While major appliances make our lives much easier, they also pose significant risks if not maintained properly. This guide explains how you can best protect your family and property from some of the most common hazards.
The average homeowner has several thousand dollars invested in major appliances. This guide shows you how to protect that investment and assure that you get many years of reliable service out of each. This guide also provides tips on minimizing your appliances’ consumption of expensive electricity and gas.
Finally, this guide helps you save on maintenance by explaining some things you can do yourself. For those times when you need to hire a professional, this guide offers some tips on how to get the most value for your money.
Extension cords pose several risks. First, the extension cord connections may not be secure. Besides causing power fluctuations that may damage the equipment, poor connections can also result in sparks that could start a fire.
Another problem with the connections is that they are vulnerable to water penetration. This is especially true in damp areas such as laundry rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, garages and outdoors. Water and electricity are a dangerous combination responsible for many avoidable deaths each year.
People often use extension cords that are too small. The wires on extension cords are rated according to size, with lower ratings corresponding to larger sizes. A simple household extension cord for a lamp might have 16-guage wire. An outdoor cord may have 14-gauge wire. Heavy-duty cords are usually 12-gauge. In general, in those circumstances where use of an extension cord is unavoidable, employ one that is heavier than the wires already attached to the appliance. Also, whenever using power tools or similar equipment on long extension cords, be aware that the longer the cord the more power that is lost en route. This phenomenon, called voltage drop, is much less pronounced in heavier wires. Whenever you use an inadequate cord, you run the risk of damaging the appliance or causing the wires to overheat and become a fire hazard.
When extension cords, appliance wires and outlets are incompatible, people often use adapters to make things fit. Most commonly, people have a three-prong plug and a two-prong outlet. The third prong is the ground, and it offers important safety advantages. A much better long-run solution is to have an electrician replace your 2-prong outlets with properly grounded three-prong outlets.
Heavy-duty appliances have plug configurations that are unique. Never use an adapter to fit these into more standard outlets.
Circuit Breakers and Fuses
Older homes have fuse boxes while most new ones have circuit breakers. Both perform the same function. Whenever a short circuit or overload situation occurs, the device shuts off electricity to that circuit, preventing both shocks and fire hazards.
Whenever an appliance stops working, test the outlet with a lamp or radio. If the circuit is dead, turn off anything you know to be on the same circuit and go to your electrical box—usually in the basement. If you have a circuit breaker, look for the one switch that is slightly out of alignment. Turn it off and turn it back on again. If you have a fuse box, replace the burnt-out fuse.
Try the appliance again. If the circuit cuts off again, you may be overloading that circuit. Try the appliance in another part of the house. If it keeps causing circuits to cut off, something is wrong with the appliance. For instance, it may have a short.
Many older gas appliances (ranges, dryers, water heaters, furnaces, etc.) have pilot lights that run continuously. Newer models have electronic ignition instead. When an older appliance stops working, check to see if the pilot light has gone out. If it has, re-light it according to the instructions in the manual, which came with the unit or are printed on the appliance itself. In many cases, this will save you the cost of a repair call.
Because pilot lights maintain a flame at all times, they are always ready to ignite any flammable gases that might be present. This is why you should never store paints, solvents and other chemicals anywhere near an appliance with a pilot light.
TIPS FOR SPECIFIC APPLIANCES
For modern dishwashers, rinsing the dishes is unnecessary and a waste of water and time. Most dishes can go from the table to the dishwasher without a stop at the sink. Some dishwashers, like certain Maytag Jetclean® models, also come equipped with special cleaning cycles that automatically adjust by the soil level of the dishes in order to save water and energy.
Wait until you have a full load before running the dishwasher. When loading the dishwasher, make sure no dishes obstruct the rotating spray arms. There’s an arm that spins under the bottom rack, another above the top rack and often a third that telescopes up through the bottom rack to spin just under the top rack.
Load more fragile items in the top rack. The highest-pressure jets are directed at the lower rack to help clean pots and utensils.
If you have a garbage disposal, make sure you run it before running the dishwasher.
A clogged drain can cause a flood when the dishwasher drains.
If your dishwasher has a strainer or scrap bin in the bottom, clear it before running each load. If your dishwasher has a water heating option, use it.
The dry cycle uses a lot of energy. During the winter months, when the air in the house is generally dry, you don’t need to use this option. Instead, when the dishwasher stops, open it and pull out both racks. Everything will be dry in about an hour.
If patches of rust begin to appear on the dishwasher racks, you can re-coat those spots with a rubber-like fluid available in hardware stores. You can also buy replacement tips that go over the damaged or sharp tips of the vertical prongs on the rack. If the rollers on the racks break or stop rolling, there are replacement rollers available that fit most brands.
While complete replacement racks are usually available from the manufacturer, they are quite expensive.
If the small holes in the spray arms become clogged with mineral deposits, you can reopen them using hot vinegar and a safety pin.
Lower the thermostat on the water heater to 120 degrees to prevent many scalding injuries. The most dangerous risk is when someone slips in the tub or shower and, while falling, either turns the hot water on or up, or turns the cold water off when both cold and hot water are on. Sometimes, the victim can’t get up after the fall and ends up lying there being burned by the scalding water. An alternative solution to this potential scalding problem is to install special cut-off valves in your showers and tubs that automatically cut the flow of water when there is a sudden increase in temperature.
If you have an inadequate supply of hot water, install a second water heater or a larger capacity water heater rather than turning up the thermostat on your current water heater.
When water heaters break, they sometimes flood a basement. To minimize the damage, make sure there is a clear path from the water heater to the floor drain. For additional protection, you can buy an alarm that sounds when the floor near the water heater becomes wet.
If you have a gas water heater, keep in mind that it uses an open flame. That means you must keep the area free of chemicals, solvents, and other flammable materials. Gas water heaters must properly vent to the outdoors. Periodically check the metal piping to make sure that there are no gaps or holes and that the pipes continuously slope upward as they run from the water heater to the chimney or outside wall. Newer, high-efficiency water heaters are equipped with a fan inside the duct, so the slope is not important. Many of these newer units use plastic pipe.
After there has been construction activity nearby, excess sediment may accumulate in your water heater. Draw off a bucket or so of water from the spigot at the bottom of the water heater tank until the water runs clear. This removes sediment that reduces the efficiency of the water heater.
Most washer hoses are made of reinforced rubber. As they get older, they lose some of their resiliency and may be subject to bursting. A burst hose can spray hundreds of gallons of water per hour across your basement or laundry room causing enormous damage. If your hoses are old, consider replacing them with the tougher metal hoses available at hardware stores. As an added precaution, consider turning off the water supply to the washer whenever you’ll be away for extended periods of time.
After road crews work near your house, turn off the water to your washer, and check the screens at either end of the washer hoses and remove any debris that has gotten trapped there. If the machine rattles when it runs, it may need leveling. Tilt the machine slightly and adjust the screw-in feet until the machine is level with all four feet touching the ground.
For best results, put detergent in before you load the washer. Several brands of washing machines-including Maytag Neptune® and Atlantis™ models-now feature dispensers that automatically add detergent, bleach and/or fabric softener to the wash cycle at the appropriate time for you. For most items, lowering the water temperature to warm wash and cold rinse will get your clothes clean and reduce your energy bills.
Small loads use almost as much energy as large loads. When possible, wait until you have a full load before running the washing machine. Most washer drain hoses hook over the side of a sink or into a pipe especially for that purpose. To prevent floods, make sure the hose is secure and can’t rattle lose or shift out of position.
Never put rags, socks or similar items on shelves over the laundry sink. If one falls into the sink, it can clog the drain and cause a flood. To minimize the damage from a washer mishap, make sure there is a clear path from the washer to the floor drain. If the washer isn’t in the basement, consider installing a washer pan and drain to prevent flood damage.
Clean the lint trap before each load. This will prevent a fire hazard, save you energy and make your clothes dry faster. To avoid wasting energy and over-drying clothes, use the automatic dry cycle. Maytag’s IntelliDry™ uses sensors to turn off automatically when the clothes reach the degree of dryness you desire.
Once a year or so, use a dry paint brush to clean lint from the corners and cracks in the interior of the dryer and around the door. If you often wash athletic shoes and similar items, check to see if the manufacturer of your dryer sells a rack accessory that mounts to the back of the dryer. It will help such items dry faster and more quietly. Some Maytag Neptune and Atlantis dryer models come standard with this feature.
If you have a traditional sheet-metal dryer exhaust vent, you should clean it about every five years. Disconnect the pipe at both ends and use a broom handle to push a rag through the pipe to remove the accumulated lint. If screws were used to hold the pipes together, replace them with foil tape. The screws catch lint flowing through the duct and can cause clogging. If you have the very thin, cheap plastic dryer exhaust tubes, they may be flammable and should be replaced.
The heavier, flexible plastic tubing isn’t flammable, but the corrugated surface does get dirtier faster and may need to be cleaned every two or three years. The thin, flexible aluminum foil-type tubes crimp and clog easily and should be replaced. The thicker, semi-rigid aluminum ducts work fine, but may have to be cleaned every three or four years.
Regardless of what kind of exhaust tubing you have, clean the outside vent once a year and make sure it opens when the dryer is on and closes properly when the dryer is off.
Never exhaust a gas dryer indoors.
Increasingly, experts agree that electric dryers should also always be vented outdoors.
If filling and emptying your dryer causes back stress, consider building a sturdy wooden platform that raises the machine 6-12 inches. The will greatly reduce the amount of necessary bending and twisting.
Refrigerators and Freezers
Most refrigerators have more than one light. Replacement is easiest when at least one bulb is still working. When you first notice a burnt-out bulb, count the total number of bulbs in your unit. Unscrew any burnt-out bulbs and take them with you to the hardware store to make sure you buy the same type. Buy enough for the whole refrigerator so you have spares as the other bulbs wear out.
Whenever frost gets to be 1/4-inch thick, it’s time to defrost. Never use ice picks or similar tools to loosen ice. Some refrigerator shelves contain cooling fluids. These racks take longer to defrost. Don’t force the process, as the racks are easily damaged. Every year or two, vacuum underneath and behind the unit. After unplugging the unit, use a crevice tool or a feather duster to help you clean the coil and all the metal parts. You may have to remove a panel to get access. This will make your unit run more efficiently and last longer.
Keep the door seals and the surfaces they close against clean. This will reduce energy consumption and extend the life of the seal.
If you close the door on a dollar bill and the dollar slips out without resistance, it’s time to replace the door seal. Replacing the seal is more complicated than it looks so if you’re not especially handy, it’s a job better left to the professionals.
Stoves and Ranges
The reflector bowls (also called drip pans) beneath the burners should be kept shiny and clean. Besides giving the stove a nice finished appearance, they are designed to evenly reflect heat back up to the pot or pan. Aluminum foil does not serve this purpose as well and may cause overheating. On gas stoves, the aluminum foil can even melt. So, if your reflector bowls get too dirty to clean, replace them with new reflector bowls. Replacements are available from larger hardware stores, but there are different styles, so take along an old one as a sample to make sure you purchase the right one.
When buying a new range, look for easy-cleaning features such as a smooth glass-ceramic cooktop or a self-cleaning oven. Some Maytag models with coil elements even come with porcelain-enamel No-Drip™ bowls, which have no center hole-so spills are contained.
Don’t think you have to replace an electric stove when a burner stops working. Replacements are readily available, inexpensive and fairly simple to install. Yellow flames in a gas stove are an indication of a problem. Flames should always be blue. Yellow flames will give off more fumes and may present a health hazard. In some cases, people can develop sensitivity to the fumes from even a properly functioning gas stove. If someone develops persistent flu-like symptoms, avoid using the stove for a few days to see if their symptoms dissipate. If it solves the problem, you can simply increase ventilation in the kitchen or switch to an electric stove.
Oven door seals become stiff with age and eventually need to be replaced. To test your seals, close the door on a dollar bill (with the oven off). Then tug on the dollar bill. If it slips out easily, the seals should be replaced. Faulty seals waste energy, make the kitchen overly hot, and cause uneven cooking. With an electric oven, badly leaking seals can shorten the life of the heating elements.
Exhaust fans eliminate odors and fumes, reduce household grease build-up, moderate kitchen temperatures and remove excess humidity. Fans should not exhaust air into attics or crawl spaces. Periodically check fans for grease build-up.
Also, make sure that covers open and close properly.
Do not use plastic trays or containers that are not made specifically for microwaves. They may release toxic chemicals like benzene into the food. Do not re-use plastics trays that come with frozen dinners.
Many microwaves are mounted too high or too low. If too high, you run the risk of spilling hot liquids on your body. If too low, you may not be able to see what you’re cooking. A low microwave is a hazard for smaller children.
If you’re unsure whether a glass container is safe for use, microwave the empty container for one minute. Then touch it. If it’s warm, it’s unsafe for the microwave. If it’s lukewarm, it’s safe for re-heating. If it’s cool, it’s safe for cooking. Keep the door seal and the surface to which it abuts clean at all times.
Saving Money on Repairs
Many appliances involve plumbing and or electricity and the significant hazards associated with each. Often specialized knowledge or tools are needed for making repairs. For these reasons, most homeowners rely on professionals to service their equipment. And because these services are expensive, here are some tips on how to get the most bang for your buck:
Don’t be misled by hourly rates: Many people pay too much attention to the hourly rate that technicians charge. This amount can vary from $30 to $70. However, a truly skilled, well-equipped service technician with a truck full of parts who charges $65 an hour can be a much wiser choice than an inexperienced hack working with inadequate tools and no parts who charges $35 per hour. The hourly rate only has meaning when it is considered along with work quality, equipment, inventory and experience.
Compare travel charges.Travel charges can have a big impact on your costs and are in some ways easier to compare than hourly rates. Many technicians spend a third or more of their time navigating through traffic, so every appliance repair service has to find a way to pay for the expense of driving all over town each day. Some charge a higher rate for the first hour, some charge a flat “trip charge,” some charge a minimum for each visit and some simply compensate for travel time by charging a higher hourly rate. When you first call a professional, ask how and what he or she charges; see if it makes sense for your situation. For example, a trip charge and a relatively low hourly rate make sense on a longer job. For a shorter job, you’ll do better with someone who absorbs travel costs by charging a higher hourly rate.
Bundle jobs together.Anytime you discover a problem with one appliance, check the rest for problems. Pay special attention to appliance lights and door seals. When the technician comes, you’ll save money and time by getting everything taken care of at once.
Help the technician identify needed parts in advance: On the phone, give the technician as detailed a description of the problems and symptoms as you can. In some cases, this information will facilitate a tentative diagnosis and may make it possible for the technician to come with the appropriate parts. It is also helpful if you can give the technician, in advance over the phone, the make and model of the appliance.
Be prepared.The less time the technician spends dealing with inconveniences, the more you will save. Before the professional arrives, prepare a precise list of items you want serviced. Also, locate the house’s electrical panel box and make sure it is accessible. If the appliance hooks up to the water supply, it’s also a good idea to locate your main water cut-off valve. Also, examine the area where the work will take place. Clear away small rugs, fragile items, knickknacks and other surface items.
Capture offsetting financial pluses. Proper adjustments, new door seals and other updated parts often make your appliances operate more efficiently. The savings in reduced energy costs can partially offset the cost of service. Often the biggest savings come from extending the life of an appliance and thereby deferring the need for large outlays for a new unit. If an appliance isn’t worth fixing, ask the technician if he can recommend sources for used appliances.