To keep busy during these hard economic times, many builders, framing contractors, and other tradesmen are turning to remodeling work. Homeowners are staying in their houses longer and choosing to make improvements instead of upsizing to a new address, and those who have to sell are often desperate to spruce up their homes so they'll stand out in a dismal real estate market. As a result, remodeling projects are a lot easier to come by than jobs at new-housing developments.

But switching focus from building to remodeling is no easy feat. Remodelers tend to be jacks-of-all-trades. They rely less on subs than large-scale builders do, and handle much more of the work in-house. This is especially true now. Guys who used to spend their time running from bid to bid are concentrating on their hands-on skills to keep the work flowing. They're hanging rock, setting tile, and doing their own painting – even more than they were before, during boom times.

Photo: dotfordot.com

Faced with this kind of sink-or-swim adaptation, contractors need tools that can add to their professional versatility (and, ultimately, to their bottom line). That's why we chose airless paint sprayers for this issue's tool test. These tools (which painters simply call "pumps") are great for putting down a lot of paint efficiently, indoors and out. Even if you're backrolling to even out the sheen on an interior wall, applying the paint with a sprayer instead of constantly dipping a roller keeps you moving – which keeps you competitive. For the three-dimensional surfaces (and sheer square footage) of exterior siding and trim, spray application is a necessity. And for fine trim and paneled doors, careful spray work can give you the finish you want – a smooth, evenly applied coat without brushmarks – fast. It takes practice to get really good at using these pumps, but the learning curve is forgiving and the work is actually pretty fun. The first time you paint an entire finished basement in just a few hours will likely put a satisfied smile on your face. It sure did for me.

Like other power tools, airless paint sprayers can be dangerous if used unsafely. If you spray your skin in close proximity to the spray tip, you can fall victim to a horrendous injection injury that could lead to amputation. Our tester shared horror stories of guys he knew in the trade who lost fingers, hands, and even a section of abdomen to such injuries. On the other hand, tool-rental shops will send these tools home with just about anybody, with no requirement for training. So our advice is treat the business end of the sprayer like a loaded gun and be very careful.

For our test, we gathered nine pumps, ranging from midlevel budget models to a few suited for everyday use on smaller jobs – they just had to be able to handle the pros' requisite .019-inch tip. Our painter of 25 years used them with interior and exterior latex paints to determine their worth from a full-time painting contractor's point of view.

These pumps are on the small side compared with the models a pro paint crew usually uses; pro rigs are typically capable of powering extra-long hoses with multiple spray guns running off one machine. Nevertheless, the single-gun units we tested generally impressed our painter – all were capable of putting out a suitable coat of quality latex paint. The least of the tools had too many compromises to be worth using, in his opinion, but to his surprise he found the winner proficient enough to take the place of one of his larger units for daily use on residential sites.

Winners

The performance results of our test support the old adage "You get what you pay for," as the units basically ranked right down the price line, with components and features commensurate with cost. The Airlessco LP 500 took top honors with output that seemed effortless and a commercial design built for hard work and tough conditions. The Graco Ultra 395 came in second with pro performance and advanced control features shared by only the top two pumps. Third place went to the Titan Impact 440 and fourth to the Graco 390. These four in the top tier are considered suitable for pro-level use on a consistent basis.

The midtier starts with the Graco 190 just edging out the Titan Advantage 400. Beneath these (in order) are the occasional-use tools, the Titan XT 420, Wagner Twin Stroke 9175, and Milwaukee M4910-20. If you're in the market for a pump you'll use only a handful of times per year, these lower-end units will put out the paint well enough, but they lack the convenience and durability of pricier models and don't quite make the cut for a solid job-site airless sprayer when compared with the other choices.

Pump Controls

A pump's controls consist of an on/off switch and a dial to adjust the pressure setting. Unlike an air compressor, a typical pump has no pressure gauge to adjust to – with one exception, the top-ranked Airlessco (right). Pumps are usually adjusted by eye as the painter dials in just the right amount of pressure to deliver the most effective spray pattern for the viscosity of the paint and the size of the tip. Even though the pressure drops some when the trigger is pulled, the gauge can help less-experienced users start close to the correct pressure recommended on the paint bucket, usually around 2,000 psi for latex paints. Users get to know the relative dial position of their common settings, so the best dials have an easy-to-read scale attached; good examples are the dials on the Airlessco (right) and the Graco Ultra 395 (below, left).

The motors powering the pumps have a few important differences. Only the top-two-rated units detailed here have electronically controlled variable-speed motors, which maintain the pressure output more precisely than single-speed motors. Since there is no reservoir to hold pressure (the way a tank does on a compressor), airless sprayers pump only when the paint is flowing. Single-speed motors have to cycle on and off frequently to regulate their pressure; they switch between running the pump at full speed and not running at all. Depending on the quality of the pump controls, the lapse in pressure before the motor starts up again – called the deadband – can be up to several hundred psi with a mechanical switch and a single-speed motor. For the electronically controlled variable-speed motors, the deadband is the lowest, at 50 psi.

Prime/Pump Valve

This valve switches between sending pressure to the hose for spraying, and circulating fluid through the pump and out the prime hose for priming or rinsing out the pump. We prefer the valve lever to be in a well-protected location, as it is on the Titan XT420 model (shown).

The master tech at our regional service center advises against the common practice of using this valve to release pump pressure (rather than bleeding pressure out through the gun). The sudden surge of intense pressure wears out parts in this valve prematurely.

Pump Filter

Pump filters are key for reducing downtime due to clogged tips and gun filters. The larger the filter, the better. A large pump filter can collect a day's worth of gunk without slowing you down. If you rely on just the small filter in the gun handle, you'll have to stop and clean it out a few times a day – more if you don't strain your paint before spraying.

Vertically mounted filters are easier to lift out of their housing without making a mess; horizontal filters dump out the entire contents of their housing once loosened and you have to hold a bucket underneath to catch the mess. Vertical filters are found on the Airlessco and Graco units (Graco 390 shown). Large and small horizontal filters are found on the Titan Impact 440 and Advantage 400 pumps respectively, while the Milwaukee, Titan XT420, and Wagner tools rely on the gun filter alone.

Suction and Prime Tubes

Suction tubes draw paint from the bottom of a bucket up into the pump, and the screen filter found at the end strains out the largest gunk. To keep paint clean and prevent it from drying out while painting, a good trick is to feed the tube through the pigment hole in the top of a 5-gallon bucket. Some filter ends will fit in with no problem, like those of the Graco Ultra 395 (shown) and the other Graco units in the test, but larger ends have to be unscrewed and reassembled on the other side of the lid. This job isn't too bad at the start of work, but it can be quite messy at cleanup. Prime tubes with plastic deflector ends usually won't fit through the hole along with the suction tube and must be hung outside the bucket. Be careful of paint drips from an exposed prime tube, and don't switch the prime/paint valve unless the prime tube is pointed into a bucket.

A good prime tube is one that stays put in a second bucket during priming or cleaning operations, such as the one on the Graco Ultra 395. Its weighty rubber and metal construction and its extra length make it easy to position, unlike shorter or thinner tubes that can kink or splash water when hung over the edge of a bucket. And speaking of splashing, we prefer prime tubes fitted with a plastic deflector on the end to soften the stream of paint or water jetting out. The prime tube shown here has an excellent deflector. When it's time to put the prime tube back together with the suction tube, captive clips that stay on one of the tubes are a must. Clips that must be totally removed to separate the tubes will be lost soon enough. Good captive clips are found on the pump pictured, the other Graco units, and on the Airlessco and Milwaukee tools. The tubes of the Titan and Wagner pumps have loose clips that are difficult to deal with and are bound to disappear.