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Buying Guide: Pressure Washers

By: Carl Laron on February 23, 2018

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 -- and see our note about gas requirements below. 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 pressure washer to deliver anything from a fan-like spray that is easy on painted surfaces to a high-pressure, high-water-volume blast for scouring mold and grime.
  • 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 with outputs that can reach 5,000 PSI. However, be prepared to dip more deeply into your wallet as these start at over $1,000 and go up from there as power and build quality increase. 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, $150 to $200. If you just want to wash down some outdoor furniture or play equipment, an electric, handheld model, at about $100 or less, 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.

However, be careful if you opt to use the zero degree tips or spray nozzles that are standard with most pressure washers. Those concentrate all of the power of a machine into a pinpoint -- great for removing stubborn stains, etc. -- but also capable of causing serious injury if a body part gets in their path. Some experts refuse to recommend any pressure washer that includes that feature -- see the introduction for more information.

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.

Watch your gas. Gas-ethanol fuel blends are sold across the country. While that fuel is fine (or at least acceptable) for heavy automotive engines, it can play havoc with small gas engines used in outdoor equipment such as pressure washers. In general, with care, 10 percent Ethanol fuel can be used, but 15 percent Ethanol fuel sold in some areas should be avoided. In any case, check the manufacturer's recommendations regarding fuel requirements and engine maintenance and be sure to follow them to the letter as failure to do so will likely void the warranty on a pressure washer's gas motor, fuel line, carburetor, etc. -- something that's the source of many complaints we saw regarding gas-powered models.

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.

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