Homeowners Handbook

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

Note: This is a rough draft. I welcome suggestions for things to add.

Recently I started putting together a list of "things about house use/maintenance that should be obvious but apparently aren't", after a house guest who had worked in commercial kitchens started to dump a load of grease down the drain. Some commercial drains can handle a lot of grease, some can't but the owners just factor in the plumbing repairs as a cost of business. Regardless, household drains can't.

DO use common sense. This list is not a replacement for common sense.


DO be careful to quickly clean up and dispose of food remains, dirty dishes, etc, which if left can attract pests (bugs, mice, etc).

DON'T allow standing water anywhere; people forget or don't think about it, but pests need water as much as humans. A persistent puddle of water anywhere can become a water source for pests, not to mention mold and mildew.

Also see persistent dampness, below.


DON'T pour kitchen grease, or any grease really, down drains. Grease will build up on the walls of drains and cause clogs or other problems.

Obviously you're going to end up with a little grease left on frying pans and the like, but the point is to dispose of the bulk of the grease in the garbage.

There are a few different ways to dispose of grease. My grandmother used to save bacon grease and use it in cooking. Some people pour grease from the pan into an empty/used can (from canned goods) and throw the can in the garbage. Some people soak it up with paper towels and throw the paper towels in the garbage. Some people soak oatmeal in the grease and use that to feed birds.

Also, while we're at it, your kitchen sink drain is NOT intended for disposing of leftover food. Yeah, some people have garbage disposals. I've never understood why. Your drains are not some magic make-it-go-away technology. The food waste adds environmental load to the municipal water treatment plant and they always, always break eventually. Yes, you inevitably get some minor food scraps going down the drain, but you should put the bulk of your food waste in the garbage, not down your drain.

DON'T attempt to snake a clogged toilet or drain.

Snakes can easily get jammed and a jammed snake can cost hundreds of dollars to have a plumber fix it. Worst case, you basically have to demolish the plumbing, extract the snake, and replace the plumbing.

"Toilet augers" are essentially very short snakes, 3-4 feet. My plumber tells me that most toilet clogs are usually within 3-4 feet of the toilet. Also, most snake jams happen at much further distances, usually when the snake goes through an elbow or something in the drain pipe.

Still, toilet augers can get stuck too, so be careful.

DON'T flush anything except toilet paper and human wastes down toilets.

DO use "septic safe" toilet paper, even if you don't have a septic tank. This is toilet paper that's designed to break up more easily in water. This is especially a good idea for houses with old plumbing.

DON'T flush "flushable wipes", they aren't really and are notorious for causing expensive plumber visits.

Some people say never to use the blue pucks in your toilet tank, as they change the specific gravity of the flush water and that can cause problems. I don't know about this one, do your own homework there.

DO regularly check for water leaks under kitchen and bathroom sinks, and toilets.

Minor drips can add up to a lot of water, surprisingly quickly.

Toilet leaks can be very subtle and hard to detect. The easy way is to get some food coloring, add a few drops to the toilet tank, then wait ten or twenty minutes and see if any of the color has made it to the toilet bowl.

An extra bit of advice here; when the US changed over to "low flow" toilets, toilet manufacturers reduced the size of the toilet flush without actually changing the geometry of the weir (the big S curve that the toilet bowl contents drain through). This is why low flow toilets had such a, pardon the expression, crappy reputation at first. If you have an old low flow toilet that clogs often, that's probably why.


DO always watch out for roof leaks and water leaks, and respond to them promptly. They can both cost a lot, if not addressed promptly.

DON'T panic if you have a roof leak. You don't need to climb up on your roof in the middle of a rainstorm. Most of the major issues with a roof leak are more long term, if you leave the roof leak unaddressed (which is too easy to do).

DON'T allow persistent dampness. In particular, think about where damp air from things like bathrooms and laundry driers is going. Both need proper and sufficient ventilation.

We're already surrounded by mold and other organisms, all the time, but it's usually dry enough to keep it from flourishing. The reason houses get black mold after a hurricane, etc, is because things stay damp long enough for the mold to flourish. And once it starts, it generally penetrates house materials like drywall, plaster, etc. You can't wipe away the mold, you have to tear out the drywall or whatever and throw it away.

And over the very long term (years), you have to worry about things like damp degrading the house building materials itself, from the joists and studs on up.

Also see "standing water", above.

DO be proactive about extremely cold weather and the possibility of frozen water pipes. Proactive steps like insulation or pipe heater tape are a lot cheaper than fixing burst pipes and water damage. The specific details will depend on your house and weather, do your homework.

DO know where your water shutoff valves are, starting with the main shutoff for the entire house, and then the shutoffs for each sink, bathtub, toilet, laundry washer, etc.

DO check on the integrity and function of those valves. You don't want to find out that they don't work -- at 3am, with a burst water pipe. But be sure to check on the valves at a time when it will be easy to get a plumber to fix something. Don't start on Friday evening. In fact, I'd say start with checking the main shutoff valve the next time that you have a plumber there to fix something. Ask the plumber to show you the shutoff and test that it functions properly. If you can, have them show you (and test) all of the shutoffs, but at least if you know the main shutoff is good, you can safely test the rest.

DO shut off the main water shut off valve when leaving your house on vacation or for an extended period of time. Burst washer hoses, leaks, etc, can cause major damage and major water bills if they happen when you're not around to shut things off. But...

DON'T think that turning off the main water shutoff valve means you can also turn off the furnace if you take a vacation in winter.

There is actually a process for shutting all of these things off long-term (called "mothballing"), which includes draining the pipes after shutting the water off, and other steps. But in general it's better to just leave the furnace running at a low setting, sufficient to keep things from freezing.


DON'T overload the washer or dryer.

Learn what this means, generally your appliance will have guidelines. Obvious things include, don't try to pack clothes tightly in the appliance until there's no room for them to move. The general rule of thumb is don't "pack" the clothes at all, just lower them into the washer and when they start getting near the top, that's enough.

Other rules of thumb:

Wash sheets and towels one or two at a time (depending on how large they are and how small your appliance is).

Don't wash things that will soak up huge amounts of water, like a giant sponge, in your home appliance. You risk burning out your washer or dryer motors. Some examples are parkas, comforters, pillows, quilts, etc. Instead, take them to a commercial laundry that has super heavy duty machines that can handle them. Paying a few bucks to do them in a laundromat is better than paying several hundred.

DON'T slam the washer or dryer doors. This generally applies more to washers than dryers, since the washer door is vertical and it's easy to just let gravity take over. This causes extra wear and can break things, most importantly the lid safety cutoff switch, which will stop your laundry from running at all, until replaced.

DO keep the washer door open or ajar on vertical door washers, to prevent mildewing. (More recent vertical door washers may have solved this problem, the one I bought 12 years ago hadn't.)

VERY IMPORTANT, FIRE SAFETY: ALWAYS clean the lint out of the dryer lint catcher, BOTH before and after using (don't assume the last person who used it cleaned it).

DO regularly inspect the dryer exhaust hose for lint buildup, that can cause fire risks.

DO regularly check around the dryer exhaust for cobwebs, etc, that can cause fire risks.

DO learn where the washer's water shutoff valve is.

DO shut off the washer's water supply if leaving on vacation (burst washer hoses can create quite a mess), unless you've gone one better and turned off the water at the main water shutoff valve.


DON'T turn off your furnace if you go on vacation in winter. You risk burst water pipes.

DO check your furnace air filter every month and replace it if it looks at all dirty (if you aren't sure, the answer is yes).

Buy furnace filters in bulk online, they're a lot less expensive that way.

DON'T use fancy air filters designed to clean your house air.

I could write a few pages more about this, but long story short, they don't work, and they can cause expensive damage to your furnace. In slightly more detail:

The furnace air filter is there to protect the furnace machinery from grit, dust, etc, that can damage the furnace and cause expensive repairs or replcements.

Furnace air filters don't work for air cleaning for various reasons, including mainly that your ducting isn't designed for air cleaning, so it won't draw all of the house's air through it.

Fancy furnace air filters impede air flow. Some more, some less, but at a minimum impeding air flow can keep your furnace from working well. In the long run it can burn out your furnace blower motor, or even worse, cause a pathological situation where the heat exchanger gets overheated and cracks (which means at best buy a new furnace, at worst it can KILL you).

DON'T pile stuff around the AC outside condenser unit or allow greenery to overgrow the AC outside condenser unit.

This can impede the air flow through the condenser unit. Without air flow, you don't get cooling.

Note, shading your AC outside condenser unit does not significantly improve cooling and can impede air flow. Yes, I know, it doesn't make sense, but it's been scientifically proven.

DO regularly (yearly or so) have the AC outside condenser unit cleaned.

Dirt build up on the cooling fins can both impede air flow and insulate the cooling fins, both cause the AC to not perform well. Allowed to go to extremes this can cause damage and premature failure of the AC parts.


DO perform regular battery checks for smoke detectors, and replace batteries as needed.

DO perform regular expiration date checks on fire estinguishers, and replace/refill as needed.

DON'T bury fire extinguishers in junk so they're hard to find/use. When you need them, you need them NOW NOW NOW.


STANDARD CAVEAT: I'm not an electrician; the following seem to be good rules of thumb that I've read or been told about, but consult a qualified electrican to be certain.

DO know where your breaker box is.

Also it's wise to take the time now, ahead of time, to find out and label which breakers go to which circuits go to which outlets or appliances.

DON'T pile a bunch of junk in front of your breaker box, making it hard to get to in an emergency (for businesses, this is actually an OSHA violation).

VERY IMPORTANT, FIRE SAFETY: DON'T use higher wattage bulbs than the socket is rated for.

If it says 60 watts (the most common rating) then 60 watt bulbs are the max.

Note, most LED bulbs are way, way fewer watts that incandescent bulbs, and are designed to be safely used in standard household light sockets.

VERY IMPORTANT, FIRE SAFETY: DON'T overload electrical circuits.

These days most devices are low wattage, but we have a lot more low-wattage devices, so you still need to pay attention to this. At a minimum, everything turns off abruptly (and may damage delicate electronics) and if the breaker doesn't work right, there's a risk of fire.

Appliances that use electricity to generate heat are usually the biggest issues, they draw a lot of amps. Toasters, microwaves, electric kettles, electric laundry dryers and ovens, and of course electric space heaters are the biggest ones.

Generally you should never plug more than one space heater into the same circuit. Space heaters seem to usually be rated at 1500 watts, which is 12.5 amps, which is nearly all of the load a typical residential circuit can support.

Watts and amps don't exactly match up, but it's a good rule of thumb to divide watts by 100, i.e. a residential circuit is 15 amps, so never plug more than 1500 watts into outlets on the same residential circuit.

Most modern residential circuits seem to be 15 amps or 20 amps. I've been told that it's usually 20 amps at the breaker but you shouldn't plug in more than 15 amps total, the extra amperage is to allow for transmission losses between the breaker and the outlet. Then again, I may have misunderstood that, I'm not an electrician, you should consult an electrician.

In closing, again refer to my STANDARD CAVEAT above. I'm neither a plumber, electrician, etc, just a home owner who's learned to LISTEN to my plumber, electrician, etc, when they tell me to do or not do certain things.

NEVER use the old-fashioned, thin extension cords. The thinner the extension cord, the more resistance; the more resistance, the more heat.

NEVER, speaking of extension cords, put a carpet or anything else that might hold in heat (really, "or anything else" at all) over an extension cords. Current flowing through wires generates heat. If enough heat builds up, it can catch fire.


  • don't overpack your freezer
  • vacuuming the fridge coils? (not as necessary on newer models, I think)
  • yearly furnace/AC servicing? (generally a good idea, cuts down on repair/replacement costs)
  • hose/outdoor faucet winterizing
  • clean washing machine filter monthly? (not all washing machines have filters)
  • leveling washing machines & driers properly
  • gutter maintenance
  • water heater annual flush? (look into this)
    See original (unformatted) article


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