Today in Tedium: Yard work—even at the best of times—is a pain. We’re no strangers to voicing our disdain for the mundane, often monotonous tasks involved with keeping a yard maintained. Nor are we averse to admitting that wayward leaves can sometimes be a pain. But sometimes there are fantastic solutions to these yardwork conundrums. Now, I definitely did not miss my calling as an arborist or a landscaper. Cleaning up branches and trimming trees are my least favorite bits of yard maintenance. But there is one thing I truly enjoy: power washing. Using a pressure washer is a fun, powerful way to clean things up, blast dirt off surfaces, and have a good time while doing it. In today’s Tedium, we’re putting things under pressure as we discuss the story of every dad’s favorite power tool: the pressure washer. — David @ Tedium
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The designation for the law known as the Volstead Act, passed by the 66th Congress of the United States in 1919 (the law went into effect in 1920). Judiciary Chairman Andrew Volstead introduced the law to the house. He wanted to ban the distribution, production, and drinking of alcohol in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson actually vetoed the law, but congress overrode his veto. Where the eighteenth amendment established prohibition, the Volstead Act was intended to enforce it. Volstead got his way. What the mustachioed Minnesotan didn’t realize were the sheer heights to which the populace would go to circumvent prohibition entirely. Folks in the United States loved their alcohol, often going to great lengths with speakeasies, loopholes, and bootlegging.
The pressure washer can trace its roots to prohibition
Some say that necessity is the mother of invention. But more often, it seems that happy accidents play more of a role than they’re given credit for. Such is the case with the pressure washer. Born of an accident in one man’s garage, the pressure washer would go on to become a staple of industrial and household work.
Our story begins in the small town of Moon Township, PA. A small town situated along the Ohio River, Moon Township is actually part of the Pittsburgh Metro area. Settled in the 18th century, the area was named “one of the best, affordable places to live” in the northeast by BusinessWeek back in 2007. But that isn’t the town’s only claim to fame: one of their residents was responsible for creating the precursor to the pressure washer as we know it!
It all started when Frank W. Ofeldt II was working on his whiskey stills at home. In 1926—seven years before prohibition officially ended—Ofeldt noticed something unusual: the steam from his whiskey stills was removing grease stains from his garage floor. Ofeldt knew his way around steam engineering and immediately saw potential in using the steam-cleaning technique in an invention.
This became a light bulb moment for Mr. Ofeldt, prompting him to look for a pump casting and try to design a cleaning contraption based around his discovery. He found the Homestead Valve Company and began collaborating with them on his new design.
Fred Scheuman Jr. Recalled the meeting as a unique experience:
Frank Ofeldt was a neat guy. He was a brilliant, rough and ready engineer, too. But he had the marketing sense of a nit.” Ofeldt and Homestead’s Schuchman joined forces and soon began developmental work on what was temporarily termed the “Hypressure Vapor Spray Generator.”
An adman who worked at the agency by the name of Eltinge decided to christen it the “Steam Powered Jenny” instead.
Essentially, Frank W. Ofeldt II created a steam-powered cleaner.
The magnificent device ushered in new developments that eventually led to the development of the pressure washer as we know it today.
The year Jobs Fordyce Malsbary developed and patented his method for hydraulic pressure cleaning. Known for his utensil-sterilization (which were ostensibly low pressure) equipment, he turned his talents to making dairy sanitizing equipment. He branched out into developing refined cleaning systems and paving the way for the future of the pressure washer.
The steam-powered pressure cleaner would eventually give way to further innovation
Enter Alfred Kärcher, who created the first design that would become the modern pressure washer in 1950. The German inventor was responsible for creating the first real pressure washer—the DS30 high pressure washer—which would go on to inspire many more upgrades and innovations.
Although the German inventor passed only nine years after his creation appeared, the company carried on, expanding its research and development.
Kärcher developed the first modern high pressure washer device. But the pump wasn’t quite up to snuff. Throughout the decade and well into the next, Kärcher continued to develop and expand the design. Then the Cat Pump came along and revolutionized the inner workings of the device.
The Cat Pump company created the Uniflow piston pump that lasted 10 times longer and could reach incredibly high forces. Technology continued to advance and by the mid 70s, they had Piston pumps that could reach 3,000 PSI. These innovations led to the modern pressure washers we have today.
The name Kärcher has pretty much become synonymous with quality when it comes to pressure washers, offering many unique models—both gas and electric. Today, they hold patents and manufacture cleaning products of all types.
For a fascinating look into the evolution of Kärcher pressure washers, our friends over at The Internet Archive have an extensive collection of old operator and parts manuals for you to peruse at your leisure.
The lowest number in the PSI range for a gas-powered pressure washer. Most models put out between 2000-2800. PSI—pounds per square inch—is the amount of pressure you get when one pound of force is applied to a single square inch. That’s a lot of force. According to Consumer Reports, electric pressure washers only put out around 1,300 to 1,700 PSI. The higher the pressure, the more grime it can blast away.
Pressure washers work in mysterious ways (but not really)
Part of the broader appeal of pressure washers is blasting crud, dirt, and debris off surfaces. But the inner workings behind them are just as fascinating.
A gas pressure washer has a few components that help it do its thing. There’s a motor (for electric) or gas tank (for, um, gas-powered models), a water pump, water inlet, high pressure hose, a tank, and usually a spray gun attachment with nozzles. The way they work is fascinating.
Per Explain That Stuff!, the washer is usually connected to a faucet or other water source. Water flows from that Source through the hose and gets filtered into the inlet. When the motor or engine kicks in, it powers up the washer to provide impetus for the pump to do its job. The pump draws in the water and any soap, mixes them together, and heats them to a fairly hot temperature. The pump then proceeds to squirt the water into a reinforced high pressure hose. The nozzle on the attachment is narrow at different angles to allow for adjusting the pressure even further. This high pressure jet stream is what cleans things so effectively.
Personal protective gear is your friend, too. Pressure washing tends to kick up a lot of debris, so having eye gear is a good idea. Gloves, too. Also, it’s like swimming: you’re going to get wet. But, ultimately pressure washing is a satisfying activity worth doing. And if you’re not sure how to use one, we’ve got you covered.
Today, people use pressure washers for everything from cleaning their driveways to removing branches and paint. There are so many uses for a pressure washer, it’s hard to list them all. Aside from their value as a maintenance tool, sometimes people get a little creative and unconventional with how they use their own pressure washers.
The pressure washer model from Karcher that, for some inexplicable reason, uses a version of the Ghostbusters theme song for its commercials. The commercial features a guy in a Ghostbusters khaki style jumpsuit grabbing his brand new Karcher K4 —which admittedly does resemble a proton pack a bit—as green ghosts room around, crashing into the deck and leaving ectoplasm in its wake. Then, he blasts the ectoplasmic residue away with his full control power washer. All the while, a voiceover states: “For an outdoor clean, when it don’t look good, Kärcher puts you in control.” and “Dirt is busted in no time.”
Five times people got creative with pressure washers
Pressure washing can be a blast (sorry). So much so that people tend to get very creative with it. As we scoured the ’Net, we came across far too many to discuss in this small space. So, we chose a few of our favorites. If you, dear readers, can think of a creative use of the pressure washer, feel free to reach out. Enjoy!
- Nativity scene. Making DIY Christmas decorations is probably something most of us have never thought about using our pressure washers to do. One man in Alabama did exactly that—and the results would give Clark Griswold a run for his money! A man in Trussville, AL made one with his pressure washer in 2021. Ron Burkett loved making art, but lacked formal training. So he turned to his trusty pressure washer to create the 85 foot display on his driveway sidewalk. He’d done it before—the previous year he made an elk and mountain scene with his pressure washer in the very same drive. It just goes to show that pressure washers can be used for far more than cleaning.
- The woman who uses driveways as canvases. Nativity scenes are cool and all, but wouldn’t it be better to make an array of inspiring art using driveways as a canvas? North Carolina’s Dianna Wood knows her way around making fine art with a pressure washer. Her designs are inspired, her artwork crisp and clean. She’s not a trained artist, but knows what she’s doing. Inspiration came when she was cleaning her driveway. She told My Modern Art, “When I realized how long it would take (we have a very long and very dirty driveway), I decided to turn it into an art project.” She details some of her methods and posts images of the final product on her website, and plans to continue doing it for some time to come.
- Public fountain. If sidewalk art isn’t your thing, how about a pressure washer-powered public fountain? Known as the Wasserorgel von Winnenden, the fountain is powered by eight pressure washers and controlled by a musical keyboard. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s a musical fountain, powered by pressure washers. Is there anything better than that? Created by Niklas Roy, the engineering behind it is pretty clever. The machine itself actually memorizes pieces of the melody and will play it back when the keyboard is not in use. This effectively helps it create a fun musical light snow for all to enjoy.
- Building a DIY gas pressure washer. DIY is always a lot of fun—we certainly love it here at Tedium—so naturally, finding a DIY pressure washer was a no-brainer. Over at Hackaday, some enterprising folks built their own. The self-contained, gas-powered pressure washer uses a small onboard motor and keeps everything needed to run it on the unit. This includes the water and soap as well as the water pump. It’s an intuitive and unique idea for a DIY project that you can read more about here.
- Peeling Potatoes. Apparently, the horribly mundane task of peeling potatoes can be readily solved by using a pressure washer. If you don’t feel like having a bit of extra fiber in your potatoes—or you’re making fries or mashed potatoes—then peeling potatoes is a must. But doing it manually with a potato peeler is for chumps.
For quick results when it comes to potatoes, pressure washing seems like it gets the job done nicely, just like in this video:
Who’d have thought potato bliss was only a few thousand PSI away?
“I’m a real guy, I like real guy things / Like boats and guns and onion rings / But household chores need a power resolution / I went to the store and purchased the solution.”
— The Arrogant Worms, from their 2006 album Beige. It is the only song we can think of that’s actually about pressure washers. The Canadian comedy-rock band is known throughout Canada for their whimsical, humorous takes on Canadian life. At one point, they even gave a live performance backed up by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, called Semi-conducted. How many novelty groups have that on their resume? Not many, we imagine. Not many at all.
From its inauspicious beginnings during prohibition to its current status as an essential power tool, pressure washers have come a long way. Where you use it to peel potatoes, wash your driveway, or even clean your car, there’s bound to be a place in your garage for a pressure washer of your own.
Sure, it’s not as versatile as WD-40, but it gets the job done one way or the other. Recently, there’s been an increase in the adoption of consumer level pressure washers. Everybody and their neighbor is getting in on the pressure washing fun. With an expected revenue growth of at least 4 percent throughout the next few years, it seems that pressure washing—and the tools that make it possible—is definitely here to stay.
Pressure washers will go down in the annals of history as one of the most essential, multifaceted tools around. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this sidewalk isn’t going to clean itself …
Thanks to David for producing a great piece under pressure. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!