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The Never-Ending Job: Regular Home Maintenance Can Minimize Hassles, Reduce Repair Costs
Diane Kittower, The Washington Post, 5/17/03

There's at least one fact of life that your high school health teacher didn't tell you: Houses are never really completed.

"It's human nature to build something and think it's done," said Mark G. Richardson, president of Case Design/Remodeling Inc. and Case Handyman Services in Bethesda. "But houses are always in transition."

Your home has several major systems that will benefit from preventive maintenance, giving you extra years of service and fewer emergency calls to a contractor. The systems are outside water drainage, which includes the roof, gutters, downspouts and landscaping; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; plumbing; and electrical. Some maintenance must be done by professionals, but you can do a number of things yourself.

Some contractors offer an annual checkup on major systems -- sort of an annual physical for a house. In the next 10 years, a culture shift will make that kind of checkup as common as maid service is today, Richardson predicted.

Whether you choose to have a professional come in once a year and inspect your home or do it yourself, the important thing is to plan and budget for preventive maintenance. "It cuts costs and headaches," said Mike Tucker, owner of Tucker's Air Conditioning and Heating in Gaithersburg.

The most-often-missed piece of home maintenance is upkeep of gutters and downspouts, said remodeler Jerry Liu, president of D.G. Liu Contractor Inc. in upper Montgomery County. Potential problems include allowing gutters to clog up and overflow, not extending downspouts away from the house and letting landscaping interfere with water drainage.

Liu recommends cleaning out gutters at least two times a year: in the fall and in spring.

If the gutters are not cleaned, said roofer Tom Johnson, owner of Thos. C. Johnson Roofing & Repairs in Rockville, water can get underneath and rot the gutter edge. The region's ever-hungry squirrels could decide that unpainted edges are a tasty treat, so keep that wood painted.

Downspouts can be extended with buried metal piping that delivers the water out in the yard or street or with plastic tubing that tucks onto the spout end and moves the water out several feet.

Even if worse comes to worst and you need new gutters, it is cheaper to replace that system than deal with water damage in your basement, said George Weissgerber, vice president of research and development at Case Design/Remodeling.

Drainage-related landscaping problems can be caused by plantings and unwise grading. Bushes planted within a couple of feet of the house can create channels that force water toward the foundation. Soil should be graded away from the house.

Liu suggested it is even worthwhile removing the first foot or two of soil next to your foundation, which typically is fill dirt, and replacing it with real dirt. Be sure not to use topsoil, which does not compact as well.

Ivy may look pretty growing on your home, but Johnson pointed out that it will get under shingles and siding and cause problems.

If you do not know how old your roof is or how long the warranty on your shingles runs, you are in good company. Lots of homeowners do not have those facts at their fingertips. It is easy to tell if you have a roofing problem: You will see curling shingles or shingles falling off. And there is not much preventive maintenance you can do on the roof itself.

When Johnson checks out a report of a leaking roof, sometimes he finds other problems, such as a leak in siding or around a window.

But sometimes he finds "problems" that are not problems at all. Granules from asphalt roofing occasionally show up in the splashbox at the bottom of a downspout, but that does not necessarily mean something's wrong. People also call Johnson because they see staining from algae or ping marks from hail. Neither has to result in the installation of a new roof, Johnson said.

Unfortunately, many roofers will put on a new roof when it is not needed. They do not want to be bothered with repairs, he said, because there is more money to be made by installing a new roof.

A few simple steps can help keep your heating and air-conditioning system happy so that you do not lose your cool this summer:

Change the filter every 3 months. "You wouldn't believe how many calls I go out on because equipment has stopped," said Jeff Kehne, president of Kehne's Frederick Electric Service in Frederick. "They forgot to take out and change the filter. They end up paying me $60 to $75 to change the air filter."

Even if the system does not break down, dirty filters force the motor to work harder, shortening its life.

Keep leaves, ivy and other debris away from the outdoor unit. You could even hose down the coils inside to keep their fin surfaces clean, said Tucker, of Tucker's Air Conditioning and Heating. A clean unit works more efficiently, saving electricity and reducing wear and tear.

Arrange an annual checkup of your system. If it is low on refrigerant, it needs to be topped up so you will have cool air. For gas and fossil fuel systems, get the inspection before each heating season, Tucker said.

To avoid the nasty effects of power surges, contractors often recommend turning off air conditioning during thunderstorms. Surge protectors and time-delay devices can help, too.

When cold weather returns, keep snow off and away from your outdoor units. That is especially true for heat pumps, which will suck up snow and then be unable to function when the snow turns into ice.

"We pulled 50 to 75 pounds of ice out" of at least 20 units this winter, Kehne recalled.

And if ice covers your outdoor heat pump unit next winter, there is something wrong and you need to call a contractor, said Ted Wilson, general manager of Kensington Cooling & Heating Co. in Kensington. When that happens, the odds are you are using straight electric backup heat, which will send your bill soaring.

If you have an attic air handler or attic system, the contractor should check to make sure drain lines are clean. Clogged lines can send water through the ceiling and ruin plaster or drywall.

Whatever the problem, deal with it soon. You cannot always count on getting a replacement in quickly. Furnaces can be expected to last 16 to 20 years, and the newer ones even longer. Air-conditioning systems typically run for a maximum of 15 years and heat pumps up to 12 years.

Smaller, but important, parts of your house's ventilation system are your dryer vent and bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans. Lint can clog up dryer ventilation pipes, posing a fire hazard, reducing the dryer's efficiency and creating a source of moisture that could leak, fostering mold and mildew. You can unhook the pipe and clean it yourself or call a company that specializes in that task. Building codes call for dryers to vent outside, but some dryers have been hooked up to vent into the attic. If you find that setup in your house, it should be changed.

Remodeler Liu recommends exhaust fans even in bathrooms with windows. They help prevent the accumulation of moisture, lessening the likelihood of mold and mildew forming.

If your fan is making a sound it had not made before, get it checked. Electrician Kehne told of a woman whose bathroom fan went bad without her knowing it. The wiring burned, setting the roof on fire and doing $170,000 in damage.

Kitchen exhaust fans usually have filters designed to be removed and popped in the dishwasher for easy cleanup. A dirty filter forces the fan motor to labor harder than it should.

Do you know where your main water shutoff is? Lots of homeowners do not, said plumber Rob O'Donnell, owner of Seneca Valley Service in Frederick, and that could be a critical thing to know if you have a water-related problem.

Leaks in water lines, for instance, can appear suddenly. But the ones in drain or waste lines can do more damage because they are slow to be detected, Liu has found. A water stain on the ceiling or flooring that buckles may be the first clue to such leaks.

O'Donnell pays a lot of attention to water heaters when he is on a job. They have an average life of eight to 12 years, he said, and people tend to ignore them until they break.

"Don't store precious mementos around a water heater," he advised. "If it leaks, the stuff is ruined."

Similarly, putting boxes, bags and assorted sports equipment near the water heater or furnace is not a good idea. That equipment needs to breathe, O'Donnell said, and such items can catch fire.

If you have an older sump pump, you can make sure it is still working by throwing several gallons of water into the pit. The pump should start up. The pits of newer ones tend to be covered and cannot be tested this way.

Other advice from O'Donnell: Be aware that the warranty on many new toilets is voided if you use toilet cleaners that sit in the tank. They often include chemicals that can eat away at critical parts.

"If you have fuses in your basement, you are out of code and out of date," noted Weissgerber. You probably also have outlets for two-pronged plugs and lights that dim when an appliance goes on. Your electrical service should be a minimum of 150 to 200 amps, and all your circuit breakers should be labeled.

If you already have circuit breakers, they need some attention annually. By turning them off and on three times, you give them "exercise." Otherwise, Kehne said, they may freeze up and not move when needed. The District government, in fact, requires that the breakers in commercial buildings be exercised annually.

Kehne has seen what can happen when breakers do not get their exercise. His company was doing a job at the Frederick jail that required turning off the 800-amp main breaker. It, however, was stuck in the "on" position. A specialist from the manufacturer had to be brought in to turn it off.