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Perspective | Home maintenance tasks for the winter and throughout the year


You can DIY this work, and gazillions of online how-to videos will, step by step, show you what to do.

At Checkbook.org you’ll find our full list of tasks and further tips on what to do and, if you want to hire a pro, unbiased ratings of local businesses — handyperson services, HVAC contractors, plumbers, electricians, gutter-cleaning services and more. Until March 5, Washington Post readers can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice free of charge at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/maintenance.

In the interest of brevity, I didn’t include safety precautions. So, general rules: Let’s be careful out there, especially on ladders; wear eye protection; wear a mask when crawling around dusty attics or crawl spaces; unplug or shut off the circuit breaker to anything that uses electricity before you mess with it; lift with your legs; and read instructions, owner’s manuals and warning labels.

· Safety check: Test all your smoke, carbon monoxide and water-leak detectors. Test and reset outlets equipped with ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs). Make sure any home-security devices work.

· Clear the air: Replacing air filters is the most important maintenance task for heating and cooling systems. When a filter has a matting of dirt — i.e. it’s difficult to see through when you hold it up to a light — it’s time to replace it (usually at least four times a year).

· Don’t get hosed: To avoid a flood, check rubber washing machine hoses for blistering, stress cracks, wear or loose connections. Consider replacing rubber hoses with stronger reinforced steel-braided hoses.

· Sink it: Clear out all the junk underneath your kitchen and bathroom sinks, turn on the taps and your garbage disposal, and look for leaks from above.

· Test your sump pump’s backup plan: If your sump pump often activates, consider adding a second sump pump to your system plus a moisture alarm to the top of the sump pit to avoid surprise floods.

· Deal with drafts to save a lot of energy: A few easy-to-do and inexpensive tasks can significantly cut your utility bills. Look for leaks by turning off your furnace on a cool, very windy day; shutting all windows and doors; turning on all exhaust fans that blow air outside, such as bathroom fans or stove vents; and then lighting an incense stick, moving around your house and noticing where smoke is blown to find sources of drafts. Focus on inspecting areas where different materials meet: brick and wood siding, foundation and walls, and between the chimney and siding. Then turn off any lights in your attic and look for spots where daylight sneaks in. Use caulk to seal any cracks or gaps measuring less than one-fourth an inch wide. For larger cracks, use polyurethane foam sealant. To minimize leakage around doors and windows, install weather stripping, and replace it every few years.

· Prepare for potential plumbing problems: Test the main water shut-off valve to your home by closing it completely, then reopening it to make sure it is working properly. Make sure everyone who lives in your home knows its location and how to use it.

· Get it out of the gutters: It’s a messy job, but someone undoubtedly should do it: Stopped-up gutters can cause major problems, from wet basements to ruined siding and trim to damaged interior walls.

· Free floor drains: In July, I got an expensive maintenance reminder when our basement flooded due to a clogged outdoor drain. Pour water into indoor drains to make sure they, well, drain. Make sure outdoor drains aren’t covered or clogged up with leaves and other debris.

· Avoid a lint firetrap: Unplug the dryer and, if you have a gas model, shut off the gas valve and disconnect the supply line. Then remove the exhaust hose and inspect and clean out any lint buildup from the hose and the dryer’s accessible innards.

· Batten down hatches: Most burglars get into homes through unlocked or poorly secured doors and windows. Evaluate your home’s security vulnerabilities and defenses, especially by checking for and replacing weak locks and dead outdoor security lightbulbs, and pruning back landscaping bad guys might hide behind. And if you’ve lost keys, consider changing your locks.

· Double-check ductwork: Check for holes or gaps in exposed ductwork and seal them with mastic tape or HVAC foil tape. Leaky ducts can waste 20 percent or more of your home heating energy bill. Do not worry about having your ducts regularly cleaned; despite what the duct-cleaning industry says, very few homes need that service.

· Seek leaks: After heavy rain, check your attic for wet or water-discolored wood. Especially eye areas around your chimney, which is typically the most vulnerable spot for seepage. Then examine your basement, cellar or crawl space to look for moisture problems. Throughout your home, regularly inspect all ceilings and walls for discoloration and blistering/bubbling paint, wallpaper or plaster — sure signs of plumbing or roofing leaks above.

· Can we caulk: Examine and re-caulk and re-grout (as necessary) bathtubs, showers and sinks.

· Addressing toilet runs: Slow commode leaks silently waste gallons of water every day. To check yours, add a dozen drops of food coloring to the tank. Come back in an hour; if the color is gone or has made its way into the bowl, you have a leak. You might need to change a worn rubber flapper or diaphragm seal, or adjust the fill valve or ballcock (that big round thing attached to a rod).

· Chimney sweep: Check for excessive buildup of soot and creosote, which is flammable black stuff that can coat the insides of chimneys and create a fire hazard. There is no set time frame for how often to have chimneys swept; it all depends on its design and how often you use yours. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends cleaning when there’s one-eighth an inch of sooty buildup in masonry fireplaces, sooner for factory-built fireplaces. The problem is, while you definitely don’t want a chimney fire, ratings Checkbook gets for chimney services often indicate many companies use inspect-and-sweep opportunities to recommend expensive, unneeded work. So proceed cautiously if a chimney service says yours is unsafe unless you pay thousands for a new liner or similar expensive repairs.

· Help your humidifier: If you have a whole-house model, clean it according to directions in its owner’s manual. This usually involves adding a bit of vinegar or a calcium-removing solution like Lime-A-Way.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice until March 5 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/maintenance.

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