The unfailing sunshine that makes the Southwest the envy of the rest of the country also simplifies some routine outdoor maintenance tasks. There aren’t many leaf-filled gutters to be cleaned in most parts of the region, for example, and excessive humidity is rarely an issue.
Still, homeowners from Texas to Colorado to Southern California face challenges that include extremely dry conditions punctuated by brief, torrential downpours, and temperature variations that may swing 40 to 50 degrees between midday and midnight. If you live in the Southwest, here are the crucial outdoor maintenance tasks you should perform to protect your home and help preserve its value for decades to come.
Have your AC serviced
With summer temps routinely topping 100 degrees in many Southwestern areas, air conditioning systems must work extremely hard. “A lot of people don’t realize their AC needs service,” says Las Vegas home inspector Peter Hawley. “But untended equipment means higher electricity bills, needless breakdowns, and early replacement.”
In early spring, hire an HVAC contractor to do an annual tune up ($100 to $150), which includes changing filters, checking refrigerant levels, and cleaning the condenser—prolonging the system’s life and maximizing its efficiency. Ask the technician whether your system has filters that you should replace between services, a quick and easy process you’ll need to do every two or three months. Filter cost: $10 to $50.
If you have an evaporative “swamp” cooler (an old-fashioned system still used in some desert locations that cools air by blowing it over water), make sure to request an HVAC technician who knows how to clean and lubricate these specialized units.
Check for drainage problems
In flood-prone areas, check any drainage swales located on your lot—and look at the space between your house and neighboring ones—to ensure that these crucial drainage areas haven’t become clogged with debris and vegetation. Remove yard waste and any shrubs or plants that may interfere with the free flow of storm water.
Keep an eye on drainage channels or gutter openings in the street for debris as well. If you notice potential problems, notify your local water works department. Keeping municipal water drainage systems working helps ensure that heavy rainfall will flow off properly, reducing the likelihood of water backing up and damaging your property.
Maintaining your pool
Keeping your swimming pool clean and safe requires routinely testing and adjusting the chemistry of the water—including the chlorine and pH levels—vacuuming up leaves and debris, and adding water as needed. If you have the know-how, you can do these steps yourself, or you can hire a pool company to handle the work for around $75 to $150 a month, according to Jeff Mitchell of Dynasty Pools in Quail Valley, Calif., who’s also director of the Southwest Region Advisory Council of the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals.
In the spring, your pool service will refill the pool if necessary, restart the system, and balance the water chemistry, all for $400 to $500.
In areas with occasional freezing temperatures, your system may have an automatic freeze control, which turns on the pump during cold snaps to prevent water from freezing in the pipes, where it could burst them. If not, it’s vital that you manually turn on the pump whenever temperatures threaten to dip below freezing.
In high altitudes, where long, deep frosts are commonplace, you’ll have to shut down the pool for the winter to prevent damaging freeze-ups. Your pool company will do this by draining the water level below the pump return lines and then emptying the pipes and pump of water, for $400 to $500.
Prune back vegetation
Prune back any vegetation that’s encroaching on the house. Cut back shrubs and bushes so that they’re no closer than 3 feet from siding. Remove overhanging branches so they’re no closer than 10 feet from siding or roofing, preventing them from rubbing against exterior surfaces in the wind. “I’ve seen overhanging palm fronds wear the coating right off roof shingles,” says Upland, Calif., home inspector Jim Turner, a past-president of the National Association of Home Inspectors.
Overgrowth can also present a fire and a flooding hazard; check with local fire officials about exactly how wide an area should be kept clear around your home. In some areas, codes call for up to 30 feet of clear space around your home. Be sure to annually prune ornamental trees and shrubs, which can grow quickly in the ideal conditions of an irrigated landscape in the sunny Southwest.
Seal and paint outdoor structures
Treat exterior wood—whether an arbor, a gazebo, or a picket fence—with a wood preservative sealer, stain, or paint. Apply sealer or stain at least every other year. Choose a sealer that provides water repellency, mildew resistance, and ultraviolet light (UV)-blocking ability to defend against the constant sun of the Southwest.
Recoat painted wood surfaces every three to five years with a top-quality exterior paint. The additional cost of premium paint will be offset by reduced maintenance and frequency of recoating. Always scrape, sand, and clean surfaces thoroughly before sealing, staining, and painting.
Caring for lawns
Proper mowing techniques are the best way to maintain turf health. Mow as often as required to ensure that you’re never removing more than one-third of the grass height; removing more than that may shock grass plants. Keep your mower blade sharp to avoid tearing the grass.
Use the mulch setting to return the grass clippings to the soil, where they help the soil retain moisture. Eventually, clippings decompose, providing nutrients for the lawn. “Mulched clippings are better for your lawn than any fertilizer you put down,” says Turner.
Talk to a local garden center or state extension service about a fertilizing regimen you can use to strengthen your lawn’s roots and build disease resistance. Or, have a landscaping company handle the cutting and feeding. Expect to pay $50 to $100 per cut and per fertilizer application, depending on the size of your property.