When Consumer Reports recently issued a safety warning about the pinpoint spray nozzle available on most residential pressure washers, we hoped we could encourage manufacturers to replace the narrowest nozzle with one that produces a less concentrated spray. After all, pressure-washer injuries sent an estimated 6,057 people to the emergency room in 2014. But their response fell short of our expectations.

Pressure washers are sold with either a set of interchangeable nozzles or an adjustable wand tip, both of which usually let users vary the flow of water from zero degrees, the finest, to about 40 degrees depending on the task. They’re inherently dangerous no matter which spray tip or setting you use. But Consumer Reports feels that the unnecessary risk of using a zero-degree nozzle—which concentrates the tool’s full pressure into a single, pinpoint blast—outweighs any benefits. Higher-degree nozzles get the job done; it just might take a bit longer.  

Industry Response

We suggested to manufacturers and the trade group that represents them, the Pressure Washer Manufacturers’ Association, that they remove the zero degree nozzle or setting from residential pressure washers. But the PWMA asserts that pressure washers are safe when operators follow instructions.

“Manufacturers provide an operator's manual as well as on-product markings, which describe how to safely use the pressure washer,” the group said in a statement. It also said there are specific instances in which the zero-degree nozzle or setting is well suited.

“Pressure washers are tools, not toys,” said Briggs & Stratton, the largest manufacturer of pressure washers, in response to our request. “Every pressure washer designed and manufactured by our company meets globally recognized, stringent safety standards and comes with instructions in the operator's manual and on the product itself. When used properly, our products, and more specifically any degree of spray angles, are safe and effective.” 

Graphic on pressure washer safety showing nozzle sizes.
Pressure-washer replaceable nozzles, labeled by angle of stream

AR North America, which makes electric pressure washers, initially told us that, based on our findings, the company would be “taking immediate steps to remove this nozzle tip from our electric pressure washer models, both current and future models.” However, that initial decision had not come from the top, and the company decided to maintain its current practices. “Like any power tool,” says Tom Sletten, director of customer service for AR, “there’s a certain amount of risk that the user takes, along the lines of a chain saw. If it’s not managed carefully, you can really do some damage.”

As with the PWMA and Briggs & Stratton, AR outlined several appropriate uses of a zero-degree nozzle or setting, such as cleaning second-story siding or etching concrete with a concentrated spray. Moreover, Sletten explained that most of AR’s models come with adjustable nozzles rather than replaceable nozzle tips. Were they to follow Consumer Reports’ recommendation, AR would have to re-engineer the adjustable nozzles in certain models. Subsequently, the company will continue to outfit its products, depending on the model, with either zero-degree replaceable nozzles or adjustable nozzles with a zero-degree setting—and to rely on consumers to heed the manuals’ many safety warnings. 

What You Can Do

If you buy a model that comes with a zero-degree nozzle (it’s red) or you already own one, Consumer Reports advises you to get rid of it to reduce the chance of damaging property or causing injury to you, your family members, or anyone else who might use the sprayer. And if your pressure washer comes with a zero-degree adjustable setting, we recommend that you refrain from using it.

To protect yourself, wear goggles, long pants, and sturdy footwear while using any pressure washer. And if you get even a minor skin break from a pressure washer, you need to consult a doctor as soon as possible because fluid from the pressurized spray can cause tissue damage without you knowing it. In the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System injury data we analyzed, 14 percent of the 6,057 estimated ER visits in 2014 attributed to pressure washers led to additional hospitalization, but only 2 percent were due to direct injury from a pressure washer’s stream. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “the seriousness of high-pressure injection injuries is generally underestimated,” and recommends immediate medical attention.