Pressure Washer Secrets: Ways to Use These Tools Correctly

Reader Contribution by Steve Maxwell and Bailey Line Road
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Cleaning farm equipment
Photo by Steve Maxwell

If you’ve got outdoor stuff to keep clean in your life, then you’ve probably thought about getting a pressure washer. I know they’re useful tools because I’ve owned and used several models here at my place every year for more than 25 years. In this article I’ll explain how gas-powered pressure washers work, what they’re good for, what they’re not so good for, and I’ll show you the top uses I put my pressure washer to each year, including two you’ve probably never even heard of before.

Up close spray
Photo by Steve Maxwell

What’s a Pressure Washer?

Pressure washers are portable cleaning devices that take water from any typical garden hose outlet at pressures of 40 to 70 psi, then boosts that pressure up to 2500 psi and beyond to increase the cleaning action of the water. This boost in pressure comes from either an electric motor or gasoline-powered engine. I prefer gas pressure washers because they deliver the powerI need, so gas models are what I’ll focus on here.

Removing tough mud
Photo by Steve Maxwell

How a Pressure Washer Works

Every pressure washer has a water inlet port where you connect a garden hose, plus an outlet – a high pressure water outlet – where you connect a special hose and wand that delivers water for cleaning.

Start by connecting the garden hose to your pressure washer. I always install all-metal quick connect fittings for this, to speed setup and take-down time. It’s much better than threading the garden hose directly onto the pressure washer.

Pressure washer quick connect
hoto by Steve Maxwell

It’s important that the engine on any pressure washer never run without the pump being filled with water first. This is why I always let water flow through the pump until all air is displaced before firing up the engine. Simply turn on the water at the hose outlet, pull the trigger on the wand, then let low pressure water flow through the hose and onto the ground until all air bubbles stop coming.

Here’s an important detail: Be sure to remove any nozzle tip that may be installed on the end of the wand before letting water flow to purge air. This allows water to move through the pump more quickly and it also allows any sediment to flush from the system without plugging the removable nozzle tip. If the nozzle tip becomes clogged or partially clogged when the engine gets fired up and pressure builds, it can make the nozzle very difficult to remove for cleaning. Flush first, then install the nozzle tip of your choice after flushing and purging. I know from experience that this could save you considerable hassles.

Choose the right nozzle for the job
Photo by Steve Maxwell

Speaking of nozzle tips, every pressure washer comes with a variety of nozzle tips that produce different spray patterns. The wider the pattern, the more gentle the spray. Narrower tips are best for removing tough dirt on tough surfaces that are not easily damaged.

With your pressure washer purged of air and an appropriate nozzle installed on the end of the wand, it’s time to fire up the engine. The procedure is different than starting a lawn mower or snow blower even though the engines involved are similar.

Start up
Photo by Steve Maxwell

Starting a Pressure Washer

The challenge when starting a pressure washer is that the engine is usually under considerable resistance even before it starts. Since the water pump can’t be disconnected from the motor, it makes the motor harder to spin over during start up, and this resistance to spinning can prevent the engine from starting easily. Switch ON the ignition, turn ON the fuel, set the choke and pull the starter cord and you’ll see what I mean.

If the cord isn’t sluggish and difficult to pull at first it will get that way with more pulls on the cord as the pump loads up internally with water. The solution? Simple. Just hold the wand in one hand and pull the trigger and keep it open with water flowing out, then use the other hand to pull the starter cord. Just remember to point the wand in a safe direction as you do all this since high pressure water will come out of the wand as soon as the engine starts. Let it run and warm up for 15 to 30 seconds while continuing to hold the trigger open. After that you can usually take the choke off and release the wand trigger.

Use for cleaning surfaces
Photo by Steve Maxwell

Pressure Washer Use #1: Cleaning

This seems like an obvious use for a pressure washer, but there’s more here than meets the eye. While pressure washers do deliver much more pressure than a garden hose, it’s possible that this pressure can damage surfaces. Avoid trouble by approaching any new surface with caution. Begin with a wide-spray nozzle and keep the tip at least 24” away from the surface at first. Change to the next more intense nozzle and bring the wand tip closer to the surface if you need more power. Pressure washers are very effective at cleaning nooks and crannies, as well as delivering water up high enough to reach elevated locations. Be careful, though. Always test a small area first, and let the surface dry completely before deciding if your pressure and distance details are correct. It’s possible that a pressure washer can leave marks behind that only become visible after the surface has dried.

Some pressure washers have a reservoir that delivers liquid soap automatically into the spray stream for maximum cleaning of greasy or grimy surfaces. Just be sure to rinse surfaces with clear water as a final step.

When it comes to pressure washers and cleaning surfaces, there’s something that many people find surprising. Sometimes scrubbing before pressure washing works better than pressure washing alone. Surface dirt, especially dust, can hang on even under the full brunt of high pressure water. In cases like these scrubbing can be more effective, though it can’t extend to every corner. This is why washing house siding, for instance, often works best with a three step process: initial low pressure washing using soap delivered by the pressure washer; scrub the siding with a long-handled brush; pressure wash off the dirt and soapy water with moderate pressure and clear water. Avoid directing high pressure water under the bottom edge of siding or anywhere else where water penetration into the building envelope might happen.

Media blaster
Photo by Steve Maxwell

Pressure Washer Use #2: Sandblasting Surfaces

If you need to prepare metal for finishing or refinishing, then a pressure washer with something called a “media blaster” attachment is something you should know about. Made by several manufacturers, these fit onto the end of any pressure washer wand and includes a large diameter hose. Stick this hose into a pail of sandblasting media such as glass beads or coal particles and it gets drawn up into the wand tip by suction caused by the rapid movement of water through the tip. The abrasive particles get mixed with the water, delivering more abrasive action than if the blasting media had been used in an air-powered sand blasting gun. No dust, either, and faster results!

Leaching pipe jetting
Photo by Steve Maxwell

Pressure Washer Use#3: Septic System Revival

You’ve probably never heard of this technique before, but a pressure washer can save you a five figure septic rebuilding job if you’ve got a system that’s failing for the usual reasons of clogged leaching pipes. Connected to a long, flexible jetting attachment with a self-propelled head, your pressure washer becomes the engine for cleaning inside the leaching pipes that are at the heart of most septic systems.Have your septic tank pumped so you have at least a couple of days before sewage flows out into the leaching bed, then dig down and find the ends of your leaching pipes.

Cut off the ends of the pipes to open them and allow the flexible jetting attachment to enter. The head of this attachment is self-driving in that it will pull itself into the pipe under its own power. No need to push the jetting hose. Rather you’ll need to hold it back. One jet points forward to bust through crud, while three jets angle backwards to propel the rest of the hose inside the pipe via the force of the pressurized water. The results work very well. When nothing but clean water comes out of your leaching pipe, stop jetting, then replace the end cap that you cut off from the pipe with a removable port that can be unscrewed next time for easy access.

I’ve used the same procedure to completely revive septic systems so far gone sewage was overflowing out of the top hatches of the tank. This same technique works well for clearing badly clogged plumbing drain pipes, even when the clog is 100 feet from the nearest inlet.

Use non-toxic plumbing anti-freeze to winterize your washer
Photo by Steve Maxwell

Winterizing Your Pressure Washer

Does it get below freezing where you live? Water that remains in the pump can freeze, expand and damage your pressure washer if it’s stored in an unheated garage or shed, as many are. This is why winterizing the pump is essential. Connect a funnel and a short length of garden hose to the pump and pour about 6 ounces of non-toxic plumbing anti-freeze into the funnel. With the ignition switch OFF and the spark plug wire removed, pull the recoil starter handle several times until anti-freeze squirts from the high pressure outlet of the pump. It just takes a few pulls to get the job done.

I’d be lost without a pressure washer here at my place. It’s one of those things you don’t realize how often you use until you have one handy. Get one and you’ll understand what I mean.

Steve Maxwellis a DIY expert and longtime contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, cultivating a little patch of  farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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