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Pressure Washing: An Oh So Satisfying Clean

pressure wash
What could be more satisfying than watching the dirt wash away from a filthy house under a spray of pressurized water? Jodi Jacobson/Getty Images

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It was years ago, and I had just painted my newly bought old house. With the help of some friends, we turned the rather dirty looking white into a cool and, should I say, very spunky shade of yellow. Not too dark ... not too light ... more like a banana that's sat out on the counter for only a day or two. I painted the floor of the wrap-around porch a light green, getting rid of the awful gray the previous owner had apparently loved.

Within two years, though, the yellow was showing signs of weathering. It was a bit dirty, and a trifle moldy. The pollen from the nearby maple trees stuck to it like flies on paper. The porch floor was a disaster. That's what having big two dogs with muddy paws will do.

Instead of turning again to paint and brush, I bought a power washer and tried to scrub the house clean. It worked, up to a point. I soon learned that power washers are not magic wands, especially in the hands of novices (read: me). They are certainly not magic erasers that can get rid of years of dirt, grim, pollen and mildew in one washing. Moreover, if you're not careful, and don't use the right cleaners and attachments, you can damage your house's siding, be it aluminum, wood or vinyl.

The Right Pressure Washer

As the name suggests, power, or pressure, washers are machines that spray water under high pressure. Think of them as adult squirt guns on steroids. But, like everything else in the world, you get what you pay for. I'll admit, the power washer I used was not the best for washing a two-story house. I bought it on sale. Moreover, it was electric and not all that powerful. It was better suited to cleaning lawn furniture and sidewalks. The ancient Egyptians had an easier time wrapping their mummies than I had trying to wrap the extension cord and garden hose around the house.

I digress. What I should have bought was a pressure washer that runs on gasoline. Since the power of a pressure washer is measured in pounds per square inch (psi), gas-run machines can tackle a tough job. The washers come with different psi. Do your research to see which one is the best for you.

If you don't know which one to buy, talk to the experts at your local home improvement store for advice. If your house is wood, stucco or aluminum sided, it is best washed with a machine that can generate 1,200 to 1,500 psi. If your house is brick, stone or vinyl, a machine that produces 2,500 to 3,000 psi is recommended.

Using the right nozzle is important, too. Some experts recommend using a 25- or 40-degree nozzle tip. (More on nozzles later.) If your house is two stories, get an extension wand. You'll thank me later. You don't want to use a ladder when power washing. Nothing good can come of it. You can also use an attachment with a brush. Brushes are great, because they allow you to scrub the dirt away. If you want to blast away at the insides of your gutters, no problem. There are angled attachments to make the job easier.

Next, don't clean your house with just pressurized water. Ante up and buy detergent. For one thing, it makes cleaning so much easier. Plus, it's fun to watch dirt melt and drip to the ground in a miasma of suds. There's something cool about washing suds off a long porch.

I for one, love TSP Heavy-Duty Cleaner. I use it on the house even if I'm not power washing. This stuff cuts through any type of stubborn dirt and grime. It destroys mold, so you don't have to use bleach. You can mix it yourself, or just buy a pre-mixed jug. It looks like pink lemonade, but please, don't let anyone you know drink it. You can use TSP on brick, stone, wood and cement.

Safety Tips

Let's say you have your power washer, attachments and detergent. You're ready to go! Not so fast. Like all DIY projects, safety comes first.

  • Get yourself some bona fide eye protection. The water will f ly out of the wand under tremendous pressure, and it could chip off bits of brick, rock and wood that can shoot your eye out.
  • Wearing the right shoes is key because the pressure of the water can strip right through the wrong shoes and badly injure your feet. Heavy-duty boots are best.
  • Wear protective gloves. Don't use gardening gloves, they'll get wet, which means they'll be hard to get off. Break down and buy heavy duty ones.
  • Expect to get wet.
  • If you have an electric power washer, keep in mind it can be a shocking experience if water comes in contact with electricity. Use a heavy-duty extension cord. They look like long orange snakes. Also, be extremely careful washing around the electrical service line. That's the line connecting your house to the telephone pole. Wash gingerly around cable and telephone lines, too, not to mention the electric or gas meter. If there are any outdoor outlets, tape them shut with electrical tape.
  • As I said before, don't use a ladder, even if someone holds it. The washer could recoil and off the ladder you go. Always remember water on metal ladder rungs might as well be grease on m etal ladder rungs. You could rent a 6-foot (1.8-meter) scaffold that locks. With the scaffold, you should be able reach the second floor using an extension wand without a problem.
  • Never point a power washer at another person or an animal. Remember that the pressure from these machines is very strong and cause serious injury.

How to Wash

Before we get started, attach the water source (your hose) to the machine. Consult the owner's manual. Work out the kinks in the hose before you begin. I don't need to source this because I speak from experience. It's so annoying when the water suddenly stops and you have to find and unkink the kink. Also, make sure your hose is long enough to wrap around the house. That means you might have to connect two or more hoses. If you have a helper, I suggest having them follow behind holding onto, and maneuvering, the hose.

Select the nozzle. Your pressure washer should come with several nozzles, each with a different degree of angle. The higher the angle the more area you can cover. Most experts recommend a 15- or 25-degree nozzle for general cleaning. Some are color-coded. Again, check the owner's manual.

Never use the 0-degree nozzle. It can damage the siding. The 40-degree nozzle is probably the best for cleaning the outside of the house as it covers a wide area but provides enough power to dislodge the dirt. If you want a gentler nozzle, go with the 65-degree. Power washers also come with rotary nozzles. They spin and are designed to remove tough stains. (Important safety tip: don't linger on one spot too long, the rotary nozzle can do serious damage. I know. I screwed up using it once. Ugh.)

Whichever nozzle you use, make sure it is securely fastened to the wand. You don't want to rocket the nozzle through a window, do you? (Important safety tip: cover any flowers or shrubs around the house.) Shut your windows. Your wife will thank you later.

Practice Makes Perfect

Start slowly. Practice in a low area first so you can get the feel of the machine and the spray blasting from the wand. Work horizontally and at a slightly downward angle. Guide the wand with two hands moving from side to side. When you're ready, begin washing. Start from the top down to avoid streaking. When you get the feel, go slowly, deliberately and don't linger on one spot for too long. You could damage the siding. Be tentative around screens and windows.

There are many jobs a pressure washer can tackle, including cleaning decks, sidewalks and even washing a car. And to be truthful, it's kind of fun to operate. I don't know why. It just is. I guess it brings out our inner kid in some fashion.

Be safe! And if you don't want to wash your house yourself, call an expert. The only thing you have to do is write a check.

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