They Can Cost You a Lot of Money

Replacing an air conditioner filter…lubricating a lock…cleaning dust off a refrigerator coil—what could possibly go wrong? More than you would expect! Make a mistake with seemingly simple home-maintenance tasks, and you could create a big home repair bill. Here’s what home owners need to know before tackling six common—and commonly mismanaged—maintenance chores…

Mistake: Backward furnace and air conditioner filters.

Most home owners know that furnaces and air conditioners have filters that should be replaced every few months when they are in use. (Certain filters can be cleaned rather than replaced.) But some home owners do not realize that these filters are designed to work in only one direction, and even home owners who do realize this often get the direction wrong. Install them backward, and not only will they do a poor job filtering airborne particulates—they will inhibit airflow, making the system less energy-efficient and potentially burning out components.

Look for the arrow on the side of the replacement filter. This arrow should point in the direction of airflow—which almost always means it should point toward the furnace or air conditioner, not away from it, because air ­going through the filter should be flowing into the unit, not out of it.

Most home owners also neglect to vacuum out the filter compartment when they replace these air filters. This is an important step that is easy to do with a vacuum or shop-vac wand.

Similar: Even home owners who change their furnace and air conditioner filters usually ignore the air filters in their oven range hoods. These should be popped out and cleaned at least a few times a year. Most can simply be washed in the dishwasher. Failing to do so can reduce a range hood exhaust fan’s ability to remove smoke and cooking smells from the kitchen by as much as 50%.

Mistake: Cleaning central-air drain lines without checking for clogs.

You might already know that in order to inhibit mold and mildew growth, once or twice a year it’s smart to pour one cup of bleach down an air conditioner system’s condensate drain line—the plastic pipe through which condensation produced by the evaporator coil drips off. But if you’re like most home owners, you probably don’t bother to check this line for clogs. Clogs caused by mold, algae or insect nests could cause water to back up in the line, potentially leading to musty odors in the home and even water damage, particularly if the air conditioner evaporator is located in the attic.

Before pouring bleach into the condensate drain line (there typically is an access opening in the drain line near the internal component of the A/C system), ask someone to watch the other end of the line where water from the line drips outside the home or down a basement drain. If you’re not certain where to find the end of your condensate drain line, follow the PVC tubing leading away from the A/C unit inside your house. If you pour water in and your helper does not see water flow out, you’ll need to clear away clogs before treating the line with bleach. The easiest way to clear clogs is to use duct tape to create a seal between the end of a shop-vac hose and the external end of the condensate line (or purchase a shop-vac hose adaptor), then turn on the shop vac to suck out the obstruction. You’ll save $150 or more by avoiding a maintenance call. (The bleach method does not apply to systems that pump condensation upward. Check with the pump maker if you suspect a clog.)

Mistake: Wrong lock lubricant.

Home owners typically spray lubricant into keyholes when door locks start sticking. Unfortunately, they usually use the wrong lubricant—the most common household lubricant in the US is the multipurpose WD-40, which is poorly suited to this job. A multipurpose lube might provide some short-term improvement in a lock’s function, but soon it will start gumming up the intricate mechanism, leaving the lock worse than ever.

Graphite is a far better lubricant for sticking locks. Graphite lubricants are available in home centers and hardware stores, but you don’t even need to buy these. Just rub a #2 pencil liberally all over the surfaces of the key that will enter the sticking lock, then insert this key into the lock several times, turning it each time. (Wipe any remaining graphite off the key afterward so that it doesn’t make your purse or pocket messy.)

Similar: Home owners tend to use a multipurpose lube on garage door hinges, wheels and chains—if they bother to lubricate their garage doors at all. This is the wrong lube here, too, because it tends to drip all over the garage and cars below. Lithium grease lubricant, available at home centers and hardware stores, is a better choice because it is more likely to cling without dripping.

Mistake: Damaging floors when cleaning refrigerator coils.

Most home owners know that they’re supposed to remove dust and pet hair from their refrigerator condenser coils a few times a year. Doing this helps refrigerators work efficiently, reducing energy bills and extending the life of fridge motors. But cleaning these coils has become more difficult. Traditionally, a refrigerator’s coils could easily be accessed by removing a kick plate on the front of the fridge. But the coils of refrigerators made in the past decade or two often can be accessed only from behind the fridge—and home owners sometimes damage their kitchen floors when they try to slide the fridge away from the wall to access the coils. To avoid this, slip a thick piece of cardboard or a carpet remnant under the fridge before sliding it.

Mistake: Using chemicals to clear clogged sink, tub, toilet and shower drains.

Not only are drain-cleaning chemicals often ineffective, they sometimes damage pipes and septic systems. The best way to clear drain clogs is almost always with a plunger.

Buy a small plunger—this will be easier to fit over sink drains. When plunging a bathroom sink, cover the overflow drain hole with your hand so that the plunger can create suction. Try moving the plunger up and down in a series of small, quick movements—that’s a good way to form a seal and dislodge drain debris.

Similar: To avoid garbage disposal clogs, run cold water when you use the disposal, not hot. Hot water tends to soften food debris, increasing the odds that it will stick. Cold water tends to solidify food debris, making it easier for the disposal to chop it up and send it down the drain.

Mistake: Cleaning out gutters but neglecting to clear the roof.

Removing dead leaves and other debris from gutters is an essential autumn home-maintenance chore. Fail to do this, and leaves might clog your gutters and downspouts in the winter, leading to ice dams and, potentially, water damage. But while most home owners do clear leaves from their gutters (or hire someone to do this for them) once tree branches are bare each year, some neglect to also clear leaves and debris off their roofs. This roof debris eventually gets swept into their gutters by rain or wind and ends up causing the clogs they worked so hard to avoid. When you clean your gutters, clear off your roof, too.