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Tracy Frank, Published November 07 2013

Home care: 15 maintenance tasks often overlooked by homeowners

FARGO – Local inspectors are often amazed by how many crucial maintenance tasks homeowners routinely neglect.

The tasks are usually simple DIY projects, but neglecting them could be dangerous for their families and their homes.

“I’m surprised by how much people don’t know,” said Northern States Inspection owner Craig Manock, who has been doing home inspections in the Fargo-Moorhead area for 20 years. “A lot of the young buyers don’t know because no one has ever taught them any of this stuff.”

Inspectors will often go over home maintenance issues with people when they’re buying a home. Homeowners can also hire inspectors to go through their homes to look for potential problems once they’ve been living there a while.

“There are a lot of accidents waiting to happen, that’s for sure,” said Lars Knobloch, owner of Nordic Home Inspection, who has been inspecting F-M area homes for four years.

1. Electrical

Electrical issues are unbelievably common, Manock said.

Most people don’t test their ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), he said.

GCFIs are inexpensive electrical devices that can be installed in the electrical system or built into a power cord to protect from electrocutions. It can also prevent electrical fires, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

There are three types of GFCIs: circuit breakers, receptacles (outlets with “test” and “reset” buttons) and portable (extension cords with GFCIs).

The devices should be used in kitchens, bathrooms, garages, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, wet bar sinks, laundry and utility sinks, underwater pool lighting, and outdoors.

Homeowners should test them monthly and after power failures. To do this, plug a lamp into the outlet and turn it on. Press the test button. The light should go out and it should come back on when you press the reset button. If that doesn’t happen, contact an electrician to fix the wiring or replace the GCFI.

2. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors

Homeowners rarely check their smoke detectors, and if they do, they’ll just push the test button.

“All that’s doing is testing the alarm,” Manock said. “It’s not actually testing that the smoke detector’s working.”

Manock recommends testing them with a blown out match or candle or with a canned smoke detector tester.

Smoke detectors should be replaced every 10 to 15 years, Knobloch said.

Inspectors also see very few fire extinguishers in homes, Manock said. Homes should have them at least in the kitchen and furnace area, he said.

Homes rarely have carbon monoxide detectors, but if they have fossil fuel-burning appliances or a connected garage, they should have the detectors, he said.

Carbon monoxide is a gas you cannot see, taste or smell, and exposure to high levels of it can be deadly.

3. Sewer vents

It’s important to make sure sewer vents stay clear in the wintertime, inspectors say.

Excessive snow, frost or ice can clog sewer vents. When sewer gas backs up into the home, families can experience headaches, nausea, dizziness or drowsiness. It can also be explosive, according to the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Homeowners can knock the snow or ice off the vents or they or plumbers can install special covers to prevent blockage, Manock said.

Any time you smell a sewer, rotten egg or sulfurous odor, call a plumber, Manock suggests.

If your home uses gas and you smell a natural gas odor, call your power company.

4. Gutters, downspouts and slope

Air quality is also diminished by water issues that lead to mold problems.

Homeowners often neglect to clean their gutters and make sure their downspouts are working to channel water away from the house. Cracks in the foundation should also be sealed.

When these maintenance tips are neglected, water can leak into the basement, sit in the gutter and pull it away from the house, or seep in between the gutter and the house and deteriorate the wood, inspectors said.

The soil around the house should also slope away from the structure.

“The biggest thing is to prevent moisture coming into the house,” said Darrell Dahl, owner of DJ’s Home Inspection, who has been inspecting homes in the area for seven years.

Mold can grow in just a couple of days if water issues are not addressed, he said.

5. Windows

Watch for condensation on windows in the winter, especially in newer homes, Knobloch said.

“These new homes are so air tight they don’t breathe as well as older homes,” he said. “It takes very little humidity inside the house before you will see condensation on your windows.”

If that happens, wood windows will rot. Even if you have vinyl windows, mold can grow when moisture is present, Knobloch said.

An air exchanger can help circulate air and keep humidity down. Just make sure to turn it off in the summer, he said.

And if you have egress windows, make sure they’re kept clear.

“Something that scares me all the time during winter is people never dig out their egress windows from the snow,” Manock said. “If there was a fire, a person could not get out of there.”

6. Sump pumps

This time of year, homeowners should check sump pumps to make sure they’re working properly. Disconnect the outdoor sump pump hoses so they don’t freeze and break the pipe, discharging water inside the house, Dahl said.

Knobloch also recommends back-up battery- or water-powered sump pump systems so homes are still protected if the power fails.

7. Water heater

Homeowners should test their water heater temperature pressure relief valve every six to 12 months, inspectors say.

The valve releases pressure that builds up in the water heater. Inspectors say valve malfunctions are rare, but if it happens, the results could be extremely dangerous.

“If it malfunctions, you could have a rocket that goes straight through the roof,” Dahl said.

Raise and lower the test lever to test the valve (Instructions should be attached to the water heater). Hot water should rush out of the end of the drainpipe. If that doesn’t happen, you may need to replace the valve.

8. Washing machines

Washing machine hoses should be changed every three to five years, Dahl said. If you see white deposits where the hose is tightened, that’s a sign that it’s starting to seep, he said.

9. Dryer vent

Inspectors recommend cleaning your dryer vent quarterly.

“Every year we have a couple fires in Fargo here that are attributed to a dryer vent being plugged up,” Manock said.

10. Furnace

Homeowners should have their furnaces serviced and cleaned every year, inspectors said.

“It’s amazing how few people have their furnaces serviced by a professional,” Manock said.

Homeowners with gas-forced air should also check their filters once a month and change them when they get too dirty, Dahl said.

“If the filter is clogged, it slows down the air flow and that costs you a lot more money,” he said.

11. Duct work

Duct work should also be cleaned about every four years if you have a lot of pets, Knobloch said.

“For health and air quality inside the house, keep it as clean as possible, especially if you have asthma or allergies,” he said.

12. Chimneys

Homeowners should have their chimneys inspected and cleaned every year to prevent fires and carbon monoxide entering their house, Dahl said.

13. Shingles

Make sure your roof shingles are not loose so if you have to go up onto the roof – to take care of your sewer vents, for example – you don’t slip and fall off.

14. Garage

Make sure your garage-door opener safety reversing sensors are set correctly so the door can’t crush anyone one its way down.

To test, put a roll of paper towels in the door’s path or roll a ball through as it’s closing. The door should stop and then reverse direction.

It’s also important to have a firewall between the garage and house if you have an attached garage, Knobloch said. A fire that starts in a garage takes longer to spread to the house when a firewall is in place, he said.

15. Trees

Tree branches that overhang roofs or power lines should be trimmed. And power lines that hang too low can be hazardous, so let the power company know about low-hanging lines, inspectors said.

To stay on top of household tasks, Dahl recommends picking a date, like the first weekend of the month, and walking around the house, checking filters and looking for potential problems.

“If most people would walk around the house once a month, inside and out, in 15 to 20 minutes they could solve a lot of problems,” he said.

For those who prefer an electronic reminder, a new app called HomeZada alerts homeowners when certain maintenance tasks need to be done.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526