By Diane M. Calabrese / Published November 2015
Clarity is the best way to avoid misconceptions. So promote it. Give customers the information they need to set expectations. And seize every opportunity to stay current with equipment changes, capabilities, and trends.
A customer with understanding will not expect to see a new roof after a soft wash, assume the entire exterior can be accessed without trimming a prized hydrangea, or be surprised by a faint ghost after removal of some graffiti. Similarly, a contractor who knows how to assess a project and choose and deploy the correct tools will not disappoint.
Among the misconceptions customers have about pressure washing, perhaps the biggest involves water use. It’s imperative that water be used in accordance with the valuable resource it is.
“Customers might think it’s not necessary to control runoff” of wastewater, says Gary Gilman, president and owner of SteamMaster Restoration and Cleaning, LLC in Minturn, CO. “It’s important to capture wastewater and dispose of it properly.”
Proper discharge of wastewater will meet the requirements (including permitting) of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which is an outgrowth of the Clean Water Act of 1987, explains Gilman. At the local level, the requirements vary from collecting and hauling away wastewater to using a specially designated sewer. So a customer in Colorado who talks to a friend in Kansas will need a basic understanding of how requirements vary by state and municipality.
Gilman also wants customers to understand how committed he and other industry professionals are to the environment. “We want to reduce the amount of chemicals in the environment—in order to protect the life in streams and beyond.”
With water being scarce in many regions, everyone aims to do more with less of it. “We control and contain our water,” says Gilman. At that, though, cleaning with a pressure washer is “only a small sliver of what we do.”
By matching the tool to the cleaning surface, Gilman is able to conserve water and chemicals. His company does rely on a 3500 psi truck-mounted unit to remove black staining caused by aspen leaves. But remediation and restoration cleaning are the large parts of his business. Cryogenic cleaning, or using dry ice pellets that sublimate after abrading, is another tool.
With a thorough understanding of a customer’s needs, a contractor can recommend a best method. One way that a contractor can avoid generating misconceptions when interacting with customers is to recommend the best method, even if it means the prospective customer will have to use another contractor. (This is not easy, but it can be made more palatable by building alliances and getting recommendations in return—or alternatively, diversifying some.)
“The most important thing a contractor can do to prevent a prospective customer from developing misconceptions about pressure washing is to take the time to educate their customer,” says Michael Laskowski, owner of American Safe Wash in Old Saybrook, CT. “Education helps identify the cleaning issues, set expectations as to what is required, and builds trust between the customer and contractor as to why they are the professional cleaning contractor to perform the service.”
“The biggest misconception about pressure washing is that exterior cleaning is all about pressure,” says Laskowski. “When in reality, professional exterior cleaning involves the application of cleaning science, which involves much more than just pressure.”
What is in the “much more” category? “Pressure washing requires the knowledge of the type or types of cleaning energy required—not only to clean the stain but also knowing how to use these forms of energy correctly in order to protect and preserve the substrate the stain is on,” explains Laskowski.
“The three main types of cleaning energy include chemical energy—use of detergents, surfactants, degreasers, oxidizers, etc.; thermal energy—hot or cold water; and finally mechanical energy—pressure,” says Laskowski. He emphasizes that the professional must keep all three forms of energy—and the interplay of the forms—in mind, not only when approaching a project, but also when explaining the approach to a customer.
“Most people only think of mechanical energy (pressure), when they think of pressure washing, however the reality is chemical energy and thermal energy are more often relied upon in the exterior cleaning field, and for the most part, the reduction or elimination of pressure is often times preferred,” says Laskowski. The benefits that result from doing more with less extend to the environment directly, but also indirectly.
For example, causing damage to a structure with a cleaning method means that even after a repair, the structure may have its longevity cut short. The costs of structural replacement include the environment, which is impacted by the use of new materials and disposal of old ones.
“Knowing how to use the least amount of each form of energy is the mark of a true professional exterior cleaning company because the use of too strong a chemical, with too much heat and too much pressure can each pose their own types of risks to the surface being cleaned,” says Laskowski. “Therefore, knowing how to clean what you are cleaning safely requires a thorough understanding of cleaning science and the abilities and limitations of each of the various cleaning techniques.”
Making good choices comes from understanding processes and tools. “Pressure washing is about the proper application of cleaning science in order to achieve the maximum degree of clean while doing so safely and efficiently,” says Laskowski.
No one denies the importance of pressure in a cleaning job suited to a pressure washer. Yet pressure should be considered in context to be fully understood and used to its best advantage.
“While it’s difficult to choose only one misconception that I seem to encounter as a pressure washing contractor, perhaps one of the most misleading is the notion that high psi equates to ‘commercial-grade’ cleaning service for conventional flatwork cleaning—both residential and retail/commercial,” says Joel Bergman, operations manager at All Wet Pressure Washing, Inc. in Portland, OR.
“By this, I mean that contractors and customers alike tend to believe that a 3000, 3500, 4000 psi unit is going to do a professional-grade job cleaning sidewalks, driveways, parking garages, etc.,” explains Bergman. “This is wholly untrue and oversimplifies what a professional pressure washing service equates to.”
Using pressure alone as the measure of suitability when designing a cleaning approach leads to less-than-optimal outcomes. Pressure must be evaluated along with flow rate, heat, nozzle type, and chemicals. A contractor must especially have a good understanding of the concept of cleaning units (cleaning unit = product of psi and gpm) and go from there.
Too much of a focus on pressure is not the only misconception that Bergman has observed. “Just as important, and what I feel truly distinguishes a full-service pressure washing contractor that specializes in conventional flatwork cleaning, is the equipment’s ability to produce high pressure and high volume—greater cleaning units—and hot water,” says Bergman.
“An example to illustrate the importance of cleaning units and heat would be a retail shopping center sidewalk,” says Bergman. “A contractor relying solely on a 4000 psi/4 gpm (16,000 cleaning units) machine may be able to ‘wow’ a customer with an impressive psi number, but they will simply not be able to move as quickly or efficiently and cannot safely remove gum and stains…as a contractor using a 3000 psi/8 gpm (24,000 cleaning units).”
Cleaning units are just the foundation. “Add hot water capability to that same contractor’s equipment design and it is no contest,” says Bergman. “Greater cleaning units and hot water clean better.”
Moreover, lower pressure reduces the risk of damage. Even a sidewalk surface can be damaged and the process of sidewalk replacement is no joy for commercial or residential dwellers.
Again, the deeper and broader the knowledge of the contractor, the better the contractor can educate the customer. Removing the misconceptions from both sides of the equation allows the job to proceed smoothly toward a professional outcome.
“The vast majority of our customer base are property management firms, and educating that customer on the difference between high pressure and high volume is critical to remaining competitive,” says Bergman. “Total cleaning units is vastly more important than how much pressure a contractor is working with.”
Not only does using less pressure reduce “the risk of damage to heavily used sidewalks,” says Bergman, “but the speed and efficiency at which a contractor can move through a property and the overall job quality are significantly more reliant on the contractor that can provide greater cleaning units with their equipment, than the contractor that simply touts high-pressure equipment. A property manager who understands this difference will quickly realize that professional ‘pressure’ washing isn’t just defined by high pressure.”
Balance is the constant companion of understanding and avoiding misconceptions. Contractors must know their equipment and processes, be up-to-date on best practices techniques (and certifications, as appropriate), and be ready to share the customer-friendly version of the foregoing with prospective clients.