Pressure Washer Cord Hard To Pull

In the beginning, I hated starting my power washer. We'd wrestle regularly, until I learned to work with the machine. Now we're the best of pals, and you are about to learn how you can be too. 

The number one cause of a hard to pull power washer cord, is incorrect starting procedure. Follow these five steps to easily start a power washer:

  1. Set gas, choke and switch to “On”
  2. Connect garden hose
  3. Turn garden hose on
  4. Pull and hold lance trigger
  5. Pull start engine

In this post you'll learn why your pressure washer is stiff to pull and what to can do to avoid the startup wrestle.

Power washer

What causes stiff starter cord

In my workshop I see a ton of pressure washer in for repair. Many suffer from broken pull cords and customers usually describe a similar type fault - stiff or hard to crank over motor, faulty pull cords etc.

Of course we know that's not the problem. In the majority of cases it's an incorrect starting procedure which is the root causes of both the stiff pull cord and the disproportionate number of snapped pull cords.

So what's going on why is it so stiff? The answer is simple and the solution will seem obvious when you understand what's actually going on. You see, when you pull on a power washer pull cord, you aren't just turning over the engine, you're also turning over the pressure pump.

Power washer pump

Washer pump

The stiffness you experience in the cord is a good thing, it means the pump is doing it's job, it's building pressure.

Building pressure is tough work, the more you pull over the motor, the harder it is to pull the cord.

An engine won't start unless the engine turns over fast enough to fire the spark plug, that's about 300 rpm. Obviously that's not going to be possible with all that pressure built up inside the pump.

The solution is to release the pressure, to do so, simply pull and hold the lance trigger. And that's what we'll cover next.

The correct power washer starting procedure

Starting a power washer with stiff pull cord

Pull trigger and pull start

Before starting any engine it's great practice to check the oil level and adjust if necessary. I advise my customers to check the oil with every gas fill.

Pressure washers often lay up for long periods between uses, I also advise customers to use a gas stabilizer in the fuel. It helps keep the gas fresh and prevents carburetor issues. You can check out gas stabilizer price and a video on correct use here on the "Power washer maintenance tools page".

Here’s the correct starting procedure in a little more detail:

  • Turn gas tap on –  gas tap valve controls fuel flow to carburetor
  • Turn choke on – required for cold starts
  • Turn start switch to “On”
  • Connect garden hose
  • Turn garden hose “On”
  • Pull and hold lance trigger – relieves pump pressure and also bleeds air from the pump
  • Pull start engine

Diagnosing a stiff cord

If the above starting procedure didn't help (didn't relieve the stiffness) then it is very likely your machine does indeed have a mechanical issue.

As a pressure washer is really a combination of two machines. A pump, that builds pressure and an engine that drives the pump. In this section we'll quickly diagnose where the problem lies, in the engine or in the pump.

Removing power washer spark plug

Remove spark plug and crank over to test

Diagnoses process as follows:

  • Remove spark plug
  • Crank over the engine

If the pressure on the pull cord is relieved, then it's likely there's an issue with the engine. And on the other hand if the pressure feels the same, the pump has likely failed.

In the next section, we'll look at other causes of a stiff pull cord and what you can do about it.

Other possible causes of stiff cord

Here I've listed many of the other issues related to a stiff pull cord. I've placed them in order of commonality.

Power washer too much engine oil

Remove excess oil

too much engine oil

Overfilling with engine oil is so common and the excess oil inside the motor leaves little room for the internals to move, the result is a slow or stiff pull cord.

The fix - Checking the oil level is easy, and draining excessive oil is a simple fix.

If your oil level is high but you didn't overfill it and your oil stinks of gas, suspect a hydro locked engine. More on this below.

Power washer carburetor float

Faulty float valve

Hydro-locked engine

Hydro locking is where a fluid (usually gas) fills the cylinder and causes the engine to lock up completely or results in a stiff pull cord. Hydro locking typically happens when a wash is turned over on it's side or when the carburetor float valve (aka needle) wears out and leaks which allows gas to flood the engine.

Common symptoms are a smell of gas, gas leaks, high oil level, lots of smoke If the engine starts), fouled spark plug.

The fix - replace the carburetor float vale but you'll need to change that oil too. Best to turn the gas tap off when the wash is not in use, this relieves pressure on the float needle. The valve can easily be replaced.

Power washer compression release valve

Compression release valve

compression release valve

An engine needs compression to fire and produce power, compression in itself results in a stiff pull cord and so to relieve the difficulty manufacturers employ a simple component known as a compression release valve.

As it's name suggests, the release valve releases compression from cylinder. It does so by opening the exhaust valve, just a touch while pull starting.

When the engine starts the valve is redundant. release valves do give trouble and may result in a stiff pull cord, customers commonly describe the cord as snapping from their hand. 

The fix - replace the release valve. Some engines are a gift to work on, replacing the valve is a thirty minute job (Honda) other engines will require a full strip down to access the valve.

MTD supply parts for many brands: Briggs & Stratton, Kohler, Tecumseh, Honda, Kawasaki and a ton more too. Check out MTD’s easy order parts link below.

Power washer cam follower

Valve train issue

Valve train issue

A valve that doesn't open in time or simply doesn't open will cause excessive engine compression. And as you've already heard, engine compression may result in a stiff pull cord.

A valve that doesn't open in time is likely a matter of adjusting the valves, it's a pretty common maintenance task. You can check it out here, this post covers a mower engine but the process is identical "Adjusting valve lash". 

A valve that doesn't open is a more serious issue. It may mean a rocker has broken or a push rod has bent depending on the engine type. It may also mean a camshaft is faulty and while this isn't hugely common issue but does happen.

Flywheel shear key damaged

Broken shear-key

Broken shear key

A shear key is a small metal key and has two functions. It aligns the flywheel and crankshaft and its second and equally important function is to shear when called upon.

When an engine comes to a sudden stop, (for eg, pump seizure) and because the flywheel carries mass, it's inclined to keep turning. In fact the flywheel carries sufficient energy to twist and destroy the crankshaft.

It's just prior to this moment the shear key breaks and decouples the crankshaft from the flywheel.

When the shear key decouples, the timing of the engine is off and will cause a stiff pull cord. As said on power washers a broken shear key is not hugely common but still a possibility.

Check out this post, it details how to check and how to replace a shear key "Engine kicks back when starting".

Stripped engine

Engine damage

Engine damage

Small engine failure is not that common in a well maintained motor. Indeed even a poorly maintained motor is surprisingly durable.

Let them run out of oil though and it's over, lack of oil will allow internal components to get so hot, they fuse together. However, before that happens, the engine begins to get tight and that will result in a stiff cord.

Oil condition will tell you a lot about what's going on. No oil fear the worst.

Power washer pump

Pump damage

Pump damage

Pumps work hard and do fail. When they fail they often seize, which will make the pull cord hard or really stiff to pull. Many pumps are oil for life and don't require maintenance so don't feel bad about it.

However, generally if a pump has an oil fill and drain hole, it means oil should be changed. On pumps that do allow an oil change, change about every 100 hours of operation.

For parts and tools, check out "Pressure washer maintenance tools page".

Other pressure posts that may be of interest:


Auto Technician and Writer at Lawnmowerfixed | Website

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on I've been a mechanic for over twenty years, I use my knowledge and experience to write "How to" articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of mechanical repairs, from lawn mowers to classic cars.