smart spending

6 ways to dodge appliance disaster

4. Water heater

An old or corroded water heater can cause substantial damage. "Don't forget you have a water heater," says Randy Schuyler, who operates
"Some day you'll hear the water running when you know nobody is using any and you'll find a major flood in some part of your house that wasn't meant to be a wading pool."

Sold with six- or 12-year warranties, PEMCO Insurance suggests replacing your tank every 10 years. Roto-Rooter caps the useful life at 15 years. Look at the first four digits on the heater's serial number to find the month and year of manufacture.

Several factors lead to tank corrosion. Water sediment at the bottom of the tank builds up if not drained properly. Tanks also have something called a sacrificial anode rod, or rods, made of aluminum or magnesium-coated steel, that water eats away first instead of your tank's inner walls. When these rods wear out, water begins to corrode your tank from the inside out.

Top tips:
  • Because natural gas, water and electrical components are involved, be sure to take necessary safety precautions in maintaining your hot water heater.
  • To extend a tank's longevity keep the floor around the heater clean. "Some newer models are especially prone to dust, and may just stop working if their filters get clogged," says Schuyler.
  • Once a year check your water pressure. "Anything over 80 psi can wreck water heaters, other appliances and piping," he says.
  • Test the temperature/pressure relief valve by pulling up on the handle. "Replace it if it does nothing, or runs, dribbles or drips when the handle closes," says Schuyler. "Under rare conditions, water heaters blow up. When they do, they may take walls, the roof and their owners with them."
  • "If there's clearance above your tank, every few years, check the tank's anode rod." Schuyler says the single most important factor in whether a water heater lives or dies is the condition of its sacrificial anode. "For more than 60 years, it has been used as a key part of the rust protection of a tank, although few people know it's there," he says. The rod is made of magnesium or aluminum and screws into the top of your tank. Look for a hexagonal head -- often covered by a plastic cap. "Replace it when six inches of core wire shows," says Schuyler. If you have a water softener, check the rod annually. "Softeners can eat anodes in as little as six months."
  • To effectively remove sediment, Schuyler suggests expelling it under pressure by using a ball valve drain assembly and curved dip tube.
Maintenance cost:
  • New anode and sediment removal kit: $80
Cost of an Energy Star-rated water tank:
  • $500 to $600, not including installation

5. Air conditioning

Often a major expense, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems require yearly professional inspections and adjustments to ensure proper operation. Just a 10 percent leak in refrigerant could result in a 20 percent decrease in efficiency. Homeowners may save up to 50 percent in energy costs with proper HVAC maintenance, according to the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

Top tips:
  • Between spring and fall servicing, homeowners should replace their HVAC filters once a month. Change "three-month" filters just as frequently if your home is excessively dusty or you have shedding pets. Clean filters result in a 5 percent to 15 percent reduction in energy consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • To ensure the outside condenser unit has necessary airflow, keep it clear of debris and cut back foliage by at least two feet. Because evaporator and condenser coil fins can easily bend, forcing your system to work harder, comb them back into shape using a special fin comb, available through parts wholesalers.
Maintenance cost:
  • Filters: $10 to $20 per filter
  • Fin comb: $12
  • Routine HVAC servicing: as low as $25
Cost of a high-efficiency HVAC system:
  • Prices vary greatly depending on size, location of the unit, added ductwork and air handler, but can range from a few thousand to well over $15,000.

6. Refrigerator

Several factors can lead to refrigerator poor performance: Excessive dust and dirt can clog the condenser coils forcing the coolant to work harder; an unleveled refrigerator can knock the doors out of alignment, causing cold air and energy to escape, and a dirty door gasket can break the tight seal necessary to maintain your refrigerator's efficiency. In refrigerators with water dispensers, a clogged filter can stop the automatic icemaker from working and produce discolored water.

Top tips:
  • Twice a year pull out your refrigerator, unplug it and vacuum the coils located either in the front or back, more often if you have shedding pets. If possible, allow a 2-inch space around the top and sides to let the coils breathe.
  • Make sure to check for level after maintenance.
  • Clean the door gaskets with soap and water and check the seal. "The gasket should last the life of the refrigerator, but if it becomes warped or damaged replace it," says Neil Pellicci, Sears engineering manager for refrigeration products.
  • Replace the water filter every six months, (more often if you have hard water) or when the indicator light comes on.
Maintenance cost:
  • New door gasket: $45 to $55, not including installation
  • Water filter: $17 to $45, depending on make and model
Cost of an Energy Star-rated refrigerator:
  • $500 for basic top-freezer to $3,000 for high-end side-by-side, not including installation
Routine recap

To help you keep track of these maintenance items, cut and save this schedule:

  • Vacuum clothes dryer lint slot.
  • Check washing machine hoses for wear and tear.
  • Run an empty hot water cycle in front-end loader.
  • Replace HVAC filters.
  • Clean the floor around your water heater.

  • Have HVAC system professionally serviced (in spring for air conditioner, fall for furnace).
  • Replace refrigerator water filters.
  • Clean refrigerator door gaskets.
  • Vacuum refrigerator condenser coils (more frequently if you have shedding pets).

  • Clean out clothes dryer vent and ductwork.
  • Check washing machine for level and stability.
  • Clean sump pump basin and intake screen.
  • Flush deposit build up in sump pump basin with white vinegar.
  • Check sump pump float and operation.
  • Check water heater anode rod and temperature/pressure valve.
  • Check your home's water pressure.
  • Drain sediment from water heater.

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