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It's spring! Time to clean up the house and yard and get ready for warm weather and outdoor entertaining. Pressure washing is a fast, easy -- and even kind of fun -- way to blast dirt and mildew off of vinyl siding and layers of muck from decks, driveways, and sidewalks.

You can buy a pressure washer (they start at about $100 for the most basic model and go up to $1,000 for the deluxe versions) or rent one from a local home improvement store. They're powered by either gas (for bigger jobs) or electricity (for smaller jobs), and have special pumps that take water from the garden hose, pressurize it, and force it through a nozzle tip on a handheld spray wand.

It's a messy and potentially hazardous job, so wear old clothes, gloves, safety glasses, and, if you're sensitive to loud noises, earplugs. Attach the washer to the garden hose, tighten all connections, and start it on the lowest setting. The pressure washer will have either an adjustable nozzle or come with a set of color-coded detachable tips that determine the spray concentration.

The most important thing about using a pressure washer is safety. Be sure to read the directions thoroughly before you begin. They're not recommended for use on ladders because the pressure could knock you off your perch. Be sure to shut the washer off when you need to change the spray pattern, then turn it on again. Also never point it at a person or a pet. The water pressure can be so strong that it can potentially penetrate the skin or worse. Read more pressure washer safety tips here.

It takes a few minutes to get used to the machine, so start on the lowest pressure level -- which will put out a wide spray pattern -- and increase the pressure as necessary. For general cleaning, you'll probably need a setting or tip somewhere in the middle.

Stand at least three feet away from the surface you're cleaning, and steer clear of windows, light fixtures, and anything else that could break under the pressure. For siding, start at the top and work your way down the wall. For really dirty jobs, some pressure washers can use detergent. Check the directions to find out which solutions are compatible with your machine. Spray the detergent on with a wide spray setting, let it soak for ten minutes or so, then rinse it off.


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