Pruning and other summer home maintenance

bigstockphoto - To keep the biggest moving part in your house working smoothly, spray a little lubricant on your garage door’s hinges, rollers and tracks.

Hot and humid, July isn’t the greatest month to tackle outdoor chores, unless they’re ones that reduce the work you’ll need to do later. (When it’s simply too unpleasant outside, stay indoors. There’s plenty to do there, too.)

Clip back branches

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Pruning isn’t a chore that people typically associate with summertime, but it is the best time for the type that staves off damage to a house. Trees and shrubs go through a growth spurt in springtime, so by now some branches might be close enough to scrape off paint or roofing. Clip them back at least a foot or two from walls. Over the roof, you probably need a bigger gap to allow for the way branches sag when it rains.

If squirrels hang out in your yard, cut back even more to reduce the chance that the animals will chew into your house and nest in the attic. Squirrel damage can be very costly to repair. To deter squirrels, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources recommends keeping branches six feet from both the roof and walls, as well as cleaning up fallen acorns.

Pruning shrubs is usually a good DIY project. But you’re likely to need professional help to cut back branches that hang over a roof. Doing it yourself won’t be a bargain if you fall from a ladder or if a large branch crashes into the roof.

Clear the ground

While you’re thinking about preventing damage, circle your house again. But this time, look down and make sure there is a clear perimeter around the base of the building and up six inches from the ground.

Having wood or soil piled against siding invites an infestation of carpenter ants or termites. So move any firewood that’s stacked against the house. Rake back any wood chips, bark nuggets or other organic mulches piled alongside the house. If soil is too close, dig it away, but check when you’re done to make sure the soil surface still slants away from the house, so rain will drain away. If the slope goes toward the house, dig away soil farther out, until the slope is correct. (If there is no way to do this, you might need a drain pipe or other solution to keep water from pooling by the foundation.)

Once you’ve created a clear buffer around your house, consider spreading pea gravel over the surface, or plant a low-growing ground cover. If you leave the soil bare, rain will splash muddy water onto the siding, adding to your maintenance chores. Don’t pile gravel too deep, though, or it can keep the soil moist enough to attract termites. A layer just two to three inches deep is sufficient.

Poke your deck

If you own a deck, you probably know that you should clean and seal the wood every few years. But you should also check for rot. Stab the wood with a sturdy screwdriver. If the wood is spongy, it’s probably decaying. If only a few boards are damaged, replace them. If many are rotten, you might need to rebuild the deck (a job that might require a building permit).

Also assess whether the structure overall seems solid and is properly attached to your house. The North American Deck and Railing Association, a trade group, has an inspection checklist on its Web site, www.nadra.org. Go underneath the deck and make sure that the beam that links the deck to the house is solid and held on with a row of half-inch-thick bolts or masonry anchors, not just nails or skinny screws. If you find signs that the deck might be unsafe, avoid using it while you arrange for repairs or reconstruction.

If you decide to rebuild, download a free how-to guide from the American Wood Council (www.awc.org). Even if you aren’t doing the work yourself, knowing the right details equips you to check on the work a contractor does. But building codes vary, so always check with your local building department for rules in your community.

Minimize your
air-conditioning bill

With a few simple steps, you can significantly reduce the load on your air conditioner, saving on your power bill and reducing your contribution to climate change.

Set the thermostat at 78 degrees or higher. Every degree below 78 costs you about 8 percent more on your power bill. Install a ceiling fan and use it when people are in the room; because it just keeps room air moving, switch it off when the room is unoccupied. Limit the use of kitchen and bath fans while the air conditioner runs. They exhaust the cool air you just paid for. Keep your air conditioner running efficiently by cleaning both the indoor and the outdoor coils. Find specifics under DIY projects at the Family Handyman Web site, www.familyhandyman.com.

Inventory your valuables

On a day when you just want to stay inside with the air conditioner running, make a detailed list of your possessions, especially items that you might someday need to make an insurance claim on. Be especially careful to note items that burglars tend to take, including collectibles, antiques, guns, clocks and jewelry. Make a copy of any receipts. Store the completed report in a safe deposit box, your away-from-home office or a relative’s house. Or scan them and store the documents on a cloud-based Web service.

Create or clean a home office

Another job to tackle in air-conditioned bliss: Establish a home office or make the one you already have function better. If you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated room, you might just need to sort through stacks of bills, catalogues and whatever else is piled up. Cull what you no longer need, and set up files or bins to hold the rest in an organized way.

If you don’t have an office, create a miniature one in a room that also has another purpose. You might be able to fit a desk into a corner of a dining room that you don’t use very often. Or set up a mail-sorting area in a mudroom or laundry room, especially if it’s by the door you use most frequently. Another possibility: Clean out one shelf of a bookcase and add trays or file boxes (like ones made for storing magazines) to hold bills and the like.

Getting rid of books you no longer need or have room for is easy. Many local libraries are grateful for donations, which they sell to support their programs.

Watch for bats

July is the month when bats are most likely to show up indoors in the Washington area. But should you panic if one whizzes by as you’re watching TV? Of course not. A single bat might just be lost. Open a door, switch on a nearby outside light and turn off indoor lights; the furry creature will probably fly out on its own. Never try to pick up a bat — though the risk is low, you might get rabies if it bites.

If you see several bats, you might have a colony in your attic. By July, the young bats, called pups, are learning to fly but can’t yet fend for themselves. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources offers tips about how to cope with them; type “bats” into the search box at www.dnr.maryland.gov. Or call in a wildlife control expert to help you figure out where the bats are getting in. They fit through cracks as narrow as a quarter-inch. You can start now to seal potential entries, but wait until September, after the babies leave, to close off active routes. Even then, do it by installing flaps of window screen as one-way doors so you don’t trap any bats inside.

Oil your garage door

To keep the biggest moving part in your house working smoothly, spray a little lubricant on your garage door’s hinges, rollers and tracks.

While you’re at it, look for signs of more serious trouble: Inspect springs, hinges, cables and other parts for signs of wear, and check whether the door is balanced. To do this, close the door and disconnect the opener. Then lift the door manually. Make sure it goes up evenly and stays open. Test the reversing mechanism, which is designed to keep the door from closing on someone.

While the door is still open, place a piece of wood directly underneath. Then turn the door opener back on and signal the door to close. It should reverse the instant it touches the wood. If anything’s amiss, call in a service technician from a garage door company. Adjusting a garage door isn’t a DIY project; there’s a serious risk of injury if you don’t do it right.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

 
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