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How to maintain appliances

Did you know that the average American homeowner depends on at least seven appliances to accomplish day-to-day routines? Among them are the refrigerator, freezer, range, range hood, dishwasher, disposal, compactor, clothes washer, dryer, blender, mixer, bread maker, popcorn popper, toaster, toaster oven and vacuum cleaner. And, you probably can name at least five more.

Every appliance contains either a heating element or moving parts, or both -- a combination that always ends up requiring maintenance in one form or another. Here are a few tips we think you'll enjoy putting to use in your home:

>In the laundry

Most folks know about cleaning the lint filter in the dryer. Too much lint, air won't pass, the machine works harder, your energy bill goes up and clothes take longer to dry. A well-maintained laundry set can last 12 years or more.

Don't ever overload any appliance -- especially your washer or dryer. Overloaded appliances aren't as efficient. You might think that you are saving money by doing more per load, but that isn't the case.

Things can backfire. An overloaded washer won't clean as well and the clothes won't ring out as thoroughly. The heavier "wet" load can and will wear the washer out faster. Putting wet clothes into the dryer will make it work harder and clothes might have to be dried twice as long, or even longer. This overuse will wear out both machines long before their time.

If you live in a cold climate, don't use the cold water setting during winter. When the temperature of washer water drops below 70 degrees, the water isn't warm enough to dissolve detergent -- and that includes liquid detergents. When detergent doesn't dissolve, clothes don't get clean.

Never, never use too much detergent. When too much detergent is used a residue can build up on the outside of the tub. Ultimately, the buildup will break away from the tub and stain clothing.

The big moving part in the dryer is the drum. A rubber belt drives it. Rubber can wear out, and when it does the belt slips. When the belt slips the motor still turns at the same speed, but the dryer doesn't. When this happens clothes don't dry as quickly. And as the belt slips, it wears faster.

Check your dryer vent regularly. To be fire-safe, it should be clean and unobstructed. Also, when air flows freely through the exhaust duct, the dryer works more efficiently. The dryer should exhaust through your roof or out through a wall. Never into the basement or crawl space or attic. Warm air in the attic or crawl space can cause excessive condensation and, ultimately, mildew and rot.

>The refrigerator

Experts say the big energy hog in a home is the refrigerator. Where you might use your laundry once or twice a week, a refrigerator runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Here, regular maintenance can lower your energy bill and allow your refrigerator to last 15 years or more.

A refrigerator that is 10 years old or older should be defrosted at least once every three months. An older refrigerator is more likely to break down.

When a refrigerator shuts down, it defrosts. When it defrosts, it can flood the room and cause a lot of damage. A refrigerator that is regularly defrosted does not create more water than can be held in the evaporator tray.

The cooling coils should be kept clean and dust-free. These coils are on the back of some fridges and on the underside of others. Heat is dissipated through these coils. A buildup of gunky pet hair, sticky lint and other common household debris can cause the compressor to work harder and eventually lead to premature wear-out.

The compressor is the most expensive part to replace. You don't want to spend $400 (or more) on a compressor replacement because you didn't worry about lint and pet hair.

You will feel better about your refrigerator if it smells fresh and clean. Deodorize it with cat litter or baking soda. Both work wonders at absorbing odor. Clean your refrigerator on a regular basis. Here's a tip: use a bottle brush or a toothbrush soaked in bleach to clean behind the door gasket. You won't believe the yucky gunk that builds up in that tiny crevice. Here's an appliance maintenance tip: Thoroughly clean at least one appliance per month in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. If you have lost your manual, contact the manufacturer by phone or e-mail, and ask for another. Most will send you one at no charge.

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James Carey and Morris Carey are nationally recognized experts on home building and renovation.

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