Stay Safe and Make Your Exterior Surfaces Sparkle with a Pressure Washer

updated: March 19, 2019

Has mold, algae, dirt and rust made your exterior something you’re ashamed to let the neighbors see? When operated properly, a good pressure washer can really rejuvenate your home’s exterior surfaces, including brick, concrete, vinyl siding, patio stone, and wooden decks. They can erase years of built up grime.

But a lot of people don’t understand that pressure washers can be dangerous if not used correctly. The very high PSI produced from the water stream can cause serious injuries to people and to some surfaces like car paint. Pressure washers can cause serious skin lacerations, even amputations, plus the kickback forces can easily knock a person off a ladder.

Pressure washers are immensely useful for exterior cleaning, but they’re not to be taken lightly. Given the proper respect, you’ll be able to safely operate any kind of power washer.

Choose the right machines & nozzles

The right machine can make all the difference in pressure washing. They range from small home electric washers with around 2,500 PSI to big industrial models of 16,000 PSI or more. If you have a tiny home with only a small deck or patio, a light-duty electric model will probably do the job well enough, especially if you use it often.

Pressure Washing
Professional Pressure Washing (California, USA)

Most homeowners, however, will get the most effectiveness from a medium-duty, gas-powered model. At around 6,000 PSI max, it can clean a wide range of surfaces and grime levels. A heavy-duty or professional-grade pressure washer should only be used for large jobs, like prepping an entire exterior for repainting or to reach a second story.

It’s even more important to use the right size nozzle. These are universally color coded according to pressure produced and angle. They are, from strongest to lowest, red, yellow, green, white, and black. The green tip is the one people use most around the home.

Some small pressure washers come with only one nozzle, but they can be adjusted to various spray strengths. Always adjust the nozzle to the proper setting before using it on any surface. If the pressure is too strong, the water stream could etch holes in even concrete or brick.

Other attachments

Several other attachments exist that help you with specific wash jobs.

  • Surface cleaner – spinning bar that delivers water stream over a big surface area. Good for large areas like a driveway.
  • Rotary nozzle – sometimes called a turbo nozzle. Produces a spinning zero-degree water spray. Good for stubborn stains and grime buildup.
  • Pressure washing broom – like the surface cleaner, splits single jet into two or three for cleaning large areas.
  • Expandable wand – gives more reach for high areas so you don’t need a ladder.
  • Soap/detergent reservoir – adds cleaner to the water jet, but you’ll need a specific nozzle for this, so make sure you have that first!

Read the manual

Every new pressure washer should come with a manual. If you’re borrowing a washer from a neighbor or cousin Ted, ask them to give you the manual to read. If they don’t have it, find it online. Every power washer is different. The manual will tell you exactly how to operate it, diagrams each part and gives you troubleshooting and safety tips that could spell the difference between success and disaster.

Seriously, read it. It’s not a novel. It won’t take long.

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Hands off

If there’s one safety rule to remember most, it’s to never, EVER, get your hands or any other part of you in the way of the pressure washer spray. That’s a good way to lose a finger, and that can ruin your whole day.

Don’t spray it at anyone else, either. Children should never be allowed to use a pressure washer. If your older (and responsible) teens are using one, make sure you explain the dangers of spraying someone. They might think it’s funny to blast little brother with a surprise jet of water, but that’s a good way to end up in the ER.

Dress the part

A lot of people use pressure washers in hot weather, but you should not dress for summer. Shorts and flip-flops are a big no-no. Proper PPE (personal protective equipment) should always be worn.

This includes:

  • Safety glasses or goggles to prevent flying debris from getting in your eyes.
  • Durable safety gloves to protect hands from accidental contact with the jet spray.
  • Enclosed shoes, preferably steel-toed work boots, but at the very least, some solidly built sneakers.
  • Ear protection, especially with loud gas-powered pressure washers.
  • Pants! Even if it’s 99 degrees in the shade, wear pants to protect your legs from flying debris and accidental contact with the jet spray.

Know your surroundings

Are you washing in a high traffic area? Are there any pets nearby? Are there bikes, toys, bushes, or other tripping hazards? Don’t forget to look for electrical outlets, light fixtures, open windows, house vents and power lines. Cover exterior lights, wires and cable boxes in plastic, close those windows, and cover any vents before pressure washing.

Never use a gas powered pressure washer in an enclosed space. Just like a generator, the engine produces carbon monoxide which can be deadly. Plus, the sound is a lot more amplified in a small space, so save your ears and your lungs – only use a gas power washer in a well-ventilated area.

Stay off ladders

Kickback from high pressure water blasts can easily knock you off a ladder. Even falling from 3 feet off the ground could cause serious injury or death. The good news is you should be able to find an extension wand that will reach those out-of-reach areas so you can keep your feet firmly on the ground.

If there’s an area you absolutely can’t reach with a wand, don’t be a hero. Call a professional. The money spent is a lot better than a broken neck.

Don’t forget the plants

If you’ll be working near any flowers/shrubs, cover them with a tarp to prevent accidental damage. Also, check to see if any soap you use for pressure washing is safe for your plants.

Check your water supply

Depending on the pressure washer, your water hose will need to flow at a certain amount of gallons per minute (GPM). If you don’t know the GPM, see how long it takes to fill a 5 gallon bucket and then compare that to the GPM the machine needs. You’ll need a sturdy, hole-free hose and make sure it won’t kink during use.

When you’re ready to wash

If you’ve protected the work area, got all the safety equipment, hose, nozzles and other attachments ready, it’s time to get to work. Remember these general steps, though your process may vary depending on the job and the pressure washer itself.

  1. Sweep or brush off dirt, rocks, leaves and other loose debris from the surface to be cleaned.
  2. Set the spray power to low.
  3. Connect garden hose to the pressure washer inlet, and to your outdoor faucet of course.
  4. Turn the tap on the water faucet to full force.
  5. Squeeze the wand trigger to release air pressure.
  6. Check all the hose connections to make sure there aren’t any air or water leaks.
  7. Pull the starter cord to start the engine (or plug in an electric model to a grounded outlet).
  8. Let water run through the washer for about a minute to prime the system and remove air. Don’t run without spraying for longer than 3-5 minutes to avoid damage to the machine.
  9. With the trigger locked “off,” attach the proper nozzle to the wand.
  10. Hold the wand securely with both hands until you get the feel for it. Plant both feet firmly on the ground to prevent kickback from knocking you off balance.
  11. Start with low pressure, and spray no closer than 18 inches from the surface in a steady up and down motion. If more pressure is needed, lock the trigger again and use a different nozzle or adjust spray power.
  12. Keep the spray moving, getting no more than 6 inches from the surface. Don’t linger in one spot too long, even if it means multiple passes. Like painting, use overlapping strokes to avoid visible lines.

Don’t be a one-hit wonder

Set a pressure washing schedule for your surfaces so it’ll take less power, soap and water to get them clean. Siding should be cleaned every 2 years, depending on manufacturer. Other surfaces will depend on how they’re used and how much they’re exposed to dirt, grime and the elements.

You got this!

Now that you know how to get started safely, what will you pressure wash first? With the right machine, accessories and these tips, you’ll be a pressure washer pro in no time.

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Ann Arbor
April 12, 2019 at 7:28 pm

Thank you for mentioning safety issues. A pressure washer is not a toy and is especially dangerous for children and pets. Very useful info!

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