Pressure Washer Buying Guide

Motor oil stains in the driveway. Slippery mildew on the deck. Carbonized cookout detritus on the grill. All you see ahead is hours of backbreaking labor using plenty of elbow grease.

You just want the gunk gone. A pressure washer can effectively exile the grime in a fraction of the time it takes using a brush and bucket of water. It transforms your humble garden hose into a dirt-demolishing, deep-cleaning machine.

Before you break out the heavy artillery, remember that all pressure washers should be used with caution. These tools deliver a concentrated and powerful high-pressure stream of water, capable of causing serious injury and damaging property. For this reason, further explained below, we limited our recommendations to a subset of the many models we test.

If you want to harness the power of a pressure washer, use Consumer Reports’ safe operating techniques to stay out of harm’s way.

Pressure Washers 101

How They Work
Pressure washers use a gas engine or electric motor to power a pump, which forces water at high pressure through a concentrating nozzle to quickly blast away accumulated grime on surfaces such as decks, driveways, and patios. They also let you clean outdoor chairs, siding, and other items in the time it would take to fill a bucket of soapy water and find a scrub brush.

Potential Risks
The reality is that pressure washers are not merely garden hoses on steroids. Their nozzles shoot water at 30 to 80 times more pressure and have surprisingly strong cutting capabilities no matter which spray setting you use. Use all pressure washers with caution. When the adjustable wand tip is set at its narrowest spray setting or you’re using the narrowest tip, a misplaced jet of water could land you or a bystander in the emergency room.

Shopping Tips

First thing's first: Renting a pressure washer, rather than buying, is an option that allows you to skip the hassle of upkeep and storage. Buying a unit will pay for itself in a few years, as long as you take care of it.

If you need to use soaps, solvents or other additives, consider a pressure washer that has a built-in soap tank. Tool and cord storage is a plus, as are wheels for heavier models. 

Picture of a black and yellow gas-powered Cub Cadet pressure washer.

Gas-Powered Pressure Washer

Pros: Delivers higher-pressure water. Quickly cleans large areas such as decks, siding, and driveways without the need for chemicals. Deftly dispatches tough gunk such as chewing gum and tree sap. More pressure means a nozzle set on a wider angle will clean just as well as electric models run at a narrower setting.
Cons: Relatively noisy and heavy, they require tune-ups. Idling for long periods can overheat the pump, possibly ruining the machine if the safety valve fails. Pumps must be winterized with antifreeze in colder climates, since gas machines should not be stored inside a home. More power also means an increased risk of injury, as well as gouging, splintering, or etching woodem surfaces, or inadvertently chipping paint.
Price: $250 to $500.

Picture of a black and green electric-powered Greenworks pressure washer

Electric-Powered Pressure Washer

Pros: Best for small decks and patios, outdoor furniture, and other small jobs that require mainly cleaning instead of stain removal. The models are relatively light and quiet, require little upkeep, and create no exhaust emissions. They start and stop conveniently. They do not need winterizing if brought indoors, and their small size makes them easy to store.
Cons: Lower water pressure makes for longer cleaning time. Wands and nozzles are less sturdy plastic material, rather than the metal fittings found on gas-powered models. Your cleaning area is limited to the length of your unit’s cord and hose. Hoses are typically about 25 to 30 feet; their power cords around 35 feet.
Price: $100 to $250.

All About Nozzles

The main danger with pressure washers involves the angle and focused intensity of the water being sprayed. This is controlled by the nozzle located at the tip of the pressure-washer wand. Pressure washers vary from brand to brand. They are sold with either a set of color-coded interchangeable nozzles or an all-in-one adjustable nozzle; both types (pictured below) allow you to change the angle (or spray vertex) of water, depending on the task.

Adjustable nozzles are more convenient than replaceable ones; a twist is all it takes to change spray width or pattern. But replaceable nozzles let you customize the spray pattern with specific spray angles.

To reduce the risk of injury, never use either the red, zero-degree replaceable nozzle or the zero-degree setting of an all-in-one (adjustable) nozzle. Higher-degree nozzles or settings can get the job done without unnecessary risk.

An all-in-one adjustable pressure-washer nozzle, and five interchangeable pressure-washer nozzles.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

Interactive Buying Guide

In our interactive video below, you can skip to chapters on  pressure washer types, proper use, and features.

Pressure Washer Safety

An estimated 6,057 people ended up in the emergency room in 2014 with injuries related to pressure-washer use. Trust us: Don’t be curious about what it feels like to spray your hand or foot. The velocity of the water can actually tear through skin and the tissue beneath, and may result in a bacterial infection.

A zero-degree spray—indicated by a red-colored replaceable nozzle tip, or the minimum setting on an adjustable model—concentrates the full force of water into a pinpoint blast and poses an unnecessary safety risk. You can get the same cleaning effectiveness with a wider-angle setting; it will just take a bit longer. Consumer Reports does not recommend any pressure washer with a zero-degree nozzle or setting, no matter how well it cleans. And if the unit comes with a red, zero-degree nozzle, we recommend you get rid of the nozzle and avoid using pinpoint settings to reduce the chance of damaging property or causing injury.

While all pressure washers are noisy, gas-powered units are significantly louder. We recommend hearing protection if you are working near the washer unit. But if you stretch out the hose and work at a distance from the washer itself, the noise should not be hazardous. Here are some quick tips to keep in mind:

• Read the manufacturer’s manual.
• Wear goggles, long pants, and sturdy footwear (no flip flops), and take extra care on wet surfaces, which can quickly get slippery.
• Always start with the widest spray angle. Begin by working with the nozzle 2 feet away from the surface and move closer as needed.
• If your washer uses replaceable spray tips, turn off the engine and press the trigger to drain excess water before changing tips.
• Test-wash a surface patch in a less-noticeable area until you get the hang of the machine.
• Take care if washing or rinsing your car. A garden hose would be more gentle on your car's paint job.

• Don’t get closer than 6 inches to whatever you’re cleaning. You could damage paint, pockmark the asphalt of your driveway, puncture your car’s tires, and gouge holes in deck wood.
• Don’t let the engine run for long on a gas pressure washer without pressing the trigger to prevent the pump from overheating.
• Don’t use a pressure washer while standing on a ladder. Pulling the trigger could cause recoil and throw you off balance.
• Don’t point the nozzle toward yourself, other people, or pets.
• Don't use an extension cord with an electric-powered model.

For more information read "Pressure Washer Safety Alert."

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