and storage for the trigger, power cord and water hose. Also, large, sturdy wheels will keep the machine from tipping while you are spraying.
  • Pump protection. The best electric pressure washers stop the pump as soon as the trigger is released; and high-quality gas pressure washers use a thermal relief valve to circulate cool water through the pump when you aren't spraying. Both methods keep the pump from overheating, which is a leading cause of pump failure.
  • Appropriate warranty coverage. Pressure washers don't have very long life spans -- even the best models last only several years according to reviewers. Be sure to look for an electric pressure washer with a one-year warranty at a minimum; gas pressure washers should also provide at least one year coverage, with extended coverage for critical parts like the motor. The warranties for accessories, such as hoses and spray tips, are typically short -- figure about 90 days.

Know before you go

How will you use your power washer? The answer will determine how much power you'll want and how much money you'll need to spend. Contractors and professional painters will want to invest in a commercial pressure washer. These can top $2,000 or more and produce up to 5,000 PSI, though some slightly less powerful yet still very good models are available for less. For homeowners that use a power washer for big cleaning jobs or want to prepare a surface for painting, you may want to opt for a gas-powered model with a PSI of 3,100, which can run $400. A less-powerful gas model, or a quality electric power washer for moderate clean ups, such as washing a car, can be had for still less, $200 to $250. If you just want to wash down some outdoor furniture or play equipment, an electric, handheld model, at about $100, could be just the answer.

Do you need multiple spray tips? If your outdoor cleaning involves both light- and heavy-duty tasks, you may prefer a model with multiple spray tips so you can choose the right water pressure for each job. On the other hand, if you mostly have routine household cleaning, you may be happy with a model that has one adjustable-spray nozzle, maybe combined with an extra, turbo nozzle for times when you need more power.

Durability matters. If you're buying an electric power washer but you want one that will last, look for a model that has a triplex pump with stainless-steel or ceramic plungers, which experts say is superior and longer lasting than an axial cam or wobble pump. The best motors for electric pressure washers are induction motors, which are quieter, run cooler and last longer than universal motors.

How handy are you? The two pressure-washer parts that prove most troublesome to consumers are plastic water connections and water hoses. But these are easy to fix, especially for do-it-yourselfers. To prevent leaking, replace the water connection with a brass fitting or wrap the threads with plumber's tape. If you're not the kind who likes to fiddle with devices, know that upgraded water hoses -- like a steel-braided line -- are less likely to kink and easier to handle than plastic water hoses.

How much maintenance can you handle? Just like cars, gas pressure washers need maintenance, which includes checking the engine oil, changing the engine oil, and servicing the spark plug according to the manufacturer's prescribed schedule. If you're not up to this kind of maintenance routine, consider opting for an electric model.

What features do you want?  Many models have features designed for greater convenience, such as a detergent dispenser, onboard storage pockets, a hose reel and a design that makes for easy storage. But more features will raise the price, so make sure to pay for those you really want and will use.

How important is size and weight? If you're going to be carrying the pressure washer around, or you want to store it on a shelf, look for a lightweight, handheld model. If you need the power of a gas model, however, keep in mind that some machines have an upright design or a foldable handle, which can reduce the storage space they require.

How much time do you have? Experts say that for many household jobs, a less expensive, electric power washer will work as well as a more powerful gas one -- it will just take you longer to finish up. It's also true that even a commercial gas pressure washer may not be powerful enough to knock out mold and caked-on dirt without a little elbow grease thrown in.

What's to come

If you live in California, the assortment of gas-powered pressure washers available to you is smaller than that available to residents of other states. That's because gas-powered washers need to comply with air-quality standards set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to be sold in that state. Information about CARB compliance is posted on manufacturer and retail websites and at http://www.arb.ca.gov.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Pressure Washers | Best Gas Pressure Washers | Best Electric Pressure Washers | Our Sources

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