A first-aid kit
of homeownership skills
Houses don’t come with instruction manuals.
Little emergencies inevitably crop up, and new homeowners aren’t always equipped to deal with them.
To help, here are some tasks every homeowner should know how to do. Think of it as your own homeland security strategy. It certainly doesn’t represent everything you’ll need to know about your house, but it’s a good start.
PUT TOGETHER A TOOL KIT
At the very least, you should own a curved-claw hammer, an adjustable wrench, needle-nose and standard pliers, slotted and Phillips screwdrivers in a couple of sizes and a pair of safety glasses.
An electric drill and a set of twist bits are also invaluable. Cordless drills are convenient but may not have enough torque to handle heavy-duty jobs. Start with a corded drill, and save the purchase of a cordless model for later.
It’s worth investing in good-quality tools that feel comfortable in your hand. They’ll last years, maybe even a lifetime.
FIND MAIN WATER SHUT-OFF
When a water pipe leaks, you need to stop it right away. Otherwise the water can do extensive damage to your home.
Shutoff valves for individual pipes are typically found along supply lines and near fixtures, but those valves can break or freeze up. So it’s important to know how to stop the water supply to the whole house.
The main shutoff valve is found where the water supply enters the house, near the water meter. Look along the basement wall nearest the street. If you don’t have a basement, the shutoff is probably near the water heater but might also be under a sink.
The valve might be right next to an outdoor meter or inside the house. Some water meters have two shutoff valves, one on each side. If yours does, use the valve farthest from the street.
UNCLOG A TOILET
Sometimes you just have to take the plunge — or more accurately, take up the plunger.
Use a flange plunger, which has a cone extending from the bottom of the bell. It creates a better seal in a toilet than a cup plunger, so you can create the suction you need to clear the clog.
Put on rubber gloves, and if necessary, bail out the toilet bowl until it’s only half-full. (Yeah, we know. It’s gross.) Then position the plunger over the drain hole, and pump up and down a few times to let the air out and create a vacuum seal.
Once you feel the resistance that indicates you have a good seal, pump in rapid, short strokes four or five times without breaking the seal, and then pull out the plunger. If you’re lucky, the clog will clear. If you’re not, repeat. For really tough clogs, you may need to use a toilet auger.
By the way, you can use a similar technique to unclog a sink, but use a cup plunger. In addition, use a wet rag to plug the overflow drain or the second drain in a double kitchen sink.
RESET THE ELECTRICAL POWER
When the power goes out in part of your house, it means a circuit breaker has tripped or a fuse has blown, shutting off power to an electrical circuit. Usually the cause is an overload, meaning too many electrical devices are trying to draw power from one circuit.
Most homes have electrical panels with circuit breakers, switches that flip when there’s a problem with the circuit. Resetting it isn’t rocket science, but there’s a little trick to it: You have to turn the switch all the way off first before you can turn it back on.
It’s a good idea to turn off or unplug all the lights, appliances and other devices on the circuit before you reset the circuit breaker. When the power is back on, leave some things shut off, or plug them into a receptacle on a different circuit.
Sometimes a circuit shuts off because a ground fault interrupter has tripped on a receptacle. You can fix that by pushing the reset button on the receptacle. (GFI receptacles are usually found near water, such as in bathrooms and kitchens.)
If the breaker continues to trip or the fuse keeps blowing even though you’ve reduced the electrical load, you have a bigger problem and a potential safety hazard. Call an electrician.
CHANGE YOUR FILTERS
Changing the filter in your furnace doesn’t qualify as an emergency, but it could prevent one.
A dirty filter slows air flow, wastes energy by making your heating and cooling system work harder and lets dirt into the system, which wears out parts and could hasten a breakdown.
Check it monthly and replace it when it looks dirty — or clean it, if it’s a reusable filter. You should change or clean the filter at least every three months.
If you have a humidifier, be sure to check that filter, too. Mold can build up on it and circulate throughout the house.
Do that in summer, when you’re not using the furnace and humidifier. Remove the humidifier filter and let it dry. If it’s clean, put it back in place. If not, replace it.
Mary Beth Breckenridge, Akron Beacon Journal