February Checklist: Caulk tub, change filters and prepare a garden

February 1, 2012

Take advantage of a three-day weekend

If caulk around a tub or shower has deteriorated, the middle of this month is a perfect time to replace it. Why then? Most tub caulk needs to cure for 24 to 36 hours before you expose it to water. So if you devote, say, the Saturday of Presidents’ Day weekend to the yucky task of prying out the old stuff and the somewhat intimidating intricacies of smoothing on a new bead, you can reward yourself by going out of town the next day. When you return home, the shower or tub will be ready to use.

Removing the old caulk is fairly easy, though you may need a razor blade to get out the last bits. Scrub away soap scum with rubbing alcohol, and let the surfaces dry. Then apply new caulk. The best way to get a tidy bead is to cut the tube tip at a 45-degree angle relatively close to the end, so the bead stays small. It should be big enough to fill the gap between the tub or shower and the surrounding walls. Once the caulk is in place, quickly go over it just once with a finishing tool (or a damp finger). Clean up excess caulk before the surface skins over. That can happen in 15 minutes or less, so work quickly.

Plug those gaps

The rush of spring tasks is just around the corner, but it is still February and you'll have some lingering cold-weather issues in your house. If you're tired of shivering through winters, plug the biggest air leaks in your house. This — not new windows or more insulation — is usually the most cost-effective way to make a house less drafty.

First, go online and download “A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Sealing and Insulating With Energy Star” from the home improvement section at www.energystar.gov. Read through the pamphlet, which identifies the usual places where air leaks from houses and shows you with unusually clear pictures some simple ways to fill the gaps. Then decide whether you're up to the task. If not, you'll know what to ask contractors when you interview them.

If you live in Maryland, you can find contractors who specialize in this work at www.mdhomeperformance.org. If you live in Northern Virginia or in the District, find qualified contractors by contacting an energy rater, who does diagnostic testing to find air leaks and insulation gaps.

Go hot and cold

Most furnace filters need to be changed every three months. So if you switched on your heating system in November, you're probably due for a change. Clogged filters restrict airflow and force the air handler to work harder, which adds to your energy bill and makes the system run noisier. While you're basking in the furnace's warmth, also spend a few minutes planning for those days when the temperature is too hot. Have your air-conditioner serviced now, when technicians aren't booked up.

Get ready to bike

Has your bike been sitting in the garage gathering cobwebs all winter while the tires slowly leak air? Tune up your bike so you're ready to ride on the first glorious days of spring. Drop it off at a bike shop, or sign up for a class and learn to do it yourself. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has links to area classes.

Get a head start on a garden

Consider starting your own tomato seedlings this year. If you plant seeds in pots indoors in mid-month, the seedlings will be ready to transplant into the garden after the last spring frost, which is typically the first or second week of April in the D.C. area.

While you're waiting for warm summer days and ripe tomatoes, get a head start on a spring vegetable garden. To make sure soil isn't too soggy to work, squeeze a handful. If no water oozes out, it's safe to proceed. Dig in some compost or well-rotted manure and begin planting. Collards, peas, radishes, spinach and turnips can go in any time this month. Wait until the last week of February to put in potatoes.

Smother the bugs

If your fruit trees, roses or shrubs were damaged by insects last year, you can kill the next generation of pests by spraying an oil emulsion now, before buds swell. Ask at a garden center for horticultural oil, also known as dormant oil, which controls aphids, scale, whiteflies, fruit moths and mites by killing the eggs or the overwintering adults.

The oil is sold as a concentrate. Mix it with water in a tank-type sprayer, or attach a container of the concentrate to a hose. Pick a clear, calm day when the temperature is between 40 and 70 degrees and when freezing temperatures aren't expected for three or four days. Because the oil works by smothering, not poisoning, it's considered a nontoxic pest control. However, you still need to make sure the spray doesn't hit certain plants that can be damaged if they are slicked with oil. Check the label to see what other plants might be susceptible.

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