Certain home maintenance tasks should be completed each season to prevent structural damage, save energy, and keep all your home’s systems running properly. These maintenance tasks are most important for the Southwest in fall and winter. For a comprehensive list of tasks by season, refer to the to-do lists to the right of this article.
Fall and winter in the Southwest can mean the return of rain and snow after months of relentless, intense sun. “Out here, ultraviolet light really damages roof and wall surfaces,” says Bill Richardson, owner of Responsive Inspections in Albuquerque, N.M. This makes it doubly important to get your house ready for the abrupt change in weather, and to repair any damaged surfaces to prevent moisture damage.
Architecture in the Southwest can also play a role in the type of maintenance tasks you perform; pueblo-inspired flat roofs and canales (spouts) must be regularly inspected to make sure water flows off the house unimpeded.
For wetter climates, such as parts of Northern California, it’s important in early fall to check all systems that drain water away from the house (gutters, surface drains, catch basins, sump pumps) before the rainy season begins in late October or early November, according to Max Curtis, owner of MaxInspect in Livermore, Calif.
Key maintenance tasks to perform
Shut down your evaporative cooler. If you use an evaporative (swamp) cooler in place of an air conditioner, turn off the water supply, drain the water lines completely so that they don’t freeze, clean the tank of any mineral buildup (vinegar and a scrub brush work nicely), and unplug the pump. Cover the cooler with plastic or canvas and secure the cover with bungee cords.
Make sure your furnace is ready for cold weather. Schedule a fall HVAC maintenance appointment; you can expect to spend $50–$100 for the service. Your HVAC professional should check all fuel connections, burner combustion, and the heat exchanger; find out what’s on his checklist and don’t be shy about asking him what he’s doing. In the meantime, check your furnace filters monthly and change them if they’re dirty. Inspect floor grates and return ducts regularly and clean them out with a vacuum cleaner brush.
Check your drainage systems. Many houses in wet areas, such as Northern California, have surface or sub-surface drainage systems specifically designed to carry as much moisture away from the foundation as possible. If you have a surface drain—such as a catch basin—installed in your lawn, planting beds, or patio, get your garden hose out in early fall and run water through the system to make sure there are no blockages. (It’s a good idea to test gutters and downspouts this way as well.) With sub-surface systems such as French drains or buried downspouts, watch for signs of pooling water when it rains. For both surface and sub-surface systems, remove any debris you’re able to reach; if you suspect a blockage that you can’t access, call a landscape contractor for an estimate on repairs.
If you have sump pumps to remove water from your basement or crawl space, test them to see if they’re still working. There are two types of sump pumps. One has a float valve, so simply raise the float manually to make sure the pump activates. The other type is water-activated; check it by sticking a hose in the sump and running the water. If the pump doesn’t power on, check your ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacle first to make sure it hasn’t shut off power to the pump. If the “reset” button has popped out, press it in to restore power. If that doesn’t work, check circuit breakers at the main panel. If you can’t locate the source of the problem, you may have to call in an electrician to have a look.
After rainy season has begun, Curtis recommends taking a rain walk outside during a downpour so that you can spot signs of trouble: areas of standing water, water running alongside or toward the foundation, and overflowing gutters or downspouts.
Clear roof and gutters of debris. This task is important no matter what type of roof you have, but for flat roofs, it’s absolutely imperative. Debris can trap water much more easily on a flat roof, causing sagging and rotting, especially if the builders did not create an adequate slope for drainage. If you have canales, make sure they’re all clear; otherwise you’ll end up with ice on the roof in winter because water is unable to drain.
If you can’t get up on the roof yourself, get someone else to do it for you. It’s just not possible to see potential problems on a flat roof (including blocked canales) from ground level, Richardson says. Clear debris and note any structural issues that interfere with drainage; if you can’t resolve standing water issues on your own, call a roofing contractor.
Inspect the shingles and flashing. Roof shingles bake in the hot Southwestern sun, which degrades their granular coating, particularly on the southern and western sides of the house. “I’ve seen situations where the shingles are paper-thin,” Richardson says. It’s important to replace worn-out shingles before the rainy season arrives for your area.
Flashing is any material (typically metal) used to seal off adjacent surfaces against moisture; it’s used anywhere the roof surface is penetrated by chimneys, attic vents, and plumbing vent stacks. In the fall, check flashing for gaps, cracks, rust holes, and bending. Seal cracks and holes with roofing cement.
If you have a flat roof, you may have a low wall, or parapet, running along the roofline. Parapets have flashing made of granular, shingle-like material which can be compromised by ultraviolet light just as roof shingles can; check yours to ensure the surface hasn’t worn away.
If you have missing or damaged shingles or flashing, call a roofing contractor or home inspector to obtain an estimate for repairs.
Check weatherstripping and trim. Walk around the outside of the house and do a visual inspection of all doors and windows, looking for gaps where the trim meets the siding. Caulk any gaps around windows or doors. Open doors and check the condition of the weatherstripping.
Inside the house, you can check (carefully!) for air leaks around windows, doors, and electrical outlets with a lit candle. “The candle will flicker everywhere the wind’s getting in,” advises Richardson. If the doors are drafty or the old weatherstripping foam is crumbling, remove it and apply new weatherstripping. Thin foam pads to insulate drafty electrical outlets are available at most hardware stores; simply remove the outlet cover and insert the pad according to instructions.
Prune trees and shrubs. Trees can damage roofs and siding by trapping moisture near the house, scraping surfaces, and dropping limbs. Prune them in late fall to keep them off the house. If you own a home with stucco siding that extends all the way to the ground, Richardson recommends you avoid foundation plantings altogether because the water necessary to maintain them can wick into the stucco, causing the stucco to fail. He advises keeping plants at least 3 feet away from houses with full stucco siding.
A little prevention in the form of home maintenance tasks goes a long way in recognizing developing problems and preventing costly repairs. The to-do list following this article contains all the above tasks plus others you should complete this season for maximum impact.