When spring arrives in the Midwest, it’s time to clean up your home and yard from the ravages of winter. As the weather warms, you can also accomplish some routine maintenance tasks that are much more agreeable when the sun is shining.
Key maintenance tasks to perform
• Check your gutters and downspouts. “Stuff accumulates even after your fall gutter cleaning,” says Frank Lesh, president of Home Sweet Home Inspection Co. in Indian Head Park, Ill. “Pine needles especially, which fall all year long and are difficult to remove.” Children’s toys, he says, also find their way into gutters between cleanings, as well as nails and other debris from the roof. Look for any signs of wind or ice damage—has the gutter pulled away from the house, or bent so that there are depressions where water can stand? You can usually repair damage yourself for under $50 by adjusting or reattaching brackets and gently hammering out bent areas.
Lesh also recommends examining your downspouts for blockages. “You can’t see inside them,” he says, “so tap them with a screwdriver handle to see if they sound hollow.” If the ends run underground, where animals can build nests or winter debris can become trapped, your best bet is to put a garden hose in the gutter and see where the water discharges. If you have a blockage, you’ll have to disassemble or dig up part of the downspout until you locate it.
• Inspect your roof for winter damage. This is best done from a ladder, but if you’re allergic to ladders, use a pair of binoculars to check your roof from your yard. Look for loose and missing shingles. If anything looks unusual, investigate further yourself or call a roofing contractor.
• Take a close look at your chimney. “Do this even if the winter was mild,” Lesh says. “High winds, rain, and snow can damage a chimney. Look for cracks, missing mortar, loose bricks or boards, and signs of rot.” If any of those things are present, call a chimney sweep certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America for a repair estimate. If the metal flashing and the cap on a chimney are galvanized, Lesh says, check to see if they look brownish, which means they’re rusting and should be replaced. Also, make sure the cap is still present but hasn’t collapsed and covered the flue opening, which could cause a dangerous carbon monoxide buildup inside the house. Expect chimney repairs to start around $200.
• Examine your drainage. Make sure soil slopes away from your foundation at least 6 vertical inches in the first 10 feet on all sides of the house and that there are no areas of standing water. If you have properly sloped foundation drainage but still have areas of standing water, consider a landscaping solution, such as a swales (contoured drainage depressions), berms (raised banks of earth), terraces, or French drains (a shallow, gravel-filled trench that diverts water away from the house).
• Take a look at your siding. Has any of it come loose or begun to rot? Repair any damaged sections before moisture has a chance to set in. No matter what your siding is made of (wood, vinyl, brick), it may need a spring cleaning. The best DIY method for any kind of siding is a bucket of soapy water and a long-handled brush. A power washer is not recommended and should only be handled by a professional cleaning contractor. If you choose to have your siding professionally cleaned, expect to pay $300–$500 depending on the size of your home.
• Schedule your biannual HVAC appointment. Get ready for the air conditioning season with your spring tune-up. If your system wasn’t running well last season, be sure to tell your contractor, and make sure he performs actual repairs if necessary rather than simply adding refrigerant. “He shouldn’t just charge it up,” Lesh says. “That will work for a while, but it won’t last. Freon lasts forever—if your system is low, there’s a leak somewhere, and he should tell you specifically what he’s going to check to fix it.” Expect to pay $50–$100.
Your contractor’s maintenance checklist should include checking thermostats and controls, checking the refrigerant level, tightening connections, lubricating any moving parts, checking the condensate drain, and cleaning the coils and blower. Duct cleaning, while it probably won’t hurt anything, is not necessary; be wary of contractors who want to coat the inside of the ducts with antimicrobial agents, as research has not proven the effectiveness of this method and any chemicals used in your ducts will likely become airborne.
On your own, make sure your filters are changed and vacuum out all your floor registers.
• Check your GFCIs. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that you do this once a month, and it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your spring maintenance routine. GFCIs (ground fault circuit interrupters) are electrical outlets that protect you from deadly electrical shocks by shutting off the power anytime even a minimal disturbance in current is detected. They feature two buttons (“test” and “reset”), and should be present anywhere water and electricity can mix: kitchens, bathrooms, basements, garages, and the exterior of the house.
To test your GFCIs, plug a small appliance (a nightlight, for example) into each GFCI. Press the test button, which should click and shut off the nightlight. The reset button should also pop out when you press the test button; when you press reset, the nightlight should come back on.
If the nightlight doesn’t go off when you press the test button, either the GFCI has failed and should be replaced, or the wiring is faulty should be inspected. If the reset button doesn’t pop out, or if pressing it doesn’t restore power to the nightlight, the GFCI has failed and should be replaced. These distinctions can help you tell an electrician what the problem is—neither job is one you should attempt yourself if you don’t have ample experience with electrical repair.
Spending a weekend or two on maintenance can prevent expensive repairs and alert you to developing problems before they become serious. Be sure to check out the comprehensive seasonal to-do list following this article, and visit the links below for more detailed information on completing tasks or repairs yourself.