Fall Home Maintenance Checklist: 20 Things to Do Every Year
Feel that nip in the air? Fall has arrived! Here’s how to get your home and yard ready for winter before it’s too late.
An old plastic spatula makes a great tool for cleaning debris from gutters! It doesn’t scratch up the gutter, and you can cut it to fit gutter contours with snips. Grime wipes right off the spatula too, making cleanup a breeze.
Check Your Detectors
With furnaces turned on, the windows closed and portable heaters humming along, fall is a great time to make sure your smoke and CO detectors are working. Check batteries and expiration dates – smoke detectors are typically good for 10 years, and CO detectors last for about six years.
Bleed Hot Water Radiators
When trapped air clogs a hot water radiator, some or all of the ‘fins’ will stay cold. At the top of the radiator, look for a small valve like the one shown. Take a radiator key, 1/4-in. 12-point socket, or a flat screwdriver (depending on the valve type) and slowly turn the valve counter-clockwise until water starts dripping out. This releases the trapped air and lets hot water into the cold fins. While you’re at it, you might as well repeat the process on all of your radiators. Have a cup or dish handy to catch the water.
Clear Steam Radiator Vents
Steam radiators have an air vent like the one shown. Unfortunately, many of these vents get painted over, plugging the air hole. Clear the air hole in the top of the vent with a small wire or sewing needle. If you’re still worried about the air vents working properly, consult a hot water/steam heat specialist who can replace the vents.
Water in the Fall
Your lawn still needs water in autumn, even though the leaves are changing, the growing season is winding down and your grass isn’t growing fast. Fall watering helps your lawn recover from summer stress and gain strength for the winter ahead. Also, if you fertilize in the fall, watering is necessary for the fertilizer to dissolve and soak into the ground where it’s needed. So don’t put your hoses or sprinklers away until the ground starts to freeze.
Aerate the Soil
‘Aerating’ simply means making holes in the ground by removing plugs of soil. And it’s the single most important task you can perform to maintain a healthy, good-looking lawn. Nothing else comes close! It relieves compaction caused by foot traffic and creates extra pore space in the soil, allowing air, nutrients and water to enter. All of that helps roots to thrive.
Aerate your lawn at least once a year, preferably in the fall. Do it two or even three times each year if you can. The more, the better. You can rent a lawn aerator at any equipment rental store. Get one that will remove plugs of soil rather than one that pokes holes in the ground.
Paint doesn’t handle extreme temperatures very well. So, if you live in a cold climate, add this to your fall chore list: Bring the latex/acrylic paint into the house. And while you’re at it, don’t forget the latex caulk. Freezing ruins both latex paint and caulk.
Another temperature-related painting mistake is painting when it’s going to freeze. Paint can’t dry properly in freezing temps. It will only dry partway and will easily come off when touched. At the other end of the thermometer, painting a hot surface is also a bad idea. The paint starts to dry before you can spread it evenly and can bubble and slough off. Plan your painting to avoid direct sun if possible. Or at least try to paint south-facing walls in the morning or evening when the sun is less intense.
Keep Window Wells Clean or Risk a Broken Window and Wet Basement
If you’ve never had a problem with water in a window well, you may never think to clean it out. Here’s what happened to one homeowner who neglected his window wells. After an average rainfall, not even a heavy downpour, a clogged gutter dumped a lot of water next to his house and into his window well. The leaves in the well acted like a pool liner, preventing drainage, and the water level rose higher and higher until the pressure broke the basement windows. Gallons and gallons of water poured into the basement, ruining everything in sight. Unfortunately, he had no insurance coverage for that type of flood. Don’t let this happen to you. Keep window wells clean with a cover, available at home centers.
Fertilize in the Fall
If you want the best lawn in town, fertilize four times a year. But you can keep it simple and still have a great lawn if you only fertilize once—in the fall. Choose a fertilizer that’s labeled 4-1-2. (Those numbers refer to the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the fertilizer.) Better yet, ask an expert at a garden center for advice about the best fertilizer blend for your grass type and local soil conditions.
Apply the fertilizer about three weeks before the last mowing of the season. Fertilizing in the fall provides energy and nutrients for the grass roots as they multiply in cooler weather before the grass goes dormant. The roots store food for the winter as well, which gives the grass an initial growth spurt when it emerges from dormancy in the spring.
Ice coming off your roof can bend the spikes that secure your gutters to the fascia board. One simple way to straighten them without removing them is to use a 2-ft. length of angle iron and a link of heavy metal chain. The angle iron and chain link provide sufficient leverage to straighten the spike and pull the gutter back into alignment. Get more easy DIY gutter fixes.
Your plumber’s snake is a great tool for pulling clumps of wet leaves out of clogged downspouts. Check out more gutter-cleaning tips here.
Cut Grass Short
Get out that rake and remove all of those dead leaves before the snow flies. Otherwise they’ll be sodden mats in the spring and smother the sprouting grass below. (Plus it’s lots easier to rake dry leaves!)
Just this one time of the year, set your mower to cut 1-1/2 or 2-in. and mow your grass short. That’ll do a couple of things. First it’ll lessen the chance of snow mold forming. And secondly, tall grass blades won’t lie down and smother the new grass next spring.
Winterize Your Sprinkler System
You don’t have to pay someone to blow out your sprinkler system. You can do it with your own compressor, but be aware that even the largest home compressor isn’t powerful enough to blow out the entire system at once. If you like number crunching and you have the original irrigation layout showing the gallons per minute (gpm) of each sprinkler head, divide the gpm of each zone by 7.5. That’ll give you the cubic feet per minute (cfm) you need to blow it out. Otherwise, rent a 10-cfm compressor and hose from a tool rental center.
Set the compressor air pressure regulator to a maximum of 80 psi for rigid PVC pipe systems, or 50 psi for flexible black polyethylene pipe. Then turn off the water supply and set the system timer to open just one zone. Next, open the manual drain valve at the end of that zone (if equipped). Then, connect the air line to the blow-out port, as shown. Close off both valves on the backflow preventer. Then remove the plug on the blow-out port and screw in a quick-connect hose adapter. Snap on the air hose and connect the other end to the compressor. Now blow out the line. The heads should pop up and spit out water. Disconnect the hose as soon as they run dry. Don’t overdo the blow-out—without water cooling the plastic gears, they can melt in less than a minute. Move on to the next zone and allow the heads to cool. Then go back and blow out each zone a second time.
Drain Garden Hoses or Waste Money on Replacements
Due to circumstances (laziness), I sometimes neglect to drain garden hoses before putting them away for the winter. Usually it’s not a problem. But every once in a while, freezing water splits a hose open. I’ve lost a few cheap hoses this way and a super-expensive one (ouch!). That’s just dumb because draining hoses is so quick and easy: Blast out the water with an air compressor or stretch them out on a sloped yard or driveway. If you need to buy a new garden hose, learn how to do a simple test, right in the store, to see if the hose will be kink-free!
Clean Your Chimney
How often do you need to have your chimney cleaned? It depends on the moisture content of the wood you burn. If you burn mostly green (wet) logs, have your chimney cleaned or inspected every 50 burns. If you see moisture bubbling out the ends of the logs when they’re burning, the wood is wet. This green wood doesn’t burn cleanly and sends a lot of unburned particles (smoke) up the chimney, where they build up as creosote and soot. Dry hardwoods, such as oak and birch, burn hotter and cleaner. With them, have your chimney cleaned or inspected every 70 burns. A chimney cleaning costs $225 to $400.
Creosote and soot buildup in the chimney flue is dangerous because it can ignite and cause an uncontrollable chimney fire. A quick way to tell if your chimney needs cleaning is to run the point of your fireplace poker along the inside of your chimney liner (see photo). If you find a 1/8-in. or more layer of buildup (the thickness of a nickel), call a chimney sweep. The chimney sweep we talked with said he sees 40 to 50 chimney fires a year, and more than half of the chimneys he services require extra cleaning because the homeowners wait too long before calling. In extreme cases, the hardened layer of buildup requires cleaning with special tools or chemicals.
If it’s been a few years since your last chimney cleaning, now’s a good time to schedule one. The cleaning includes an inspection for soot buildup, obstructions, cracks in the chimney liner and signs of water damage. Older chimneys often have gaps between clay liner sections where the mortar has fallen out.
Winterize Your Gas Grill
If you’re not a winter griller, now’s the time to pack away your grill before it’s covered with a foot of snow. In addition to giving your grill a thorough cleaning to remove grease and food scraps, take these steps to help prevent any unpleasant surprises when you fire up your grill again next spring.
Shut off the gas at the LP tank, unfasten the burner, slip the gas tubes off the gas lines and lift out the unit. Coat the burners and other metal parts with cooking oil to repel moisture that can build up over the winter and to prevent rust. Then wrap the burner unit in a plastic bag to keep spiders and insects from nesting in the gas tubes during the winter. This is a common problem that can make for balky starts, uneven flames or even a one-alarm fire the next time you light your grill.
If you’re storing your grill outside during the winter, just keep the propane tank connected (but shut off) and put a protective cover over the entire grill when you’re done cleaning it. If you’re storing the grill indoors, don’t bring the tank inside, even into the garage or a storage shed. A small gas leak can cause a huge explosion if the tank is stored in an enclosed space. Instead, disconnect the tank and store it outside in an upright position away from dryer and furnace vents and children’s play areas. Tape a plastic bag over the grill’s gas line opening to prevent insects from nesting.
Store Lawn Chairs
Here’s how to store your lawn and folding chairs so they’re out of your way. Take two pieces of 1×4 lumber (any scrap lumber will do) and create some simple, cheap and useful brackets on the wall. Cut each board 7-3/4 in. long with a 30-degree angle on both ends. Fasten pairs of these brackets with three 2-in. screws to the side of the exposed wall studs, directly across from each other, and you’ve got a perfect place to hang your chairs. Get more ideas for garage storage.
Change Your Furnace Filter
Changing your furnace filter is one of the easiest things you can do to keep your furnace in good shape. If you haven’t changed it in a while, make sure you have a fresh one before your turn your furnace on for the first time.
Make a Winter Driving Kit
This kit is overkill for year-round driving, but it could be very useful during winter. It only takes a few minutes to put together and you probably already have most of the stuff!
Get Your Property Ready for Snow
Before the snow flies and you start using your snowblower, take a few minutes to inspect your property. Remove rocks, dog tie-out cable, extension cords, holiday light cords and garden hoses. Then stake out paths that run near gardens so you don’t accidentally suck up rocks and garden edging. Mark your walk and driveway perimeters by pounding in driveway markers. If the ground is frozen, just drill a hole using a masonry bit and your battery-powered drill.