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6 ways to dodge appliance disaster

  • Clogged dryer vents cause about 9,000 home fires each year.
  • A burst washing machine hose can spill 650 gallons of water per hour.
  • A 10 percent refrigerant leak can decrease efficiency by 20 percent.

Applying routine maintenance measures to equipment in your home could prevent an "appliance SOS" and save you lots of money in the long run.

In this economy, the last thing any of us needs is having a major appliance breakdown -- especially when a few steps and dollars can extend the life of these big-ticket items. Yet most of us ignore our appliances. Some 80 percent of homeowners fail to do any appliance maintenance, according to studies by Sears.

To minimize your disaster risks, think about servicing your home appliances like your car, says Jill Notini, vice president communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "There are things you need to do to keep them at a high performance level."

Appliance maintenance also results in hidden savings. "There are certain aspects of the maintenance process that if you don't do it, your machine will work harder and as a result it's going to suck more energy and cost you more in utility bills," says David Polston, chief marketing officer for Sears Service Centers.

In some cases, neglected appliances lead to costly disaster. Most homeowner's insurance claims are the result of failed maintenance, not fire or storm damage, according to Seattle-based PEMCO Insurance.

To get started, read the use-and-care manuals. "They often include specific maintenance tips for that product," says Notini. "If you don't have them, you can get them online or you can go to the manufacturer's Web site."

Here are some of the most common appliances where some routine or seasonal TLC goes a long way:

1. Clothes dryer

Even if you clean your clothes dryer's lint trap with each load, a surprising amount of lint makes it past the trap. Clogged air vents and ductwork not only lead to dryer inefficiency, and an estimated $300 additional to operate yearly, but could also spark a fire. Each year dryers cause some 12,700 residential fires, 15 deaths and 300 injuries, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Fire Administration. In 70 percent of the cases, "failure to clean" was the leading cause. Second-floor laundry facilities pose another risk: The USFA calls these locations "hazardous" because they often require longer ductwork, with bends that could trap lint, rather than immediate outside venting. Improper ducting made of light foil or plastic can also ignite more readily and should be replaced by semi-rigid or rigid aluminum, or galvanized steel ducting.

Top tips:
  • Once a month use your vacuum cleaner's fine nozzle to suction the lint slot.
  • Once a year unplug the dryer, disconnect the vent tube and vacuum it out.
  • If your dryer doesn't vent directly outside, consider hiring a professional duct cleaner.
Maintenance cost:
  • Dryer vent cleaning kits: $20
  • Professional duct cleaner: $75 to $200
  • New ducting: $15
Average cost of home dryer fires:
  • $9,176

2. Washing machine

Today's high-efficiency front-loading washing machines are gentler on clothes, but complex mechanical and electrical components make them tougher on your wallet when something goes wrong. With estimates from $450 to $600 to repair a broken drum, it may be more cost-effective to buy a new washer.

But the biggest disaster with any washing machine is flooding from a burst water hose, which can release 650 gallons of water per hour. Burst hoses top PEMCO's list of homeowner's insurance claims, resulting in an average $4,000 to $6,000 in damages. "If the owner is home and they catch the leak within an hour, it's usually on the low end," says PEMCO spokesman Jon Osterberg. "The bad-case scenario is if they're on vacation. In some of the higher end homes with second-floor laundry facilities, you can reach $100,000 in damages."

Top tips:
  • To keep the drum spinning smoothly for years to come, for starters, use only high-efficiency, or HE, detergent. "The suds that are created by nonhigh-efficiency detergents will get in and wreak havoc on the drum and drive system," says Dave Chowanec, Sears product category engineer for laundry products.
  • Once a month, run an empty hot water wash to break down any built up residue.
  • Excessive vibration can also damage the drum. If you hear or see the machine shake, it's unbalanced. Check for level, but more importantly, check the machine's stability by rocking it from corner to corner. "All four legs should be firmly touching the ground and locked according to the use manual," says Chowanec.
  • Once a month, check your washing machine hoses for bulges or tears, especially at connection points where kinks can form and crack. Manufacturers suggest replacing hoses every three to five years, regardless of wear. It's no more complicated than attaching a garden hose. Steel braided "no-burst" hoses can also fail, and because of the meshing, tiny tears may be more difficult to catch. When not in use, turn off the water valves leading to your machine. For ultimate peace of mind, install an automatic water valve shut off system activated when it senses an excessive surge in water pressure.
Maintenance cost:
  • Carpenter's level: $15
  • New hoses: $10 to $20
  • Automatic shut off system: $130 to $200
Cost of Energy Star-rated front-end loader:
  • $620 to $1,850

3. Sump pumps

Sump pumps usually protect your basement from flooding, but they can fail unexpectedly. Homeowners insurance usually doesn't cover damages from sump-pump overflow. Sump pumps often vibrate when they run, so the float mechanism can get stuck.

"This will either make it run all the time or it won't run at all," says Ray VinZant, the expert behind Roto-Rooter's "Ask the Plumber."

"The float has to be able to rise up when the water level rises. If it doesn't, the pump won't come on."

Because sump pumps drain ground water and sediment, clogged intake screens and discharge pipes also contribute to their failure. While battery backups offer a measure of protection if your primary pump fails or if there's a power outage, they aren't foolproof. Most backups last five to seven years. An old battery might only run three hours in an outage, instead of the stated six.

Top tips:
  • Once a year, pour a gallon of distilled white vinegar into the basin to break down calcium deposits on the expeller and pump.
  • Unplug the pump and remove any material clogging the intake screen.
  • Check the float switch operation: Pour enough water to turn the pump on and make sure it drains. "If you hear a grinding noise, the pump may be on its last legs," says VinZant.


Maintenance cost:
  • Gallon of vinegar: $2
  • For a six-hour battery backup: $100 to $150
  • For a high-end 7.5 hour sump pump system that includes a low-battery alarm: $475



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