What You Pay For

Selecting the right pressure washer means carefully balancing price against the capabilities you need for the work the machine will do
What You Pay For
Portable sanitation contractors who maintain a large inventory of restrooms will want to purchase a pressure washer designed to last for thousands of hours. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Products Inc.)

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When purchasing any machine, you will be faced with an array of products that vary widely in quality and price. Take car shopping. Obviously, a Mercedes-Benz costs much more than a Daewoo, but it’s understood that the high quality of engineering and components account for the higher price.

However, when shopping for a pressure washer, it suddenly doesn’t seem right to buy one that costs more than 10 times the price of another. How can that be justified?

It’s a question that puzzles many professionals looking to purchase their first pressure washer. How can a top-of-the-line unit be worth so much more than the weekly special at a big-box retailer?

Unable to resist the lure of low cost, many will choose the least expensive option, only to experience poor performance and an extremely short service life. These people have simply learned their lesson the hard way and literally have paid the price for going the cheap route.



Believe it or not, there is a huge difference in the quality of high- and low-end pressure washers, even when they appear to have comparable specifications. One must examine the components used to determine which machine will provide the best value.

When judging a pressure washer’s quality, some of the first considerations are the most basic. For example, identify whether the frame is heavy-duty. The best machines are constructed of heavy-gauge steel, while low-end units are made from much thinner materials and may be lucky to get through their warranty periods.

Also, ask the dealer about the quality of the unloader valve. This important component allows water to cycle through the pump when the spray wand’s trigger is released, and it must hold up to heavy use.

Furthermore, the durability of the hose, spray wand and wheels all help determine whether a pressure washer will stand the test of time. As simple as these items may sound, a reputable manufacturer ensures high quality in every part, while others cut corners.

A good professional-grade pressure washer will have still other features to help prevent costly damage. These include thermal pump protection, which safeguards against excessive heat, and a safety relief valve, which releases pressure overloads.



After checking out the basics, it’s time to consider the heart of a pressure washer – the pump. Some pumps are only designed to last 100 to 200 hours, while others will run for 2,000 hours or more as long as they are properly maintained.

Of course, a 2,000-hour machine is not for everyone, as the cost of the pump alone could exceed the price of a complete 200-hour unit, so it’s important to evaluate your expected usage. A cheap, entry-level unit may suit a contractor with limited needs, but it will withstand only several weeks of use on demanding commercial jobs.

Furthermore, it’s important to figure out how hard a pump must work to deliver its pressure and volume ratings. A pump that continually operates at maximum capacity will not last as long as one that runs at a more comfortable level. Using a pump at capacity is similar to driving a car with the rpm constantly at redline. The engine will wear much quicker than in a car that cruises down the highway at 2,000 rpm.

To determine the amount of stress placed on the pump, compare its pressure rating with the rating of the actual pressure washer. For example, if a pressure washer is advertised to put out 3,000 psi, and it contains a pump rated at 3,000 psi, the pump must continually operate at its maximum output to produce the rated pressure. Be cautious when a pump carries a pressure rating the same as that of the unit itself, especially watch out for rare cases where the pressure washer is rated even higher than the pump.

On the other hand, some manufacturers strive to increase the longevity of their products by de-rating their pumps. For instance, they may install a 3,500- or 4,000-psi pump on a pressure washer rated at 3,000 psi. In that event, the pump will last much longer, since it’s not continually performing at its highest output.



Next, it’s critical to determine if the engine (or electric motor) that drives the pump is adequate. Even though it may carry a respected brand name, it may not perform as expected if it is too small for the pump. Again, if any component is constantly pushed to the limit, it typically won’t last as long or operate as well as it should.

In an effort to cut costs, some manufacturers will use the least powerful engine that will still turn the pump, since a higher-horsepower engine will only boost the price. But an underpowered engine will operate under extreme labor, and always with the governor wide open, dumping as much fuel as possible into the cylinders to keep up the rpm.

Furthermore, an undersized engine or motor may keep a unit from operating at its specifications. Consider a pressure washer advertised to have a 9-hp engine and put out 3,000 psi at 4 gpm. While the pump may have the capacity to meet the pressure and volume ratings, the engine will not have enough power to drive the system properly.

In fact, a 3,000-psi/4-gpm pump requires a minimum of 11 hp to reach full potential. Anything under 11 hp will deliver less pressure and volume than stated on the unit. Even then, a 13-hp engine would be better suited for the job to ensure a longer service life.



Obviously, most people looking to purchase a pressure washer will not know how much horsepower they need for a specific pump. Therefore, qualified dealers are often the best place to turn for advice. They will help sort out the most suitable units and also will provide service and warranty support when needed.

Established pressure washer manufacturers have networks of dealers who have replacement parts on hand and are available to help fix any problems. The owner of a lower-grade unit may have trouble finding parts – let alone a dealer willing to touch the machine.

In fact, many of the lowest-cost units are practically disposable. For instance, some pressure washers are “lubed for life,” meaning they aren’t designed to have the oil changed (there is no opening to check or add oil) or to have other types of regular maintenance performed. Once these machines die, there is little hope for resuscitation.

While operators may spend a little more time performing routine maintenance checks on a professional-quality pressure washer, they will be rewarded with higher performance, less downtime and a much longer service life.

Finally, the quality of a pressure washer and integrity of its manufacturer are often reflected in the warranty. Reputable manufacturers generally provide better coverage on crucial components, such as the pump, engine and frame. They also have strong dealer support, and they honor warranties when claims are submitted.

After considering all factors, it’s a little easier to understand the price-quality variances in pressure washers. By knowing the basics and speaking with a qualified dealer, you can pick out the best machine for your application.

About the Author: Dan Leiss is president of Jenny Products Inc., a manufacturer of pressure washers, steam cleaners, and other cleaning equipment based in Chicago, Ill.


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