September 8, 2013

Homeowner know-how

If you're new to house upkeep, these handy skills and tools will prepare you to fix problems.


Houses don't come with instruction manuals.

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Homeowners can be ready for trouble ranging from losing electrical power to grease fires with the help of basic information and supplies. photos

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A set of Allen wrenches helps when garbage disposal blades have jammed. But use a wrench to fix the disposal only after turning the power off.

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Little emergencies inevitably crop up, and new homeowners aren't always equipped to deal with them.

To help, we've put together a list of 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.

We compiled our list with help from and the books "Tools" by Steve Dodds and "What's a Homeowner to Do?" by Stephen Fanuka and Edward Lewine.


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.


When a water pipe leaks, you need to stop it right away. Otherwise the water can do extensive damage to your home and your bank account.

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 usually 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.

It's a good idea to close and open the main shutoff valve once a year to prevent it from corroding and freezing in an open position.


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 your house has older-style fuses, you fix a blown circuit by unscrewing the bad fuse in the electrical panel and screwing in a new one. However, it's important to use a fuse with the right wire gauge to handle the circuit's amperage.

You can foolproof that process preventively by screwing a Fustat fuse adapter into each fuse socket on your electrical panel. It will change the socket size, so you can't screw in a fuse that's the wrong size.

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.


When disposal blades jam, a little force is required to dislodge them.

Most units have a hole on the underside of the disposal that an Allen wrench fits into. Check underneath the unit to see if the wrench is attached. If not, you can buy a set of Allen wrenches fairly cheaply.

Unplug the disposal, or turn off the power at the electrical panel.

Then insert the wrench into the hole and work it back and forth until the blades are freed. Remove the offending debris from the disposal. (You did turn the power off, right?)

Press the reset button, which is usually on the bottom of the unit near the point where the electrical cord enters the disposal, and then turn the power back on.


This one's easy. There should be a cord -- probably red -- hanging overhead from part of your garage door opener.

When you pull the cord, it disengages the opener. You can then open the garage door by hand.

If the door is open when the opener fails, however, don't try pulling the cord. It could cause the door to come crashing down.


The best way to deal with a grease fire is to use an ABC extinguisher, a multipurpose extinguisher that can be used on fires caused by grease, electricity or ordinary combustibles such as paper, plastic and wood.

It's a good idea to buy one and keep it in an easily accessible place in your kitchen.

If you don't have one, smother the flames with a lid that covers the pan completely. That will cut off the oxygen feeding the fire.

Turn off the burner if you can do so safely, and don't touch the pan until it has cooled.

Some people recommend pouring on baking soda to smother a grease fire, but you should use that method only if it's your only recourse. It takes longer for baking soda to stop a fire, and it requires you to come into close contact with the flames.

If a fire gets beyond your control, get everyone out of the house immediately and call 911 once you're outside.

No matter how small the fire, you should always call the fire department, even if you've managed to put out the flames.


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.

If Murphy's Law holds true, that breakdown will happen on a bitterly cold day -- and that's an emergency.

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.


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Additional Photos

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If pipes leak, it’s easy to find valves near individual fixtures, but it may be necessary to know how to stop the water supply to the whole house.

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Cleaning or changing the filter in your furnace about every three months can help keep the heating system from breaking down in the middle of winter.


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