by Paul Williams

Take your car to a professional detailing shop and they’ll have a high-pressure washer on hand. This is the kind of specialized equipment that separates trades people from the sponge-and-bucket brigade.

But high-pressure washers are now available from your local automotive store. They may not have quite the firepower and versatility as the professional units, but they’re a quarter of the price and they’ll knock the dirt off pretty much anything.

What’s a pressure washer? It’s a motor-driven device that propels water at pressures far beyond the capacity of your garden hose. They come in four types ranging from light-duty electric models, to gas-powered residential, gas-powered heavy-duty and gas-powered professional units.

Gas-powered professional washers will take paint off a wall, which is great if you’re removing graffiti from buildings, but probably a bit much for your Camry.

Automotive stores typically carry the light-duty electric models, which are plenty powerful. True to Canadian form, they’re rated in kilopascals (kPa) for pressure, and gallons per minute (GPM) for maximum water volume (probably US gallons, at that).

The Simoniz S1400 is rated at 9900 kPa and 1.7 GPM, and is representative of the type. It’s operated by an electric motor that plugs into a standard 120V home outlet.

The S1400 boosts garden hose power to a maximum of 1400 pounds per square inch (p.s.i.). Given that your typical garden hose makes around 40 p.s.i., you’re looking at a device that increases its power by a factor of 35. It also uses 80% less water than a garden hose.

So how do you use it, and what can it do?

The S1400 is packaged in a sturdy box, with some assembly required. The pressure washer itself is about the size of a large toaster, but a lot heavier. At 13 kilograms (28 lbs) it’s not unmanageable, but you’ll be pleased it has wheels.

Assembly is confined to attaching a handle with six screws. This is a simple task, even for those who aren’t mechanically inclined. Once attached, the waist-high handle allows you to pull the washer around, and lift it up and down stairs without fuss.

At one end of the washer you’ll find two fittings. One is to attach your garden hose (the water “in” fitting). The other is to attach your high-pressure hose with trigger gun (the water “out” fitting).

At the other end is a short, plastic hose that you put in a bucket of soapy water. The unit sucks soapy water out of the bucket and mixes it with the flow of water through the washer, if you want to shampoo your car.

Finally, there’s a long cord to plug in the unit, and an on/off switch.

My first task was washing a car with alloy wheels that were blackened with brake dust. Following the instructions, I plugged in the power cord, and attached the garden hose. Then I cranked the water full-blast, gingerly approached the car and squeezed the trigger.

What a surprise! The water dribbled out with less pressure than my unassisted garden hose. I resisted the temptation to look down the barrel of the trigger gun, cartoon style, while recalling that S1400 has an on/off switch.

In the interest of safety, it also has a lockable trigger on the gun. With the machine now turned on, the gun blasts water like the power washers you find at your neighbourhood do-it-yourself car washes.

I washed the car the same way I do with a bucket and hose. First I soaked it, then I applied soap, rinsed, and dried it off.

After soaking the car, you twist the end of the trigger gun to put it into low-pressure mode. This is also your shampoo mode, and, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a short hose you put in a bucket of soapy water for this purpose. I mixed my usual solution of soap and water, following the instructions on the bottle.

Once the car’s soaped up, you can just high-pressure wash it off, but I think you get a better result by giving the car a once-over with a wash mitt. This ensures that stubborn dirt and grime is dislodged.

Then it’s back to high-pressure mode to rinse the car.

The alloy wheels really came up well. The washer simply knocks the brake dust off the wheels, even getting to the inner rim that you normally can’t reach. For classic sports car owners, it’s great for wire wheels.

I used a synthetic chamois to dry the car for a very satisfactory result.

At a price somewhere between $100-$300, you may think a high-pressure washer is an expensive appliance to wash your car, but it does other things.

Use it to clean your driveway, your deck, patio, brickwork and siding, boat, garden furniture, garden equipment, motorcycle, truck and similar items. There’s a rotary nozzle for specialized jobs, and a selection of accessories are available.

You’ll also become quite popular. Two of my neighbours came to visit, then borrowed the power-washer.

Two more things. First, a high-pressure washer is not a toy, and shouldn’t be used by young children. Second, the instructions refer to the use of detergent when you’re shampooing your car. Detergent typically is used for jobs where you emulsify oils. Dishwashing detergent is an example of a product that is designed to dissolve grease. If you use detergent on your car, you’ll remove its polish and wax. For cars, look for a car shampoo, or car wash, not a detergent.

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