“THE WORK NEVER ENDS” is a common homeowner’s lament. But do you really know what’s needed to keep your house in top form? There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and maintaining your home incorrectly could cause damage — to the building, its contents, and your wallet — in the future. Here are some of the biggest misconceptions.
MYTH Ceiling fans turn only one way.
“Some people have them in reverse mode by accident,” says Bill Stack, the energy-efficiency spokesman for the utility company NStar. In summer, make sure the fan pushes air down; in winter, change the rotation direction so that it draws air up. You’ll find the switch near the blades, or on the remote if you have one. “You should be able to tell which way is right just by standing underneath it,” Stack says.
MYTH You can test that your smoke detector is working by pushing the button.
All that tests is whether the alarm sound is working; it has nothing to do with whether the device itself will sense smoke. A better way to do your annual test is to hold a blown-out match or two under the unit. And remember to replace the batteries once or twice a year: Smoke detectors are installed in 58 percent of homes that have fatal fires, but they are working in only 37 percent of those fires.
MYTH You shouldn’t run the garbage disposal dry.
Tom Kraeutler, host of the New York-based syndicated home improvement radio show The Money Pit, used to be a home inspector, and when he tested the in-sink systems, he says, “usually someone would yell at me, ‘You can’t run that without water!’ ” He swears it’s not true. “They run perfectly well for hours on end,” Kraeutler says. “It’s just one of those silly things people think is true but it’s not.” Another myth is that simply throwing a lemon wedge into your disposal will keep it clean; lemon does smell good, but ice or baking soda and vinegar do a better job of scouring away any gunky buildup.
MYTH Duct tape is the best choice for sealing ducts.
“What everyone thinks of as duct tape is not efficient and will lose its adhesion in a few years,” says Brian Kimble, a department supervisor in the Natick Home Depot. The better choice is metal-foil tape or air-duct mastic.
MYTH Grass that turns brown is dead.
Not so, says Kraeutler. “It’s just dormant. It will come back if you don’t destroy it.”
MYTH If you cut your grass very short, you won’t have to mow as often.
According to the education nonprofit The Lawn Institute, grass that is mowed down to nothing “wants to rapidly grow back what it has lost.” This damages the root structure and makes your lawn more vulnerable to drought and heat.
MYTH The lower you set your thermostat, the faster your house will cool.
“Thermostats are dumb,” says Kraeutler. “They’ll just keep going till they hit that number, no faster.”
MYTH You shouldn’t turn the thermostat on the air conditioner up or the heat down when you go out.
There is some truth to this one, Kraeutler says, in that “if you turn the cooling or heating off then back on again, it will have to run longer than if it’s steady Eddie.” But really it’s a matter of — pardon the pun — degree. When you go to work, adjusting the temperature by just a small amount can save you some money and help the earth, and it won’t, as many people believe, make the unit “work harder” when you get home. When you’re gone for a few days or more, it’s a different story: Turn your AC off or your heat just high enough to keep the pipes from freezing.
MYTH Stone countertops are indestructible.
It depends on the material; marble and soapstone, for example, are softer stones and more susceptible to blemishes. But even granite countertops are billed as scratch- and heat-resistant — which is not quite the same thing as “impervious.” If you set a hot pan on a stone counter for more than a second or two, the stone can be scratched or scorched or expand, which might cause a depression that can’t be fixed without replacing the entire countertop. Acids, too, are bad for stone countertops; some household cleaners, for example, can dull the finish over time, and even orange juice and tomato sauce should be wiped up promptly.
MYTH Asbestos, mold, radon, and termites are catastrophes.
“Mold — sometimes it’s a big deal, sometimes it’s not,” says Kraeutler. Most types of mold are not dangerous to most people, and an area of less than 10 square feet is “considered a DIY project to remove,” according to Kraeutler. Asbestos, he says, does not have to be eliminated if there’s no chance it will become airborne — such as in unbroken siding. Radon can simply be vented away from the house, usually at a cost of less than $1,500. Termites can be controlled and the damage they do repaired, according to Jay Rizzo, a principal of Tiger Home Inspection in Braintree. All are almost always fixable. As Kraeutler puts it, “Don’t think the house is marked for life as a bad house.”
MYTH DIY ventures go smoother without inspections.
Rizzo has seen a lot of unfinished projects and work gone wrong when owners do it themselves without permits. “The myth is it’s easier to do without inspections,” he says. “But in reality, town inspectors are there to make sure things get completed to professional standards.”
MYTH You can get away with inexpensive materials.
“Cheap is cheap,” says Todd Vendituoli, who was an independent contractor in New England for 28 years before moving to the Bahamas, where he blogs about home-related issues at thebuildingblox.com. “It will cost you more in the long run to replace something or through extra utility bills. It really holds true for everything. You’re better off just buying a quality piece the first time.”
MYTH Siding is watertight.
Wood and stucco siding expand and contract with the weather, and the various pieces of material covering your house may not breathe at the same rate. “Soft joints” of an adequate amount of caulking can provide a buffer that keeps cracks from forming and rainwater from getting in and rotting your house. Even vinyl siding is not immune: If it’s not installed properly, particularly around windows and doors, you can have problems down the road. If you see rotting windowsills or any apparent water damage on the drywall, leaky siding could be your culprit, according to Von Salmi, a construction forensics specialist in Westminster.
MYTH Basements get damp through the floor, and fixing that costs a fortune.
Most of the moisture that gets into your basement actually comes down, not up — from downspouts that aren’t angled away from the house or soil that is not graded properly. “Almost all water problems are caused by poor exterior drainage,” says Kraeutler. So you probably won’t need to dig up your foundation. “Before you do the hard stuff,” Kraeutler says, “do the easy stuff. You don’t need to spend $15-, $20-, or $25,000 on a basement waterproofer.”
MYTH The more insulation the better.
“More insulation is better,” says Stack, “but the house still has to breathe to avoid mold and mildew.” Before you make any major changes, especially around fans and air vents, have an expert come in to address health and safety issues. Most states have free energy-audit programs; in the Commonwealth, you can find a contractor who does them at masssave.com.
MYTH You should insulate the attic ceiling.
“People think they want the attic to be warm,” Rizzo says. “But you want it to be the same temperature as outside, so you put insulation on the attic floor.” Otherwise, moisture can build up and cause mold. Of course, plenty of people have finished attics, which do have insulated ceilings with drywall over them — but if you plan to do this, make sure the space is properly vented first by someone who knows what he or she is doing.
MYTH Electric heat guards keep your roof ice-free.
“Heat guards are like 8 inches off the gutter,” says Ron Eaton, owner of Express Roofing and Siding in Weymouth. “All that water melts down and drips inside your gutter and freezes. Then you get ice dams that back up into the shingles and drip into the house.” The units are also a fire hazard, Eaton says. “I’ve seen the coils really dried out and rotted.” The best thing to do, he says, is remove the roof 6 feet up and put an ice and water shield under the shingles. “It is expensive, but the alternative is to spend more money if you get an ice dam.”
MYTH It’s OK to leave the window screens on all winter.
Well, it is OK in that it won’t damage your house or the screens, says Vendituoli, but screens inhibit sunlight, and in winter, “any free heat you can get, might as well.”
MYTH If you have a bathroom window, you don’t need an exhaust fan.
Although most municipal codes don’t require fans in bathrooms that have windows, few people keep their bathroom windows open, especially on cold days. But not ventilating a bathroom can cause moisture to build up on walls and windows, allowing mold to grow and possibly even get into the studs, eventually causing rot.
MYTH Closing the vents in unused rooms can save you money.
Most heating or cooling systems work just as hard whether 10 vents or 12 are open. In fact, closing a vent can even throw off the system’s balance and allow pressure to build in the ductwork, causing leaks that can decrease efficiency and lead to higher utility bills. “You could harm your cooling system by icing up the cooling coil, and on the heating side, closing a vent doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll save energy or money,” says Bob Eckel, the New England vice president of Conservation Services Group, a Westborough-based nonprofit energy services company.
MYTH It takes more energy to turn on lights and electronic products when you come home than to leave them on when you go out.
People think this is true because there’s a power surge when you turn on a light, an appliance, or an electronic device — and there is, but it’s too small to measure. Even if the surge lasted a full second and doubled your electricity use for that second — neither of which it does — it would still only cost you an extra second’s worth of electricity.
MYTH Appliances and other electronics that are turned off don’t use electricity. Almost all electric devices — home entertainment units, computers, printers, coffee makers, window fans, microwaves, et cetera — probably have a standby mode that continues to suck power even when the equipment isn’t in use. Phones, speakers, and chargers also pull current whenever they are plugged in. Using power strips can make it easy to turn off many devices with one switch. Energy Star appliances have lower standby modes, and it might be worth upgrading since, according to the US Department of Energy, standby can account for up to 10 percent of residential electricity use.
MYTH Compact fluorescent light bulbs are as bad for the environment as traditional ones because they contain mercury.
CFLs do contain a trace amount of mercury that escapes when they break; but the surprise here is that using electricity also puts mercury into the environment. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a typical incandescent bulb emits about three times as much mercury as a CFL, and CFLs can also be recycled, keeping them from breaking in a landfill.
MYTH Newer homes are less prone to fires.
Experts say that most fires are caused by human behavior — including careless cooking, children playing with matches, falling asleep while smoking, forgetting about a lit candle, accidents involving flammable products, and impaired judgment from intoxication — rather than the physical characteristics of the home.
ONE MONSTER OF A MYTH
Perhaps the biggest home maintenance myth is that certain things around the house need only minimal maintenance or even none at all. Here are a few of the items you may be neglecting at your peril.
* Heating and Air-Conditioning Units “You should replace the filters monthly,” says NSTAR’s Stack. Furnaces, air handlers, and condensers should also be checked annually by an HVAC expert to ensure they’re functioning at optimal levels. To get you started, NStar offers a free Quality Installation Verification for any new or existing residential central AC system. Find participating contractors at masssave.com. “On the furnace part,” Stack reminds, “don’t wait until the cold weather starts, because you won’t be able to get help with it when everyone else is trying.” Instead, call a service technician in August or September.
* Window Air Conditioner Like larger units, window ACs need their filters changed — monthly in summer, according to Stack. Also, check the foil ridges on the back of an unplugged unit; if they’re pushed together, separate them with a butter knife or a comb to increase the unit’s efficiency.
* Refrigerator Vacuuming your fridge’s coils regularly, says Stack, can increase its efficiency up to 20 percent. Even better, replacing an old fridge with an Energy Star model can save you as much as $150 a year on your electric bill, and many utilities have recycling programs. NStar will actually pay you $50 to take away your old fridge. (Go to masssave.com to see what’s available in your city or town.)
* Vents and Fans “People tend to be a little lax on cleaning their ductwork and fans on kitchen exhaust systems,” says Vendituoli, “but grease and everything else can get sucked up there and it will run less
efficiently.” The same goes for ceiling fans, bathroom fans, and dryer vents, where clogs can inhibit air flow and make the appliance’s motor work harder, decreasing its life span and costing you more in fuel or electricity. Too much dust and lint can even cause a fire.
* Oil Tank Vendituoli recommends having your oil tank checked every five years, because “an incredible amount of slimy stuff collects in the bottom,” he says. “I found out the hard way when we were away once and the oil got low. The furnace started sucking in the gook and shut down in the middle of winter.” He had to have one company come in to clean the tank and another to clean the furnace — and he narrowly escaped having frozen pipes.
* Hot Water Tank This, too, should be drained once a year for the same reason. “There’s gook in water, too,” Vendituoli says, and it can clog the system. “The other thing with hot water heaters is people tend to have them set too high, and even a few degrees can add up when you’ve got a 40-gallon tank that always needs to keep that water heated, constantly using propane, natural gas, or electricity, even when you’re at work.” Finally, keep an eye on your tank for corrosion or minor leaks; if you see a problem, it’s time to replace the unit.
* Washing Machine Fill Hoses “When they break,” says Vendituoli, “they can cause thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of damage,” particularly if the machine is on the second floor. Check your hoses once a year, he recommends, and if you see any signs of brittleness or age, shut off the water and replace them. “It’s always best, too, to make sure you have shut-offs and know where they are,” he adds, “so you can get the water off quickly” if there’s an accident.
* Gutters Cleaning the gutters, says Vendituoli, “absolutely needs to be done every year.” Even if you have guards on your gutters, he maintains, they can get bent by a heavy snow load or branches falling, causing debris to accumulate and overflow water to soak your exterior — and, ultimately, interior — walls. “It’s also relatively common that gutters aren’t attached properly right up against the fascia boards. Visually inspect that every year to make sure they’re properly attached because of what could have happened in the winter months.”
* Decks Every spring, you should check the underside of your deck, according to Vendituoli, to make sure the fasteners haven’t rusted or the attachments pulled away from the house. “Make sure everything’s secure,” he says. “If you’re not comfortable with something, hire a contractor to come over and make sure all is well.” One Internet search on the words “deck collapse” will tell you why.
* Utility Bills Keep an eye on them to make sure there are no major changes from one month to the next; if there are, you’ve probably got a maintenance issue somewhere in the house, says Vendituoli. He was once asked to suss out why someone’s water bill suddenly went sky-high. He checked everything he could think of, finally taking the lid off the toilet tank. “You could barely hear the water leaking,” he says, “but when they looked at their past bills they found it was 50 gallons a day.”
And that, like most other neglected maintenance issues, is just money down the drain.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the ideal position of ceiling fan blades was described incorrectly in an earlier version of this story. In the summer, the fan should push air down, and in the winter, it should draw air up.