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Pressure Washer and Power Washer Business Tips from Powerclean
GUIDE TO STARTING A PRESSURE WASHING BUSINESS  

 

GET GOING!
OK, now were ready to spend some money and get on with making more money  Here is a list of the basics equipment you are going to need:

  • Of course a Pressure Washer
    It's easy to go out and buy a pressure washer but not so easy deciding which one you need.  Regardless of what kind of work your going to do the concept is the same -blast away dirt and make stuff cleaner.  How much dirt you blast away and how much cleaner it gets is a matter of pressure, flow and time.  If you have lots of pressure and flow, then you don't need so much time.  If you have lots of time the pressure and flow don't matter so much.  Now, you can take this to extremes and say 20,000 PSI with 20 GPM will clean a few square feet in a few seconds. Whereas 1,000 PSI at 1.5 GPM may clean the same area in more than a few minutes.    

    So what's practical? If you decided earlier to clean rust off bridges then that $100K machine with 20,000 PSI at 20 GPM is just right.  But, don't try cleaning bridges with a residential $100.00, 1,000 PSI, 1.5 GPM machine.  However, many people do clean their driveways with a $100.00 machine they purchased at a big box store.  It may be practical for them but is it practical for you?  Well, if you want to make $10.00 per hour for the 5 hours it will take to clean the driveway then, yes.  But, with the right machine, which is practical, you can make $50.00 per hour or more.

    Somewhere in between the extremes is a machine that fits the budget.  But wait!  Before you buy a machine lets talk about how the machine, and you, are going to get it to the job.  If you have a car and want to fit everything in the trunk and back seat, which many people do, then consider something a little smaller.  If you have a pickup or van then something bigger is no order.

    There has to be a compromise between the best machine for the job and your ability to get it there.  A 5 HP to 7 HP machine is easy to lift and fit in a trunk while a 13 HP unit is is better suited to roll onto a truck or van.  There is no doubt that you will get more jobs and make more money with the bigger machine.  You are more limited with the smaller machine but be realistic in what you can pack around.  Don't forget you also need to get hoses, wands, gas cans, tools and rain gear into that space.

    Assuming you have a van or truck my recommendation is for a 3000 to 4000 PSI machine.  Prices are reasonable and the unit is not overly bulky or heavy.  This size, with a 4 GPM pump, will satisfy most of your cleaning requirements and allow you to make a good income. 

    What engine, what pump?  When you go shopping for a pressure washer these days it's amazing what variety you have to choose from.  Four different engine manufacturers, with gas or diesel.  Four or five different pump manufacturers with 3 or more different configurations.  All these choices combined with ten, or more, different pressure washer manufacturers.  Oh Bother, what's a person to do?

    Let's start with the least important of all - the manufacturer.  What, you say, how can that be least important?  Well simply, in my opinion, it is!  Nobody really manufactures a pressure washer.  Most  manufacturers simply assemble a motor, that they don't make, with a pump, that they don't make on a cart, that they don't make and add some accessories such as hoses, guns and wands, which they also don't make.  Then, they put their label on it and sell it as the best machine on the market.   It may be the best, not because it's theirs, but because they assembled the pressure washer with the best components available. 

    Many manufacturers assemble their washers using the best, and consequently the most expensive, components.  These manufacturers are selling into the commercial and industrial market whose buyers understand the long term value of the higher cost components and are willing to pay for it. 

    Many manufacturers use the worst components, and consequently the least expensive, to assemble a pressure washer.  The difference in component cost, on a wholesale level, can make a huge difference to the sticker price.  These manufacturers are selling into the more price conscious market of home owners and part time commercial users.  There is nothing wrong with these units other than many people don't realize they are buying lower quality which may result in early failures and the possibility of not being able to get parts and service.  Ever asked for parts or service from a big box store for a pressure washer?  It doesn't exist in most cases.  If brought to our shop we can fix it, if we can get parts, but in many cases parts don't exist.  The marketing strategy seems to be "throw it away and buy a new one"  How long do you think your new business will last using this type of equipment?

    The pressure washer is your most important asset, besides you.  On the job it's your partner and it needs to be reliable so don't cheap out at this stage.  Spend the extra money and buy something made from quality components.  Spending the extra money at this stage will serve you well into the future. 

    OK we have talked about the least important part of a pressure washer now let's talk about the most important:
    • PARTS AND SERVICE
      All equipment, no matter what quality or price, eventually needs parts and service.  First, ask the seller what the service and parts policy is.  Whatever you buy make sure there are parts available for it.  If not locally, then on the internet.  Look at the model number of the pump and do a search.  You will soon see if parts are available.  Most important are valves and seal kits, which are a regular maintenance item.  If you can do your own service, so much the better.  There are lots of resources on line for troubleshooting problems and servicing pumps.  Engines are the same way.  If you stick with the most common engine for pressure washers, Honda, you will have no problem getting parts and service.
    • THE PUMP
      What brand?  The Italians have been making pressure washer pumps for many years.  The major Italian manufacturers commonly available in North America are General/Interpump, Comet and AR.  HOTSY make a pump, or have it made for them, but parts are expensive because they are usually only available from Hotsy dealers. CAT pumps, which are made in Japan, are often referred to as the Cadillac of pumps and, in my opinion, they are just that.  If you see one pulled apart on the bench it is apparent why they are the best pump on the market.  This quality comes with a price though.  Not only are the pumps more expensive but parts are as well.  Compare prices on seal and valve kits and you will see the difference.  If you have lots of work and running your machine all day, every day then by all means spend the extra money and get a CAT pump.  Otherwise all General/Interpump, Comet and AR are great pumps so shop around and see what's available.  I'm prone  to General/Interpump and Comet because they are readily available, easy to service and have good availability of reasonably priced parts. 

      You would think that once you have decided on one of the best pump that would be it.  Not so!  All these pump manufacturers offer different versions of their pump.  First off lets understand the basics.  There are two basic kinds of pump, hollow shaft and hollow shaft.   The difference in the drive shaft is significant and makes a big difference in how the pump is connected to the engine and complexity of the system.  For this discussion I will restrict the information given to gas engines.   

      Solid shaft pumps, also known as belt drive, are generally for more heavy duty systems.  The solid shaft is just that, a solid shaft with a keyway cut into it.  It allows for connection to different power sources in different ways.  A solid shaft allows for connection to an engine by using a pulley and belt system.  A pulley on the pump drives a pulley on the engine a  using a v-belt.  In this setup the pump and motor are mounted separately on a common base frame.  A belt and pulley setup allows for a variety of pumps to be driven by any motor. On the plus side, belt driven pumps are usually more robust and last longer than direct driven pumps as they are larger and turn at slower speeds.  The downside is that they are more expensive, heavier and bulky, which has to be considered when purchasing and packing around.  

      Hollow shaft pumps, also known as direct drive. are just that, a solid shaft that is bored out with a hole and a keyway cut into it.  In addition to the hollow shaft the pump is fitted with a flange.  The flange is designed to bolt to the output shaft flange on the engine.  On the plus side, motor shaft slides into pump shaft, pump flange bolts to engine flange.  The pump and engine become one. Simple, easy and cheap. On the downside is that these pumps have to turn at the speed of the engine.  Since a typical gas engine's peak performance is at 3400 RPM, the pump needs to turn at 3,400 RPM.  Faster equals more wear and tear on the internal parts.  Generally speaking direct drive pumps wear out faster, need more cooling and servicing. 

      Got that?  Now you decide on what type of pump to get.  For further discussion I am assuming your looking toward a direct drive pump, which is my recommendation.  Now there are a few other decisions to make before your finished!

      Now that you have decided to go with a direct drive pump you need to decide on a plunger/piston style pump or an axial style pump.  What! Yes, there are two very different styles of direct drive pumps available. Plunger style and Axial style. As usual, there is one that's less expensive than the other and again, one is better than the other.

      Axial pumps operate on the principle of a spinning disc which is on an angle.  Simply put, push rods, which are attached to the pistons, are held tight against the plate are moved in and out as the plate turns.  As the push rods are moved in and out the plungers pump the water.    The way they work is much like the action of the camshaft, which operates the valves in your car engine.  Compared to plunger pumps this style is simpler but subject to more wear and tear, more expensive to service and they are cheaper to make.

      Plunger pumps operate on the principle of a spinning crankshaft, with offset connections to push rods, which in turn are attached to plungers.  As the crankshaft turns the plungers are moved back and forth, pumping water.  The way these pumps work is much like the action of the crankshaft, which moves the pistons in your car engine.  Compared to axial pumps plunger pumps are more complex, last longer, are easier to service and they are more expensive to make.

      After all of that my recommendation is to buy the plunger pump.  The cost is not that much greater.  The extra cost of a plunger pump will soon be made back by less maintenance and service.  If you are a homeowner and don't intend to make a living with your pressure washer, go ahead and save the up-front money.  Just remember the more you use it the sooner you will come to the break even point if you had spent the extra money up-front.  Usually this happens at the first service as a failure in axial pumps is generally terminal.

      OK now presuming you have decided on the plunger pump, like I would, you need to make another decision.  One of the most important parts of the pump and pressure wash system is the unloader valve.  All axial pumps have a built-in unloader so there are no decisions to make if that's the pump you decided on.

      Firstly, the unloader valve is critical to your pressure washer pump.  Basically what happens is your pump is what is called positive displacement.  This means every time a pump turns it moves water.  This water needs a place to go.  When you have the trigger pulled on your gun water gets pushed through the nozzle, making pressure.  When you release the trigger the water needs a place to go.  The unloader valve is what takes care of the water being pumped by bypassing it into the low pressure (inlet) side of the pump.  So when in bypass mode the water being pumped is circulated, at low pressure, around the pump.  The problem with this setup is that water being continuously circulated builds up heat.  Left in bypass for more than a few minutes the pump will overheat to the point that seals melt and plungers crack.  The rule is to either shutoff the machine or pull the trigger once in a while when in extended bypass.

      Lately, piston pump manufacturers have been selling pumps with built-in unloaders.  These are cheaper to make because the valving is built into the head of the pump, meaning fewer fittings and less brass.  This is generally a good idea.  Except if the brass seats or machined surfaces in the head get damaged, you are faced with a very expensive fix.  If this happens you will probably need to replace the pump.  A separate bolted on unloader is susceptible to the same damages but can be replaced without having to replace the head of the pump

      Many plunger pumps come with a separate unloader and you should consider this type to put on your pressure washer.  The reason being is so that you can control your bypass water. If say you are working a long distance away from your machine it is not practical to go to it every time you need to release the trigger for more than a few minutes.  Many contractors will make a simple conversion to their unloader which allows bypass water to go elsewhere, either to a tank or garden or simply on the ground under the machine.  With this setup you can leave your unit on bypass for extended periods with no damage from overheating.
    • THE ENGINE
      Hands down the most popular engine on the market is Honda.  They are an excellent engine.  We have changed pumps on pressure washers that have a 25 year old Honda engine that is still going strong.  If you buy a Honda and look after it, it will give you many years of service.  That's not to say other engines are bad.  Many manufacturers build top-quality engines, which generally cost less.  I have a 30 year old Toro lawnmower with a Briggs engine that sits in my shed, with gas in the tank, all winter.  In the spring it starts with just a few pulls of the cord.  

      A word about Chinese made engines.  A few years ago there appeared some engines are the market that looked exactly like Honda engines.  In fact they were so much alike that parts were interchangeable with Honda.  But that's where the similarities ended.  Quite frankly they were junk and many ended up in the scrap heap after only a few hours of use.  

      Since then a few North American companies used their influence to convince Chinese engine manufacturers to build higher quality products.  Many pressure washer companies were reluctant to use them but eventually they have improved and are being offered by some major manufacturers.  BE Pressure Supply, one of the world's foremost pressure washer manufacturers, now have a line of washers with Chinese made engines and pumps.  Our company have been selling these units, mostly to non-commercial companies.  We are pleased with success we have had with them and now offer the engines and pumps separately.
    • THE REST OF IT
      The rest of your basic startup system consists of the cart, hose, gun, wand and a selection of nozzles. This is pretty standard stuff and generally you don't have a choice.  If you go with a a quality pump and engine you can be pretty sure that you will be getting better quality accessories. Check the hose and make sure it's wire braided and not thermoplastic.  Remember, all manufacturers are well aware of the competitive nature of the pressure washer market.  While they may use quality pump and engine components they may not necessarily use the best quality accessories.

      With the cart, sometimes there will be choices.  You may be able to choose from powder coated steel, aluminum or stainless steel.  Aluminum works good because it's light and does not tarnish.  Stainless is also good but is a little heavier and most expensive.  Powder coated steel is the heavier and least expensive choice but can rust in areas where the powder coating gets knocked off.  Check to see if the cart comes in different configurations - front wheels where you lift the handle to move the machine or rear wheels where you push down on the handle to move the machine.  Different people find advantages for each type based on their height, terrain machine is being moved over or how the machine is loaded for transport.  It's a personal thing and not critical. But, if you have a choice, at least think about it.
    • ACCESSORIES
      Depending on your budget you may not want buy any accessories before you get started.  With the basic system your ready to get started and make some money.  But if you have some more money in your start-up budget there are a few reasonably priced accessories that can make a huge difference in the time to finish jobs.  Let's face it, if you can get through a job faster, you make more money.  Here are some suggestions and estimated cost:

      -ROTARY NOZZLE ($25.00 to $175.00)
      Probably the most effective accessory you can get, for the money.  The rotary nozzle is a very aggressive cleaning tool.  It's great for cleaning grease spots, gum, corners and ripping weeds from cracks in sidewalks.  A rotating nozzle works well for rinsing or blowing debris out of the way.  Because it's so aggressive you need to be very careful not to damage the surfaces you are cleaning.  But, once you get on to it. you will love it!  Here is a tip - the more expensive rotary nozzles have two ceramic pieces inside them. One of the pieces, the one that spins, is loose.  As ceramics are very brittle it is important to make sure they don't slam together or the pieces will crack and will not spin.  To prevent the ceramics from slamming together when you pull the trigger point the nozzle to the ground when you pull the trigger, not in the air.  When pointed to the ground the pieces are already together.

      -LONGER OR TELESCOPIC WAND  ($25.00 to $200.00)
      A longer wand will allow you to get places your standard wand can't get to.  With a telescopic wand you can clean the outside of second story gutters from the ground.  You will also be able to clean inside the gutters with a gutter cleaning attachment.  If your offering "whole-house" cleaning it's important to be able to do it efficiently.

      -FLAT SURFACE CLEANER  ($130.00 to $700.00)
      If the rotary nozzle is the most effective accessory you can get for the money then the Flat Surface Cleaner is the most important accessory you can get.......  Period!

      Think of a flat surface cleaner as a large rotary nozzle, or should I say 2 or more rotary nozzles.  Once you use one of these for cleaning a large driveway, patio or parking lot you will never want to go back to the old way.  Not only do they work way faster, they also get the surface cleaner, without streaks.

      The most important aspect of choosing a flat surface cleaner is not size.  The output of your machine is the most important information you need to decide.  Remember the discussion on nozzle sizes, HP and water flow, which determines the pressure output of your machine.  Well, these factors need to be considered when choosing a flat surface cleaner.  

      A 4000 PSI, 4 GPM machine's rating is based on pushing the 4 GPM through a .04 nozzle.  If you push that water volume through a larger nozzle the output pressure will drop.  Conversely, if you push the water through a smaller hole the pressure will increase, based on the restraints of the unloader valve and horsepower of the machine.  Flat surface cleaners have at least two nozzles.  This means the water output is being divided equally amongst the total number of nozzles.  If for example, the surface cleaner has two nozzles, your GPM will drop to 2 GPM per nozzle.  To maintain design pressure the total combined nozzle size needs to stay at .040.  Therefore the surface cleaner, with two nozzles, needs to be fitted with .020 nozzles to maintain the 4000 PSI.

      So, when choosing a surface cleaner don't choose one that uses nozzles with a greater combined hole size greater than your machines output or you will not be getting the most out of the setup.  For the 4000 PSI, 4 GPM machine, two nozzles fit perfectly.  Some surface cleaners come with 3 or 4 nozzles.  If you want one of these then look into installing smaller nozzles.  However, be careful here as very small nozzles can easily plug up, causing problems in the field.  Don't get caught up in "bigger is better" when it comes to flat surface cleaners.  Get one that is designed for your flow and pressure. An 18 inch machine will clean way better, and faster, at peak performance than a 24" that's not producing full pressure.

      Wheels or brush skirt.  Surface Cleaners come with a brush skirt, which are supposed to glide like a hover craft on a cushion of pressurized water.  Other run on wheels and casters.  Which is important and what's best?  First, what do wheels, casters and brush skirts do?  Number 1, they keep the machine from riding on the ground so it can move.  Second, they allow the machine to be maneuvered in any direction you need it to go in and finally, they keep the action spay under the machine.  

      Let's Look at brush skirts first because they seem to do all the important things.  Brush skirts are cheaper to make because they don't have wheels.  If you have the right pressure and flow, they do float so can be pushed or pulled in any direction and they do keep the spray action under the machine,  To me, the brush skirt has a serious flaw.  They are not always stable and when changing direction the skirt can drag on the surface.  I have used surface cleaners for many years and found the best way to get even cleaning coverage is to move the cleaner in a figure 8 movement as you go from side to side and back and forth.  If the brush skirt keeps rubbing on the ground your going to be sore by the end of the day.  The other flaw I see is the ability of the machine to fall into outside corners of a curb, causing damage to the rotating arm and swivel.  

      Wheeled units are easy push and pull back and forth but can't be pushed sideways to get the figure 8 action.  Going back and forth is OK but when you come to a planter or other obstruction.  Some have wheels on the back and casters on the front.  These are a little better to move around obstructions but still can't be moved sideways. 

      Casters turn in every direction and a surface cleaner with casters on all four corners gives you the ultimate in ease of use and maneuverability.  Back and forth, sideways or figure eights are all easily done. When cleaning a curb you can hank one wheel over the edge and the machine stays flat, saving costly arm and swivel repair.   I started with a 16 inch BE Whirlaway with 4 casters.  That machine cleaned many hundreds of thousand square feet over many years.  I made a lot of money with that machine!  Only problem was replacing casters.  Casters, while being the best choice, are the weak point.  Because they run in such a hostile environment all the time they tend to wear out often.  When the bearings in the wheel fail and the wheel falls off, it gets awfully difficult to move the machine.  So, be prepared and have spare casters with you.

      BE Pressure Supply have recently come up with a unit with removable casters, which can be changed in a few seconds without tools.  This is a great idea because it gives you the best of all worlds -both casters and a brush skirt.  It costs a little more but, in my opinion, well worth the extra money.

      Plastic housing or stainless steel.  Stainless steel units are pretty to look at but that's where the advantage stops.  Stainless will never rust out but plastic doesn't  rust either.  The plastic units are really tough.  Drop it off your truck and it bounces.  Drop a stainless unit off your truck and it dents.  So much for pretty!  If you have a choice go for the lighter, cheaper alternative -plastic.

      Finally, what swivel?  Generally you don't have a choice. Flat surface cleaner manufacturers link up with a swivel manufacturer and that's what you get.  From what I have seen most surface cleaners come with high quality swivels.  Some of the residential cheaper surface cleaners are questionable but they are not designed for commercial use, so don't buy one of those.  Some machines are hundreds or even a thousand dollars more expensive.  Why?  They say "Better Quality" but I'm not convinced.  I believe that if you buy a middle of the road surface cleaner from a reputable supplier, run clean water through it and maintain the machine you will be making money with it for a long time. 

      -HOT WATER
      When you have the budget and are committed to the business then seriously consider hot water.  Offering hot water cleaning opens up new opportunities for business as well as making your existing business more profitable.  For existing business you can get the same price but do the job faster and better.  For new business you can charge more and do it faster.  Some customers demand hot water and now you will be able to bid on that work.

      Hold on!  Before going out and buying a hot water machine you have to realize it changes almost everything.  Your faced with getting your bulky and heavy machine to the job, another type of fuel to carry, additional safety concerns and replacing or retrofitting accessories to handle hot water.  

      The main difference is getting the machine to the job.  If you have a 2 man crew then getting it in and out of a truck or van is not so bad.  But, if you  work on your own then you may need to have a fixed installation in a trailer, truck or van.  This is not a bad way to go, if you have the money, because you can start looking at being self-contained, which opens up a whole new potential customer base.

      -MISCELLANEOUS ACCESSORIES
      Once you get started in your new business you will see many new opportunities for new business.  You will also see ways to make your current business more profitable and to make your job more easier. Additional accessories can do this for you. Inexpensive stuff such as chemical and soap application options allows you to get into truck and trailer fleet cleaning,  Talk to some painters because a sand blaster will take off paint to bare metal.  A sewer jetting hose and nozzle setup opens up a new world of very profitable business cleaning drains, working for plumbers, homeowners and property managers.  There's a myriad of work out there and with the right accessories it can be yours.


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