When it comes to home safety, plumbing and electrical problems do a lot more damage than crooks. Here are our top tips for what you can do to keep your home safe and prevent disasters while you're away.
Water damage from undetected plumbing leaks will quickly ruin ceilings, floors and walls, leading to repair bills in the thousands. This is especially true if you're away on vacation. Yes, such a leak is unlikely, but insurance companies report hundreds of these incidents every year. Look for the main valve near the water meter and turn it clockwise to close it. If it's stuck, leaks or doesn't turn on again, hire a plumber to replace it. The ice maker in your refrigerator may freeze up while you're gone, so shut it off too or thaw it with a hair dryer when you return.
If you've had mice in your home, use a copper (type L) or braided stainless steel line rather than a plastic supply line for the ice maker in your refrigerator. Mice like to run behind refrigerators and occasionally chew holes in plastic lines, causing a leak that can ruin floors and ceilings before you detect it. Plastic tubes also can harden over time and crack. Find metal ice maker lines at home centers and wherever appliances are sold.
The most common time for a sump pump to fail is the first heavy rainfall after months of not being used. The submerged or partially submerged portions of cast iron pumps can rust and seize. And they'll burn out when they switch on. Don't get caught with your pump down and the water rising. After a long dry (unused) spell, pour a bucket or two of water into the sump to make sure the pump kicks on.
Hairline cracks in a concrete foundation are normal, but cracks that continue to widen spell trouble. They'll eventually cause shifting and cracking in the walls above, tilt floors and move doors and windows so they won't open and close. The movement is glacially slow. To help you spot it, measure and record the gap size. Check it every few months. If the cracks widen, call in a foundation specialist (“Foundation Contractors” online or in the yellow pages) to assess the foundation. Solutions can cost hundreds of dollars, but the cost of ignoring the problem is greater. A major foundation fix can cost thousands.
Insurance companies get a flood of tree-related claims after major storms. You can't prevent all of these incidents, but many you can, if you trim out overhanging branches and dying trees just waiting to fall. Major tree trimming is dangerous and not a do-it-yourself project. Call in a tree service to trim all tall trees around your home every few years. Spending a few hundred dollars now could save you several thousands in roof and rain damage later.
Once upon a time, water heaters and clothes washers always sat on concrete floors near drains, where spills and leaks wouldn't hurt anything. Now they often sit on framed wood floors, sometimes on the second floor, where spills, overflows, broken hoses or slow drips can cause stains, rot and other potentially expensive water damage. For about $20, you can buy special pans at home centers and appliance dealers that catch slow leaks and mild overflows. Some have drain holes where you can connect a tube that leads to a floor drain. They won't stop burst water lines or massive overflows, but they're cheap insurance against water damage caused by minor spills and leaks.
If your current hoses are more than five years old, replace them with no-burst hoses. The supply hoses to your clothes washer are always under pressure, just like the supply pipes in your water system. However, eventually the rubber will harden, crack and leak. If undetected, the leak can cause extensive water damage. An inexpensive solution is to buy no-burst hoses. These high-quality hoses are less likely to leak and they'll keep any leak from becoming a torrent. They cost less than $20 a pair at home centers, hardware stores and appliance stores.
Pull out your flashlight and walk around your home, examining the foundation, both inside and out, to inspect for termite tunnels. Much of the damage termites do is invisible, inside walls and floors. Take the time to look for telltale sawdust and tunnels, because termites can do major damage before you even know they're there. If you spot signs of termites, call in a professional exterminator.
Earth tremors can tip water heaters and break the gas lines that lead to them, causing either water damage, or worse, an explosion and fire. Water heater straps can prevent this disaster. (They're required in California and other regions.) In earthquake-prone regions, you can find them at home centers and hardware stores for $15. Otherwise, order them online. One source is amazon.com
A 1-in. rainfall drops about 650 gallons of water on an average roof. And your downspouts concentrate all that water in only a few spots. If dumped too close to the house, the water will undermine your foundation, causing it to leak, shift or crack&emdash;very expensive to fix. Downspout extensions will prevent most major problems, including wet basements, cracked foundation wall is, and termite and carpenter ant infestations.
Computer chips are sensitive and highly vulnerable to momentary power surges, especially powerful ones induced by lightning. Losing a $1,000 computer is bad enough, but losing photos, music and other irreplaceable stuff on your hard drive is often much worse. Insulate your valuable microprocessors from this danger by plugging them into a surge protector. Better surge protectors ($40 and up) will have the following ratings printed somewhere on the box: meets UL 1449 or IEEE 587; clamps at 330 volts or lower; can absorb at least 100 joules of energy or more; and handles telephone lines and video cables as well.