Choosing a Surface Cleaner

Choosing a Surface Cleaner

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published April 2018

Photos courtesy of BE Pressure.

Factors To Consider

Speed, efficiency, and ease of cleanup are factors to consider when choosing a surface cleaner. Experts tell us why.

“We see a major jump with contractors operating at higher gpm,” says James Baltz, operations supervisor/senior tech specialist at Whisper Wash Inc. in St. Petersburg, FL. “The physical restrictions are magnified on surface cleaners with small openings. Pushing higher gpm through such openings will cause extra wear on their machine.”

The response? “Our company has modified our surface cleaners in multiple areas over the years,” says Baltz. In addition, it strives to help contractors understand the configuration that works best.

Contractors sometimes install the wrong size spray tips, explains Baltz. “For example, eight gpm at 3400 psi will drop by 300 psi for every 100 feet of 3/8-inch hose. You will drop down to 2500 psi with 300 feet of hose. Two 2504 spray tips will only push 6.4 gpm at this pressure. Two 2505 spray tips will give you the full eight gpm at this pressure.”

Contractors also incorrectly assume that a smaller surface cleaner “equals faster cleaning,” says Baltz. “That’s not always true with eight gpm or higher. Our company’s Maxima 36-inch will clean two times the area compared to the Classic 19-inch with each pass. As a result, overlap with cleaned areas, water use, and frequency of water tank refills are all reduced, and the pressure washing hose will last longer.”


Assess square footage of the area to be cleaned to begin to match a surface cleaner, says Baltz. “A long, narrow area like a four-foot sidewalk can be cleaned in one or two passes with the correct size surface cleaner.”

A contractor wants to do a good job in the most expeditious manner possible. Meeting the two goals requires choosing a surface cleaner with care.

 To make an exacting choice, start by answering some fundamental questions, says Bruce Tassone, president of HydraMotion in Bridgeport, PA. “What size will work best with my existing pressure washing equipment? Purchasing a surface cleaner that is too large causes you to slow down your pace to achieve good cleaning.

“Also look for the best value on initial investment,” says Tassone. Longevity matters. “Buying a unit that is designed to last only three or four months means it will break down too soon, or even worse, unexpectedly in the middle of a key project and then require extensive repairs.”

Purchase price alone should never be the deciding factor. “The contractor should really be focused on the long-term cost of use and repair of
the accessory,” says Tassone. “The accessory should not be treated as a consumable tool, but as a piece of equipment that should have a minimum six to eight-year service life.”

Choosing carefully results in a surface cleaner that performs well and reliably. It also enables a contractor to achieve the greenest possible approach.

“The right surface cleaner using high-efficiency nozzles can clean most surfaces without the need for specialty chemicals,” says Tassone. “If the surface cleaner is designed correctly, the spray bar and nozzles are set to maximize the cleaning efficiency of the unit.”

Tassone points out that his company’s SideWinder brand has proven to work effectively on sidewalks, driveways, pavers, wood decking, and roofs without the need for a chemical. Moreover, the machine has undergone continuous improvement, such as a recent upgrade to its deck and swivel assembly.

”By using a complex deck geometry, we are able to focus the spray pattern to achieve higher cleaning efficiency,” explains Tassone. “The upgrades also add to swivel life. The swivel can be repaired and put back in service. Many customers have been using their assemblies for more than 10 years.”

Because there are times when a chemical is needed, Tassone’s company has engaged in that complementary sphere. “In conjunction with our sister company, we have developed a biodegradable, non-toxic mold and organic cleaner [MCA555]. It effectively replaces bleach so there is no impact on plants or animals. It works extremely fast.”


Herein two more experts add to the trove of advice. They are Brian Elkins, sales professional at Steel Eagle in Elk Point, SD; and Jerry McMillen, owner of Sirocco Performance Vacuums in El Cajon, CA.

Cleaner Times [CT]: What is the first question a contractor should ask himself when choosing a surface cleaner?

Elkins: What kind of pressure washer do they have? This means, what are the flow and pressure, as anything under five gpm at 3000 psi would lead me to recommend a 24-inch spinner. The 24-inch spinner will clean more quickly than a 30-inch spinner under lower flows and pressures.

McMillen: How long a hose needs to be run to the tool from the vacuum—as more suction will be required? And, how many cfm [cubic feet per minute] are optimal for running the tool? As the more gpm are to be reclaimed, the more suction and cfm are required.

CT: Are there surfaces that can be cleaned successfully without chemicals?

Elkins: Yes, cold water washers work okay, but hot water works better by helping to break down dirt, oils, etc. 

McMillen: Tile and grout can usually be cleaned successfully with heat only…good heat is 220–230 degrees F…Heat is very undersold in this industry to the benefit of selling more soap…and using smaller heater coils and burners.

CT: Are there types of surface cleaning equipment that enhance success when working without chemicals?

Elkins: Yes, in my opinion our Vacuum Recovery System can help …With vacuum recovery you can wash and also control where your wastewater goes and treat it properly. 

McMillen: Yes, a proper Vacuum-ing Surface Cleaner can vacuum away the water spray from the spray area, allowing the spray to impact the pollution being removed from the surface more aggressively…not ‘spraying through a puddle.’

CT: What’s one of the biggest recent advancements in surface cleaning equipment or chemicals?

Elkins: Vacuum Recovery Sys-tems—as I said, code enforcement is getting more and more involved with EPA regulations, and fines are starting to be issued for unrecovered wastewater.

McMillen: Concrete restoration—incorporating the multi-nozzle soft wash is a landslide of increased ‘perceived value’ to the contractor. Removing rust and other stains with chemical action and more meticulous procedures dramatically reduces  the damage done by beginners with turbo nozzles.

CT: Is there a mistake that contractors often make when choosing a machine for surface cleaning?

Elkins: During the purchase of a pressure washer, sometimes price is looked at before the performance of the machine. When buying a pressure washer, you want to look at the ease of operation and maintenance, but buy one that is big enough to do the jobs you have contracts for. Low-flow and low-pressure machines will take you longer to wash while costing time and money. Purchase a machine that will do multiple applications, as you can regulate pressure with a simple spray nozzle change.

McMillen: They make two major mistakes. One is flow.  Using a larger deck on your machine doesn’t always give you better work speed, and bigger is less nimble. Harder work is not the best idea, either. Two is pressure. Cleaning at 4000 psi with 25-degree nozzles seems to be the best at removing that which is ‘stuck’ to the surface…3000 psi doesn’t. So, using eight gpm at 3000 psi with a 3/8-in. delivery hose through 300 feet badly reduces delivered pressure to only 2400 psi. Using 1/2-in. hose gets 3000 psi better delivery to the surface, but starting with 4000 psi in the first place delivers 3700 psi with a better quality of clean and a faster work speed.

CT: Is there a mistake that contractors often make when choosing a chemical for surface cleaning?

Elkins: I don’t deal much in chemicals, so the best bet is to see your local chemical dealer.

McMillen: A big mistake is not knowing how much cleaner can be used with 210 to 230 degrees, and using soaps for the quality of clean is wasteful of the soap and causes more expensive wash water to process.

CT: What should we have asked? 

Elkins: Surface cleaning has evolved in the past 10 to 15 years. The days of letting the wastewater go down the drain are being more tightly regulated. The contract cleaner that makes his living from custom washing has to evolve with the changing times. Vacuum recovery systems or soft wash systems are going to be the future in contract cleaning. To avoid costly fines, keep the EPA regulations in mind in your area. Code enforcement officers are on the lookout for contractors not following local codes. No one wants these fines.

McMillen: What are the best matches for surface cleaner efficiency? The answer is 4 to 7 gpm per 20-inch spray bar with two nozzles, 6 to 7.5 gpm with three nozzles, and good to excellent heat.

A 24- to 28-inch spray bar with three nozzles likes 6 to 9 gpm, or four nozzles to 10 gpm. Numbers ramp up from there. If you don’t have 8 to 12 gpm, you’re wasting efficiency with a 30-inch deck.

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