Outdoor gunk and grime, like mossy tiles or dirt-encrusted concrete, can be a pain to clean. But a good quality pressure cleaner can make these jobs considerably easier so your paths, fences, walls and more will look spick and span in no time.
Plus, did you know that some models have gentle settings that are suitable for cleaning your car and windows? This is especially handy when windows are high off the ground in difficult spots that may be unsafe to reach. Pressure cleaners also tend to use less water than the average garden hose.
Pressure cleaners (also known as pressure washers, water blasters or water gurneys) use water pressure to remove dirt, grit and grime off various surfaces. Instead of scrubbing things away with chemicals, the built-in electric pump takes in water from your garden hose, then accelerates it a much higher pressure to blast the dirty surface away.
Various cleaning nozzle attachments can be fitted to control the spray as required for the job. This can also help protect certain surfaces – for instance you wouldn't use the same settings to clean painted walls as you would on a concrete path. The nozzle attaches to a wand (aka lance) mount with a trigger to help you direct and control the water flow.
Compared to scrubbing with a brush or broom, powered high-pressure cleaners are a relatively fast and very effective way to clean heavily soiled areas. These include mossy or lichen-covered tiles, stained paving and paths, and dirt on car wheels and bodies.
Before getting started, make sure you're protected. Safety goggles, long trousers and closed shoes (preferably work boots) are a must as the high-pressure stream will throw grit into the air while you clean. It can also cause injuries if the stream comes into contact with your skin including cuts, bruises and even infections.
We also recommend using earmuffs or earplugs. The electric and battery pressure cleaners in our test operate at around 80 decibels (dB) which is close to the level that causes hearing damage during repeated or lengthy exposure (85dB). It's best to be on the safe side.
Spray away from the power cable and don't let water pool around it. Otherwise you could damage the unit or electrocute yourself. Finally, keep your kids and pets inside while cleaning. You don't want them accidentally running in front of the stream.
- Connect your garden hose to the cleaner.
- Attach the trigger to the high pressure hose on the machine, then attach your desired nozzle according to the instructions.
- Turn on the water supply.
- Hold the nozzle about a metre away from the surface and do a quick spot test to make sure that it won't cause any damage.
- Move the wand in a sweeping or circular motion on a 45° angle to avoid splash-back. If the dirt isn't coming off, move the nozzle closer to the surface or adjust the pressure and/or switch nozzles.
- For cleaning walls, start from the top and work your way down to avoid streaking.
- Never use a ladder for hard-to-reach places, instead use an extension lance (this may be sold separately).
Some pressure cleaners include a detergent reservoir which automatically blends a cleaning solution with the water as it passes through. If you want to use this feature, fill the reservoir and attach the appropriate nozzle between steps two and three.
Cordless models that run on batteries are increasingly common and don't require you to plug the machine into a mains outlet. However, this does mean you need to be aware of how much power is left.
Pressure cleaners and paint
Follow the instructions carefully when using pressure cleaners on paintwork, whether it's a house or a vehicle. All models are capable of removing paint rather than cleaning it, especially if the paint is already damaged or flaking. That said, they're handy for removing flaking paint when you're preparing a surface for a fresh coat.
Most pressure cleaners come with a couple of different nozzles which you can swap depending on the cleaning requirements. Others have a single head which can rotate through different pressure and cleaning options. These are often called 3-in-1 or 5-in-1 nozzles depending on the number of options.
It's important to select the right nozzle for the job as it makes things much easier to clean. Using the wrong one can also damage some surfaces, particularly painted ones.
Also known as a turbo nozzle, this attachment is ideal for heavily soiled areas such as footpaths and driveways. This makes a circle of pressurised water, often in an intermittent pulse that causes vibrations. Be mindful that using this nozzle can leave behind circular water marks on the area. You may need to go over the area a couple of times to avoid this.
If you shake this nozzle you'll hear a rattling sound. This is the rotating part of the nozzle that sits loose inside the nozzle. It spins when water flows through it causing the rotary spray action.
This provides a wide spray of water and is suitable for large areas that aren't too dirty, such as the painted walls of a house or hard to reach windows. The spray can often be adjusted to form a tight spray, but use caution with this setting – it can strip paint away if used too close to a painted wall.
Left to right: rotary nozzle, fan nozzle, pencil nozzle.
This produces a very tight stream of water. It's good for removing stubborn spots as the pressure is concentrated in a small area. However, be careful when using this nozzle: concentrating too much in one spot can potentially cause damage to the surface being cleaned.
These nozzles combine various spray settings into a single head unit which you adjust by rotating. A 3-in-1 nozzle may have rotary, fan and pencil options, for example.
Also known as a patio brush, this provides a gentler but very effective clean for paths and patios. It doesn't come standard with all pressure cleaners but can usually be purchased as an optional accessory. In our experience, we've found the rotary brush only required one action over sandstone paths for effective cleaning results.
Pressure cleaners with a detergent or soap setting will usually include a specific nozzle for this task.
Pressure washing can drive up your water bill, with models in our test using about 2–8.5 litres per minute. This works out to 180–510 litres per hour during constant use.
But while that's a significant amount, it's more efficient than the average garden hose. Flow rate varies depending on the hose size and water pressure, but this example from the ABC flows at a rate of 37.5 litres per minute or 2250 litres per hour. Plus, a hose lacks the pressure required to blast away surface dirt and grime.
A bucket and scrubbing brush is the most environmentally friendly option. However, this will take considerably more time, physical exertion and probably won't remove as much dirt, even if your arms are especially strong. This method may also require cleaning chemicals. Meanwhile a good pressure cleaner can remove most gunk using water alone which is better for the environment.
You can calculate the flow rate of your garden hose by recording the time it takes each to fill a 10-litre bucket, dividing 60 by that number and then multiplying it by 10 (for the 10-litre bucket). For example, if it takes 14 seconds for the hose to fill the bucket, then you divide 60 by 14 which works out to 4.29 buckets per minute. 4.29 times 10 equals a flow rate of 42.9 litres per minute.
Automatic cut off
This means the cleaner only runs while you hold down the trigger. It serves as a safety feature and lets you move more easily from place to place without spraying water everywhere, and also saves on energy use and wear and tear. Also check if the cleaner has a safety lock on the trigger, meaning you won't accidentally start the cleaner.
A cordless (battery-powered) cleaner might suit some people, especially if it matches the batteries you already have for other cordless power tools. You also aren't restricted to being a certain distance from a power outlet. In our experience testing these models, the battery life only lasts long enough for small cleaning jobs and generally their operating pressure isn't as great as models that run on mains power.
A long hose from the cleaner body to the lance (or wand) makes the unit easier to use.
Hose and lance storage
Onboard storage on the cleaner keeps it neat and tidy when not in use.
The lance (the rigid bit you hold to direct the spray) should be long enough to comfortably hold the tip near the ground without stooping.
Power cord length
Electric (mains powered) pressure cleaners draw their power from a standard home power plug. A long cord length makes it easier to move the cleaner around a bigger area without changing power points or using an extension cord.
Effective wheels make it easier to manoeuvre the cleaner.
Alternative water source
Apart from using water from your garden tap, some pressure washers let you use another body of water such as a bucket, barrel or rainwater tank in conjunction with a suction hose.
A pressure cleaner may run into simple, easy-to-fix faults such as a broken o-ring or obstruction in the hose. Occasionally a nozzle may need replacing or the gaskets lubricated. The dealer you purchased the machine from may be able to inspect and repair it.
When the time comes to replace the whole unit, don't dispose of it in domestic waste. Many pressure washer manufacturers can dispose of it in accordance with local regulations, or you can dispose of it as e-waste. Parts such as batteries can be easily recyclable, too.
Consumer-grade pressure cleaners are available to hire from around $60–200 a day depending on the psi and motor type (petrol, electric, battery). This is a good option if you only have a few small jobs to deal with.
But cleaning ground-in dirt isn't a quick job, so if you have a lot of serious soiling to deal with, it might be worth spending a bit more and hiring a more powerful commercial or industrial machine, or even paying a professional to do it for you.
Of course, if you're going to need the pressure cleaner on a regular basis, it's probably worth buying one of your own. If you have hard-to-reach windows that can benefit from the extended reach of a light spray mode, or you want to use it on your car, then buying may be the way to go.
Pressure cleaner models in our test range from as low as $48 all the way up to $949.
Previous CHOICE recommendations
The results from our pressure cleaner reviews can't be directly compared to previously tested pressure cleaners, as testing in real-life scenarios means there are variations in grime build-up on our test surfaces from year to year.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.