How to Use an Electric Airless Paint Sprayer

House Painter Spraying Paint on New Siding
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For large paint jobs, power sprayers offer a distinct advantage over painting with brushes and rollers. Especially for big outdoor jobs, such as painting siding or a large fence, a tool of choice is the electric airless sprayer, which is renowned for its ability to distribute paint evenly over uneven surfaces, such as latticework or textured clapboard siding.

An electric airless sprayer works especially well with the thick-bodied latex paints that are now so popular. But these expensive tools can be tricky to use for beginners, since they operate at very high pressure and require careful safety measures. And as with any paint sprayer, it is important to mask off any areas you don't want to be painted, such as windows, shrubbery, or trim.

What Is an Electric Airless Paint Sprayer?

An airless paint sprayer is a power tool that works by forcing paint through a spray nozzle at high pressure, thereby atomizing the paint droplets to evenly coat a surface. Unlike other types of power sprayers, it does not mix in air with the paint, which means the tool is less messy to use—in the hands of an experienced user. But the high pressure can make this a tricky tool for novices to use effectively.


Airless vs. Pneumatic vs. HVLP Sprayers

Airless sprayers are just one type of paint sprayer commonly used. Another major category includes the pneumatic (air) sprayers, which apply paint by mixing in air from a secondary compressor before forcing the mixture through a spray nozzle.

One particular type of air sprayer is the HVLP (high volume low pressure) sprayer, which includes many of the cup-type consumer sprayers. While these can be fine for smaller jobs, they are usually not very practical for large projects. For large painting jobs using popular latex paints, an airless sprayer offers many advantages over the different types of pneumatic sprayers.

Airless Electric Paint Sprayer
  • Applies paint by atomizing droplets a through a spray nozzle

  • Good for exterior surfaces

  • Better at handling thicker latex paints

  • Poses some risk of injection injuries

  • High pressure makes tool difficult for beginners to use

  • Expensive tool that is usually rented

Pneumatic Paint Sprayer
  • Applies paint with compressed air

  • Requires a secondary air compressor

  • Less expensive than airless sprayers

  • Messier than airless sprayers

  • Uses more paint than other types

Airless Electric Paint Sprayer
  • Applies paint by atomizing droplets through spray nozzle

  • Good for exterior surfaces

  • Better at handling thicker latex paints

  • Poses some risk of injection injuries

  • High pressure makes tool difficult for beginners to use

  • Expensive tool that is usually rented

HVLP Paint Sprayer
  • Applies paint with large volume of air

  • Wastes less paint than other types

  • Good for interior projects

  • Consumer versions not well suited for thicker paints

  • Most affordable sprayers, generally under $100

  • Air compressor usually built into the tool

Parts of an Electric Airless Paint Sprayer

A typical airless sprayer is a sophisticated machine with many components:

  • The siphon tube draws paint from the paint bucket into the pump unit. It is usually fitted with a wire screen to prevent debris from being drawn into the pump.
  • The motor and pump unit work to extract paint from the bucket or other reservoir and push it through the pressure control and filter and into the fluid hose.
  • The pressure control dial regulates the force at which the paint is fed into the hose.
  • The manifold filter serves to catch any debris that may have entered the sprayer, which helps prevent clogging in the spray gun and spray tip.
  • The drain hose, found on many models, is inserted into a waste bucket to catch paint-saturated debris and residual paint expelled by the pump.
  • The fluid hose delivers paint at high pressure to the spray gun.
  • The spray gun is a trigger-operated control handle that starts and stops the flow of paint through the sprayer.
  • The spray tip has a narrow orifice that causes paint to atomize into small droplets. The sprayer comes with several tips of different sizes that allow you to vary the spray pattern and volume of paint.

Safety Considerations

Wear proper protection when spraying paint:

  • Full-body coveralls: Buy the kind with the booties attached. If not, you can buy separate shoe covers or use shoes that you don't mind ruining with paint.
  • Goggles: Don't just wear safety glasses; use goggles that seal around your eyes.
  • Respirator: Don't use just a paper mask. Opt for a HEPA respirator. Paint mist is a hazardous substance that should not be inhaled.
  • Spray sock: If the coveralls don't have an attached hood, buy a spray sock. It's a simple piece of cloth with a face cut-out, much like a ski mask.
  • Gloves: Use old gloves you won't mind getting ruined. You can also use latex gloves, but keep in mind that they can get slippery and are not very durable.

Airless sprayers eject paint at very high speed and pressure from the nozzle tips, and there does exist a danger of injection injuries if the spray is directed at the skin. This is why wearing protective clothing is regarded as essential. Should you accidentally force paint into your skin, seek medical attention immediately.

How to Use an Electric Paint Sprayer

  1. Mask off Surfaces

    The prep work before using an airless sprayer can be long and arduous. You must mask every single part of your house within the spraying range that you don't want to paint. Shrubbery and other landscape features should be draped with plastic drop cloths. Even with proper masking and drop-clothing, you'll end up with paint everywhere, so be vigilant about where you aim the sprayer.

  2. Assemble Equipment

    In addition to the personal safety gear required (see above), make sure you have all the necessary equipment:

    • Airless paint sprayer: You need the type of airless paint sprayer that draws directly from the can (e.g., HomeRight Power-Flow), not the type that requires you to fill up an attached cup (e.g., Graco TrueCoat Pro Cordless). If you are renting the tool, make sure you have extension cords and feed hoses sufficient to reach every part of the project. Also, make sure you have all the necessary spray tips.
    • Clean water bucket: You need a clean bucket to be used for rinsing the equipment after each use.
    • Waste bucket: This bucket will receive drained paint and other dregs of the paint-spraying process. This bucket will need to be discarded after use.
    • Paint: Make sure to have a sufficient quantity of paint in the type appropriate to the job (exterior-grade paint for exterior jobs, etc.) You can save money and make the job go faster if you purchase 5-gallon containers of paint.
  3. Set up the Sprayer

    All paint sprayers have different setup routines, but most follow this general procedure:

    1. Place the siphon tube into the paint can. The siphon tube is the large tube with a wire screen at the end. Place directly into the paint can with the screened end at the bottom.
    2. Place the drain tube into the waste bucket.
    3. Plug in the sprayer to the electric outlet. In outdoor locations, equipment should be plugged into a GFCI-protected outlet.

    Place the waste bucket and paint can side-by-side. This is also a good time to put on your coveralls.

    Spray painting buckets
    Lee Wallender
  4. Prime the Sprayer

    Your sprayer will likely have a single switch that toggles between "paint" and "prime" modes. Switch this control to "prime." Turn on the paint sprayer and hold the sprayer trigger.

    Allow the pump to run for about 30 seconds. The paint will begin pumping out of the paint can, through the sprayer machine, and out of the drain tube into the waste bucket. The components are now filled with paint.

    When paint begins to emerge through the drain tube, quickly switch the drain tube, placing it into the paint can, toward the bottom. The drain and siphon tubes may even have clips that hold them together.

    Turn power on spray painting gun
    Lee Wallender
    Using a drain tube
    Lee Wallender
  5. Don Protective Gear

    Shut off the machine and suit up with the rest of your protective gear. Despite the discomfort, never omit the protective gear when using an airless sprayer.

    Protecting yourself when spray painting
    Lee Wallender
  6. Begin Spraying

    Begin applying paint by squeezing the trigger while smoothly moving the gun. Holding the spray gun closer than 12 inches will result in drips. Holding the gun farther than 24 inches may result in a fuzzy texture and uneven coverage.

    Paint spray gun
    Lee Wallender
  7. Complete Work in Sections

    Using a paint sprayer on your house exterior is like a larger version of a paintbrush. The rules are the same. Mentally divide your work surface into sections. Finish a section and then move on to the adjoining section. Keep the sections small enough that the edges stay wet as you move from section to section.

    Paint sprayer instruction books tell you to keep the spray gun parallel to the wall at all times, but the gun will naturally angle away, especially at the end of a run. The best you can do is try for parallel, attempt to minimize these tilts, and try to cover over bad edges on your next run.

    Tip

    Rather than over-applying paint, which will leave you with drips that need to be brushed out, it's better to apply two or even three thin coats of paint, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next.

    Spraying in sections
    Lee Wallender
    Spraying exterior parallel to wall
    Lee Wallender
  8. Clean the Sprayer

    When finished painting, fill a clean bucket with water. Put the drain tube into the waste bucket. Remove the siphon tube from the paint can, put it in the clean bucket, and switch the paint machine to "Prime" or "Flush." Spray until clean water flows out. You may need to change out the water in the clean bucket several times until it runs clear.

    Tip

    If your rest breaks last for more than a few minutes, it's best to clean out the equipment thoroughly before resuming work. Coagulating paint can quickly clog the hoses and spray nozzles.

    Siphon tube in water bucket
    Lee Wallender

Buying vs. Renting

Airless sprayers are fairly expensive tools, starting at about $200 and running up to $1,000 or even more, so many people choose to rent if they anticipate just one-time use. Basic airless sprayers can be leased for $50 to $100 per day, but remember to ask for detailed directions on how to use the tool. And to avoid penalty charges, make sure to clean the rental tool thoroughly when you're finished.

Don't be afraid to buy an airless sprayer if you consider yourself a devoted DIYer. It won't take too many uses before the cost of rental exceeds the cost of purchase.

Keeping an Airless Paint Sprayer in Good Condition

The key to keeping an airless sprayer in good condition is to thoroughly flush the pump, hoses, and spray nozzle with plenty of freshwater after each use. And follow the manufacturer's instructions for replacing filters, lubricating the pump, etc.

When to Replace an Airless Paint Sprayer

With thorough cleaning after each use, the pump and motor on an airless paint sprayer should last for decades. But individual components—hoses, nozzles, etc.—may need to be replaced when they wear out.

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