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Special report: the most important home maintenance jobs

May 26th, 2010
Comfortable home
Photography by Nick Watt/ACP Digital Library
May 26th, 2010

Keeping your house ship-shape requires a hands-on approach – and a smart plan. Elizabeth Wilson talks to the experts and reveals the maintenance jobs that matter the most.

Creating a comfortable home is one of life's greatest satisfactions - all your hard work is rewarded in those precious moments of relaxation. Sometimes, though, it seems you barely get a chance to stand back and admire your handiwork before another job demands your attention.

Here's the secret to easy home maintenance: it's all about prevention. Keep on top of a few routine jobs, and you'll have more time (and money) to enjoy your home. To that end, here are the essential dos and don'ts for smart home maintenance:

Take it from the top

"The roof is often the last thing people think about in terms of maintenance, but it's the most important part of the home," says Sydney roofer Paul Briffa.

Celebrity tradie Scott Cam couldn't agree more. Water damage is at the heart of most home-maintenance dramas, says Cam, a presenter on Channel Nine's Domestic Blitz and author of Home Maintenance for Knuckleheads (Murdoch Books, $34.95). "Leaks and damp can affect the structural integrity of your home, inside and out," he says. "Water can get into grout and ruin exterior brickwork, as well as damage ceilings and gyprock and lead to peeling paint."

Have your roof checked by a professional every seven years. If the ceiling leaks in heavy rain or you see broken roof tiles, seek help immediately.

Check gutters every six months or every two months if you live an area where there are lots of trees. Simply walk around the house when it's raining and see if anything leaks. A leaf guard for the gutters is a good investment.

Attempt roof repairs yourself, especially if you have an old roof. Old tiles can be brittle and loose and you could break 20 tiles while checking one.

Get on deck

Cam believes Australian houses are made for decks - just make sure you install a roof as part of the structure. "There's no point in having a deck that's not an all-weather space," he says.

Use screws rather than nails to secure planks - it makes them easier to sand and repair when required.

Oil or stain every year to protect the timber and maintain the finish.

Sand every three to four years.

Colour your world

How often you re-paint depends on the condition of the walls and your whims as a decorator.

When Cam painted his own home, he applied five coats of paint to the exterior timberwork - one primer, two undercoats and three topcoats - to guard against the effects of rain and sun. "If you don't paint external timber well, the water gets in," he says. Inside, Cam used three coats - a primer and two topcoats - and expects this should hold for 10 to 15 years.

"Some people like to regularly change the mood of a room and painting is an affordable way to redecorate," says Sharon McClelland, National Marketing Manager at Paint Place. "This could be as simple as changing the colour on a feature wall each season."

Use a premium-quality paint - it will last longer and be easier to clean.

Use different formulations for different areas of the house. A low-sheen paint suits living areas and bedrooms. A satin finish is ideal for rooms subjected to water and grease, such as bathrooms and kitchens. Satin-finish paints have a higher gloss level than low sheen; the higher the gloss level, the more 'scrubbable' the paint. Doors, skirting boards and window frames are subjected to more bumps and knocks than walls, so choose a gloss acrylic, or a satin or high-gloss enamel for these areas.

Use a tinted undercoat if the topcoat is a relatively dark shade.

Choose low-VOC paint. VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are chemicals emitted as gases from products such as paint, building materials, furniture and cleaning supplies, and can cause adverse health effects.

Forget to prepare the surface for painting. Repair as necessary and lightly sand, then clean and dry completely before painting.

Paint if the ambient temperature is below 10°C or above 35°C, or when humidity is high.

Steel yourself

If you're building a new home or replacing an existing roof, you might find the good looks of steel appealing. Steel is hard-wearing and will last for decades with little maintenance. The popular Colorbond range by BlueScope, for example, comes with a 30-year warranty. "Colorbond is designed for Australian conditions," says Greg Jones, Regional Business Development Manager for BlueScope Steel. Another advantage of using steel for roofs is that is can be shaped to suit unusual architecture and it is available in a range of colours. Colorbond roofs now also incorporate Thermatech technology. BlueScope claims this technology reflects more of the sun's heat than tiles, leaving the roof space - and therefore the building - up to 5°C cooler.

Exterior paints

Since the exterior of your home is constantly exposed to the elements, Sharon McClelland says it's crucial to use a high-quality undercoat and at least a couple of topcoats to ensure durability and longevity. "Premium-quality paint, such as Paint Place's New Look range, carries a 10-year guarantee," she says. "And, best of all, no primer is required for most surfaces." Choose a paint specifically formulated for the surface - timber that already has a coating, unpainted timber, concrete, paving. The key to longevity is surface preparation. Make sure all flaking or peeling paint is sanded back, use an appropriate filler for any cracks and ensure your topcoat is manufactured in Australia for Australian conditions.

Protect the floors

Debris and abrasives such as dirt are the number-one enemy of timber floors, says Kendall Waller, National Technical Manager for Premium Floors. "To protect the floorboards, you need to sweep regularly with a soft broom or fringe mop," he says.

Another factor that can harm a timber floor is direct sunlight. "Strong UV light can change the colour of the boards and even twist, shrink or otherwise distort them," says Waller.

The type of seal or finish the boards have - from shiny polyurethane to natural-looking wax or oil - also affects how often they need to be maintained. Polyurethane forms a durable seal that lasts several years. Floors that have been finished with wax or oil will need to be repolished between two and six times a year.

Protect floorboards from abrasives with a dirt-trapping mat immediately outside and inside external doors.

Place soft (preferably felt) floor protectors under furniture to prevent scratches. Caster cups should be used for furniture on wheels.

Protect from UV damage with internal and external window treatments.

Spot clean as required, and overall clean with a damp (not wet) fringe or sponge mop and a mild detergent solution every two weeks.

Polish with wax or oil two to six times per year; recoat with polyurethane every few years.

Use cleaning agents containing ammonia or abrasives.

Tiles are an extremely low maintenance flooring option. Today's ceramic tiles are fired at 1200°C, which means colours will not fade over time and chipping and cracking is rare.

The secret to keeping a tiled floor looking as good as the day it was laid is not over-cleaning it. "Detergent leaves a residue on tiles that builds up over time," says Peter Kurtz, Marketing Manager at Beaumont Tiles. "This film attracts dirt and tiles become dirty more quickly."

Instead of mopping with detergent, simply sweep regularly to keep dust and dirt at bay then wipe over with warm water and a soft cloth. (If you need something stronger to clean stubborn marks, try a capful of methylated spirits diluted in water.) This 'sweep and wipe' technique applies to both glazed-ceramic and porcelain tiles.

Grout between the tiles discolours over time, but it's easy to bring it back to life. "Most tile shops sell non-soaping grout cleaners," says Kurtz. "You'll need to get down and give it a good scrub."

Sweep tiles regularly and wipe them with warm water and a soft cloth.

Use a non-soaping grout cleaner to clean grout when required.

Use detergent when mopping.

"The length of the life of a carpet will depend on where it's laid, the make-up of the household - whether there are children or pets, for example - and the quality of the carpet," says Michelle Parker, Product Manager at Cavalier Bremworth. "A premium-quality, extra heavy-duty wool carpet can easily last 15 years if looked after well, but lower-grade carpets can look shabby in just a few years," she says. Cavalier Bremworth has a comprehensive guide to stains and techniques for their removal on its website and sells stain removers for dry stains and a new emergency treatment for liquid spills.

Vacuum carpet weekly.

Avoid permanent stains by immediately blotting liquids and/or removing solids, then treating any spots with an appropriate stain-removal remedy.

Take a seat

The key to keeping your sofa looking its best over time is taking good care of the upholstery.
Always have fabric upholstery and slip covers treated with a reputable protector product. Loose covers made from wool or wool-synthetic blends that can be washed and replaced when needed are a good investment too, says Andrew Brown, Technical Manager at King Furniture.

King Furniture recently launched its KingCare division, which includes a range of sofa cleaning and protector products as well as a team of specialist cleaners who will do the job for you.

Vacuum and turn cushions regularly.

Have fabrics scotchguarded.

Consider calling a professional. "Stain removal and fabric protection can easily go wrong, especially if you use a bleach-based product," says Brown.

Dedicated leather cleaning kits are available from quality furniture stores - furniture manufacturer and retailer Natuzzi has its own product, for example - but the best thing you can do for your leather sofa is to keep it dust-free, says Dana Skornicki, Natuzzi Pacific Product Manager. "If you don't let the dirt build up, your leather furniture should always look beautiful," she says.

Dust once a week with a slightly damp cloth and dry with a clean towel.

Protect upholstery from UV damage with window treatments.

Clean with abrasives. "Soiled leather can be cleaned with a mild hand soap solution," says Skornicki. "But take care not to saturate the leather."

Save energy

It pays to reassess energy consumption as part of your household maintenance review. The biggest domestic energy user is the hot-water system. Other energy guzzlers are heaters, airconditioners, fridges and freezers.

Install a three-star WELS-rated showerhead. These have a flow rate of nine litres (or less) per minute. "They only cost about $20 and pay for themselves within six months," says Paul Myors, EnergyAustralia's energy efficiency expert.

Consider upgrading to a solar hot-water system. Converting to solar power can reduce your carbon footprint by up to three tonnes per year and government rebates for doing so can put as much as $3000 back in your pocket.

Boost your ceiling insulation - it improves the efficiency of natural cooling and heating, reducing the need for appliances.

Upgrade your appliances. Look for the best energy-star ratings, built-in timers and thermostat settings.

Switch appliances off at the powerpoint. On average, standby power accounts for five to 10 per cent of a household's power consumption.

Wire wisely

"When it comes to anything electrical around the house, I have one word for you - electrician," says Scott Cam. "Leave anything more complicated than changing a light globe to the experts."

Electrician John Pignataro couldn't agree more. "Homes built before 1980 will have old-style wiring, probably without safety switches," he says. "Old wiring can get overloaded, which can lead to problems and a risk of electrical fires. Wiring that is 50 to 60 years old will be substandard."

Ask to see your electrician's licence.

Attempt electrical work yourself.

Get smart

If you're reassessing your household power - especially in conjunction with a major renovation or extension - you may also want to consider integrating 'smart wiring'.

Smart wiring gives you the capability to include a home automation system such as Clipsal's C-Bus Wiser Home Control, which integrates lights plus household appliances, multimedia and telecommunications technologies into a single operating system. "You can operate just about any device in your home from almost anywhere via touch screens, remote controls, mobile phones, computers and more," says Simon Wehr, Marketing Manager at Clipsal Integrated Systems. However, he stipulates this technology is only for new homes or major renovations.

According to Myors, home automation is the way of the future. "There are many lifestyle benefits to automating your home, but doing so can help save energy too."

Tanks for everything

Think about installing a rainwater tank: there's a wide variety to choose from and they now come in more shapes and sizes than they did a decade ago. Perhaps, like Scott Cam, you could bury one: "I have an underground tank that holds 6000L," he says.

Rainwater can be used as a source for hot water services, bathing, laundry, toilet flushing, or gardening. Generally, tanks with a capacity of 10,000L or less don't need council approval; if in doubt, speak to your local council. A 5000L tank should meet the non-drinking water needs of a typical household. For more water-wise tips, check out the Sydney Water website.



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