Be Your Own HandymanOur houses are filled with appliances, most of which we take for granted… until they break.
That’s a problem, and not just because replacing or fixing appliances can get expensive. Regular maintenance of your appliances can also increase their efficiency, allowing you to realize immediate savings on utility costs. And in some cases, a bit of simple maintenance can prevent a catastrophic flood or fire from a damaged device.
Best of all, you can do most of this maintenance yourself, without having to shell out big bucks to bring in a handyman. To find out how, we spoke with Steve Ash, a veteran handyman who has spent a decade in the commercial appliance division of PartSelect.com, which provides tools and parts for do-it-yourself projects. Ash provided us with some tips for keeping your appliances in good working order.
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Clean Your Stove’s Drip PansNot only can a filthy drip pan below an electric range unit be smelly, unsightly and attractive to fruit flies, it can also be a fire hazard if enough grease builds up. The solution is simple: Just take them out and pop them in the dishwasher.
“They’re typically porcelain-covered steel, so you can put them in the dishwasher,” says Ash. “You’d be surprised what you can wash in the dishwasher.” If there’s still some gunk burned on when you take them out, try using some oven cleaner.
Bonus tip: If removing the drip bowls requires you to take out the heating elements (coils), take a look at the terminals where they plug in. If they look “cruddy,” Ash recommends replacing them, which should cost you around $40 each.
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Clean or Replace Your Oven Door GasketBetween finicky thermostats and heat loss every time you open the door, it can be difficult to keep your oven’s temperature consistent. And it’s even harder when the gasket that lines the inside of your oven door is damaged or dirty, which can allow heat to escape. That, of course, means high utility bills and longer cooking times.
Ash suggests keeping your gasket clean with soap and water, though he notes that the gaskets on self-cleaning ovens – which are made of fiberglass that can withstand the high temperature of the self-cleaning cycle, rather than the rubber or silicon of standard ovens – may be more difficult to get clean. Either way, if it has any cracks or tears you can easily replace the whole gasket for $25-$50, according to Ash.
Photo Credit: Alex Shultz
Deodorize Your Garbage DisposalIf your sink starts to stink, chances are you’ve been misusing your garbage disposal, allowing rotting food to build up inside.
“Most issues [with the disposal] are because people don’t run enough water through it,” advises Ash. “It relies on water to flush [the garbage] down the drain.”
This should probably go without saying, but the solution to this problem is definitely not to reach down into the garbage disposal and clear out the buildup by hand. Rather, Ash notes that many stinky drains can be resolved by filling your sink with hot, soapy water and then running the disposal.
If that doesn’t work, it may be that parts of the appliance have simply worn down and it’s no longer able flush garbage into the drain. In that case, don’t bother trying to fix it or calling a handyman – you can get a new one for less than $100. “In most cases we found that they’ve become a disposable appliance,” says Ash.
Photo Credit: Nate Grigg
Service Your Dishwasher’s GasketIt might seem odd to have to clean a dishwasher, but soap scum and dishwater gunk can build up, and as with your oven, the door gasket is an area of particular concern. The main issue here is keeping a water-tight seal, and a filthy or cracked gasket can get very messy for your kitchen. Clean it with soap and water, and don’t hesitate to replace it – Part Select has door gaskets priced around $10-$40.
Photo Credit: Bev Sykes
Clean Your Dishwasher’s Spray ArmIf your dishes suddenly aren’t getting as clean as they used to, don’t call a plumber – there could just be something lodged in the spray arm, the rotating device that sprays down the contents of the dishwasher. Spray arms have an array of holes from which water is expelled, and if those holes start getting clogged with debris (Ash points to cellophane as a common culprit), the dishwasher will be less effective.
Ash recommends using a pair of tweezers to clean out any obstruction; if the debris proves hard to remove that way, he suggests pushing the offending debris back into the spray arm, then removing the part and flushing it out in the sink.
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Repair Your Dishwasher RackAs a general rule, your dishwasher rack is made of wire and coated in vinyl or nylon to keep it from scratching your dishes and glasses. But years of use can wear down the coating, which can subject your racks to corrosive rust. Ash recommends patching the cracks with some liquid plastic, which can generally be found at hardware stores for less than $10.
Meanwhile, if your dishwasher rack no longer rolls out smoothly, don’t run out and buy a new one, which Ash says can cost around $175. He says that’s usually unnecessary and the problem is probably with the rack rollers, the little wheels along which the rack runs. These are brand-specific and can be purchased at an appliance part distributor for as little as $5.
Photo Credit: the.Firebottle
Clean Your Fridge’s CondenserA refrigerator has two main mechanical parts. There’s the evaporator, an internal device that keeps the fridge cold; and the condenser, an external part that basically acts as a giant heat sink and blows out warm air. The latter is accessible and should be kept clean and free of dust to keep your fridge running efficiently – the more dust builds up in the condenser, the harder it has to work to expel excess heat.
To clean it, disconnect the power to your fridge and pull it out to access the condenser coil at the back; you may need to remove an access panel to get at it. Then it’s a simple matter of vacuuming any dust that may have accumulated over the years, though Ash recommends also getting a special brush that’s designed to clean between the condenser coils. In general you can get one at a hardware store or distributor for less than $10, like this $4.95 condenser brush.
Photo Credit: Mark Florence
Replace Your Washing Machine’s Fill HosesLike the pipes running to your sink or shower, your washer’s fill hoses are under pressure at all times, which means that if they burst when you aren’t home your house could flood. Unlike most pipes, though, they’re generally made of rubber rather than metal or PVC. That means you have to monitor them very carefully.
“Check for cracking, kinking or rusting at the ends,” advises Ash. “If it bursts while you’re at work, you’re looking at a $15,000 clean-up bill.” The fix is as simple as getting replacement hoses at a hardware store and using a pair of slip-joint pliers to affix them. Just make sure you turn the water off first.
While you’re at it, check the drainage hose as well – though it’s not under pressure like the fill hose, it can still cause some flooding when the washer drains.
Photo Credit: Russell Yarwood
Service Your Drier’s Exhaust VentMake sure you keep an eye on the external vent cap outside the house. It’s designed to stay closed when the drier is off and swing open when hot air needs to be released. But the cap can build up with lint that prevents normal operation; if it’s stuck closed the drier won’t be able to easily expel moist air, and if it’s stuck open the house will get cold during the winter, raising your heating bill. “Get out there once a year with an old paint brush so it opens and closes freely,” advises Ash. Simply keeping the vent free of dust and debris can save you a good chunk of money.
Photo Credit: Alex Wiebe
Know Your LimitsMost of the maintenance tips listed here can be executed by even the most technically-inept homeowner. And there are plenty of how-to videos and instructions to help guide you through basic maintenance, either from the manufacturer or on websites like Part Select. Still, it’s important to know when you’re in over your head.
“A lot of it depends on the consumer’s confidence in his ability to diagnose a problem and resolve it,” says Ash. If you have serious doubts that you’ll be able to fix the problem, it’s better to pay an appliance repair specialist (not an electrician) rather than risk flooding your house or electrocuting yourself.
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