6 ways to dodge appliance disaster

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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

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 WaterHeaterRescue.com.

“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.