How to use a Pressure Washer with safety in mind, whether it’s gas or electric powered

updated: January 24, 2019

Sure, you could use a scrub brush and a bucket of soapy water to clean grimy outdoor surfaces, but you’re in for a long and back-breaking task. Not to mention, it takes a lot of elbow grease to remove years of accumulated mold, oil and dirt. Trust us, save yourself the trouble and invest in a top-performing pressure washer.

Not ready to take the plunge in buying one? Check with your local lawn and garden retailer to see if you can rent one. Cost will vary anywhere from $50 – $250 a day depending on where you live. If you plan to use it more than a couple times a year, and you really like it, then buying one is a smart investment.

Whether you rent or buy is only half the battle. Gas, soap, water and electricity usage can take a big bite out of your wallet if you’re not careful. Therefore, it’s essential to know how to operate a pressure washer safely and to get the job done efficiently. Plus, a trip to the emergency room is definitely not cheap, nor fun.

We’ll give you some tips and tricks to make the most out of your pressure washing experience while keeping your fingers intact.

Protective Gear
Safety first

Before you operate any pressure washer, make sure you prep for safety. Due to the high water pressure concentrated in a small stream, there’s a real risk property damage and physical injuries. Really high pressure streams can easily break windows, strip car paint, and gouge holes in brick. Lacerations, losing fingers, electrocutions, even deadly falls are possible from improper use.

You don’t have to be afraid of a power washer, but just like any power equipment like lawnmowers and chainsaws, you have to be mindful of how you’re using it and your surroundings. Follow these general safety tips:

  • Toss the zero degree nozzle. It’s the highest pressure (red) nozzle that shoots a very narrow stream of water, which makes it the most dangerous in terms of physical injury and property damage. You will rarely, if ever, have a cleaning job that requires anything remotely that strong.
  • Read the manual. It will tell you exactly how to operate your particular model, along with important info about replacement parts and troubleshooting.
  • Never touch the spray. Don’t point it at kids or pets either. Plants can also be damaged, so use caution if using near flower beds and other landscaping.
  • Wear protective gear. No shorts and flip flops. Think safety goggles, work gloves, enclosed shoes (preferably steel-toed boots), ear protection (especially with gas power washers), and pants.
  • Prep your surroundings. Cover exterior lights, vents, and close your windows. Get all tripping hazards out of the way, including furniture, hoses, wires, toys, potted plants, pets and kids.
  • No ladders! Pressure washers can produce a serious kickback force, which can lead to a nasty fall. Opt for extension wands to reach high areas instead. Or call a professional cleaner.

Gas or Electric?

The choice between these two depends on the level of cleaning you need to do and your budget. Typically, a gas power washer will be more expensive than an electric one, but has more cleaning power, somewhere between 1800 – 3000 PSI. Compare that to an electric washer which produces around 1300 – 1800 PSI. If you have a large property with lots of surfaces to be cleaned on a regular basis, or if you’re a contractor, gas is your best bet.

Check out our article Electric vs. Gas Pressure Washers for a more in-depth comparison between the two types.

For your typical homeowner, an electric power washer will be sufficient. Decks, for instance, rarely need more than 1500 PSI to clean them.

Electric pressure washer safety tips

Most manufacturers don’t recommend using extension cords. Since you’re pairing electricity and water, there’s always a risk of electrocution if the machine isn’t used properly. An extension cord can shorten the life of your pressure washer and may even void the warranty in some models. ALWAYS consult your owner’s manual before using an extension cord.

If using an extension cord, you MUST plug it into a GFCI receptacle, and the cord must have a grounding pin intact AND be heavy gauge (12 +) so it won’t trip your circuit breaker. But, if you need a few more feet to work with, it’s much safer to use a hose or wand extension.

Find a top-rated power washer with our electric pressure washer reviews.

Gas pressure washer safety tips

Like any gas-fired machine, a gas power washer produces exhaust fumes that contain carbon monoxide. Never run a gas power washer indoors or in any enclosed space. You need adequate ventilation.

Important: If you feel dizzy, overly fatigued, headache, nausea or are having trouble breathing, turn off the machine, get into fresh air, and call 911.

Take care around the engine after the machine has been used for a while. It can get very hot. When finished, turn off the washer and let it sit to cool before you put it away. Keep the hoses away from the engine so they won’t melt.

You will need to winterize a gas pressure washer and store it properly so it doesn’t freeze. To do this, follow your owner’s manual instructions. Basically, you’ll be filling the pump and internal tubing system with RV-type antifreeze. If storing for over a month, drain the gas from the fuel tank as well.

Find a top-rated power washer with our gas pressure washer reviews.

How to use a pressure washer

Operating either type of washer is similar but there are a few differences to keep in mind. Always read your owner’s manual thoroughly for instructions specific to YOUR washer. Step by step, follow these general instructions:

  1. Sweep or brush all loose dirt and debris from the surface you’re cleaning.
  2. Connect garden hose to the water inlet. Make sure your hose can supply the required GPM for the machine. To measure, time how long it takes for your garden hose to fill a 5-gallon bucket at full flow. For a 2-½ GPM washer, you’d need up to a 50-foot hose with a ¾ inch inside diameter.
  3. Make sure both garden and pressure hose are free of clogs and kinks.
  4. Fill the detergent reservoir (if using a cleaner) with a detergent solution.
  5. Set the spray wand to off or a low-pressure setting to prevent kickback when the washer is started. Washers with variable nozzles should be on a low-pressure, wide angle setting. At this point, make sure there’s no tip on a gas washer that uses interchangeable tips.
  6. Turn the faucet on fully.
  7. Sweeze wand trigger to release air pressure.
  8. Check hose connections for leaks.
  9. For a gas power washer, brace your foot against a wheel to steady the machine, then pull the starter cord to start the engine. For electric, plug into a grounded, GFCI outlet.
  10. Let water run through the machine for about a minute to prime the system. But never let it idle for longer than 3-5 minutes to prevent overheating the pump.
  11. With trigger off, attach a low pressure nozzle, or keep adjustable nozzle on low. Always start with low pressure and work your way up.
  12. Hold the wand with both hands. Plant feet firmly on the ground.
  13. Start with low pressure, about 18 inches from cleaning surface. Move in a side-to side motion at a 45 degree angle to the surface.
  14. Keep moving. Don’t stay in one spot or you risk damage to the surface. Move the spray in overlapping lines to avoid streaks.
  15. If you need more pressure, try moving the spray closer to the surface, but no more than 6 inches away. Or lock the trigger on the wand and attach a higher pressure tip.

How to pressure wash surfaces around the home

While basic operation of a pressure washer is the same no matter what you’re cleaning, there are some specific tricks to washing different surfaces. We’ll hit on a few of those now. Remember to use a detergent designed for use with pressure washers and that’s safe for the surface you’re cleaning. Mildew stains may need specific cleaners or bleach.

  • Siding – Use a low-pressure setting on an adjustable wand or a soap nozzle (usually black) if applying detergent. Avoid streaks by applying detergent from the bottom up. Work in small sections. Let detergent remain on the surface for a few minutes, but don’t let it dry. Re-wet as needed. Disconnect the detergent supply. Attach a higher-pressure nozzle (25 or 40 degree is probably sufficient). Holding about 18 inches away from the siding, rinse the siding straight on from the bottom up. Then rinse from the top down, holding the wand about 10 inches away, and spray at a downward angle. For stubborn spots, get a little closer, but be careful or you could strip paint or cause other damage. Avoid electrical outlets, light fixtures, windows, doors, and the gaps around them.
  • Decks – Follow the same steps as above to prepare detergent if needed, though you’ll need cleaner that is designed for use on wood. Apply the detergent in sections, starting close to you and moving outward. Hold the wand at a 45 degree angle and 1 – 2 feet from the surface. To rinse, use a higher pressure nozzle (15 or 25 degrees). Move with the wood grain to better remove dirt and detergent. Use overlapping passes. Avoid cleaning in direct sunlight. Let the wood dry for 48 hours before staining or sealing.
  • Cars – Start with plain water and a low-pressure nozzle to rinse off loose debris. Keep your distance around windows, mirrors and other delicate surfaces. Then switch to a soap nozzle and spray on the detergent, working from the bottom up with wide overlapping strokes. Scrub off stuck on dirt with a scrub brush. Alternately, you can use scrub brush attachment on your wand. Rinse from the top down with a 25 degree nozzle. Never spray inside the engine bay. Never use high pressure tips or move too close or you’ll damage the pain. Avoid washing on grass or gravel so you don’t kick up debris onto the car with the spray.
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