8 home-maintenance tasks for your December to-do list

(iStock/Chloe Meister/Washington Post illustration)

It’s cold, and the holiday rush is here. Don’t add to the bustle by trying to tackle complicated home-maintenance tasks, especially ones that need to be done outside, in December. Instead, focus on essentials and steps that can make the even darker, colder days ahead more pleasant and the holidays less stressful.

Prep for winter power outages

Make sure you have ready-to-use flashlights in key places: by the bed, by the front door and at the tops of stairways. Also check batteries in lanterns you might use to light up the dinner table or get you and your family through a long evening of playing games or reading when electronic devices aren’t an option.

For holiday gifts, consider giving — or asking for — lights that charge when the power is on, so you aren’t left in the dark when it fails. The Energizer plug-in rechargeable LED flashlight ($10.97 at Home Depot) plugs tidily into an outlet and automatically lights up when the power goes out, making it easy to find in the dark. It should run for three hours. What then? You should also have a supply of ready-to-use rechargeable lightbulbs that can work in any light fixture or that can hang on their own. EcoSmart’s rechargeable bulb is $9.97 at Home Depot.

How to stay warm and safe in a winter power outage

Get ready for holiday cooking

Range hoods, whether they exhaust to the outdoors (the best option by far) or run air through a filter, eventually clog with trapped grease, which can drip down when the buildup is heavy (not a seasoning you want in your gravy). Before guests arrive, clean the hood above your stove and replace the filter, if you have the type that should be replaced periodically. Some filters can go into the dishwasher; to clean others, fill a basin with hot, soapy water, let it soak, then scrub with a brush and rinse with hot water. Adding baking soda or vinegar to the wash water helps cut through grease. Wipe down the surrounding surfaces and the outside of the hood while the filter is out.

Add CO detectors

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced when fuel-burning appliances aren’t running properly. You’ll probably feel confused and nauseous, then so drowsy that you won’t realize what’s happening. Every year in the United States, at least 430 people die and about 50,000 visit emergency departments because of carbon monoxide poisoning. The risk increases when you’re doing lots of cooking and heating.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends having carbon monoxide detectors on each level of a home and outside sleeping areas. Many homes have combo fire and CO detectors. If you have these, or plug-in CO detectors, test to make sure they are working and replace batteries if needed. If you don’t have CO detectors, plug-in or battery-operated ones are easy to add. If you use natural gas, place them high on walls. If you use propane, consider getting a CO detector that also detects buildups of gas, because it pools near the floor or in a basement, where you probably won’t smell it. In that case, place the detectors low on walls. A Kidde Firex plug-in that detects CO and explosive gases is $49.97 at Home Depot.

Tips for choosing and using smoke alarms

Disconnect hoses

Most exterior faucets have built-in protection against freezing in cold weather, but they work only if no hose is connected and thus no water is trapped. No matter how busy you are this month, take a few minutes to unscrew or turn off hoses. If you need to use a hose frequently in the winter and find all the connecting and disconnecting to be troublesome, especially with cold fingers, attach a quick-connect fitting between the tap and hose, which can stay in place all year. A three-pack of Aqua Joe hose adapters is $16.23 at Home Depot.

Add a humidifier

If your skin becomes dry and itchy and you experience frequent nosebleeds every December, the air inside your home could be too dry, and you might benefit from using a humidifier. First check the relative humidity in your home with a hygrometer, a small measuring device that’s often combined with a thermometer. (A Taylor combo model is $8.99 at Ace Hardware.) The ideal reading is around 40 to 45 percent; if it’s below 30 percent, a humidifier might help you. The Levoit LV600S smart hybrid ultrasonic humidifier ($109.99, levoit.com) works in spaces up to about 750 square feet and has a sensor that keeps it from making the air too moist. Adding too much moisture is a frequent problem with humidifiers and is one reason that people are advised to check with a doctor if someone in the home has asthma. You should clean the equipment regularly, and empty the water pan daily.

Sharpen knives

Sharp knives are safer and easier to use. To find a knife-sharpening expert in your area, search online or ask at a kitchen-supply store — or your favorite restaurant. Many professional chefs, even ones trained in knife-sharpening, love the flawless results that a professional sharpener can deliver. You might be able to drop off knives at a kitchen store or local hardware store rather than make a separate trip to a sharpener.

If you want to do it yourself, you can use an electric sharpener, which is quick and effective and takes virtually no skill, but it can wear away the metal bit by bit. Or use sharpening stones, which require skill but are gentler on the blade. The Chef’s Choice Model 320 ($115, leevalley.com) is designed to sharpen at a 20-degree bevel angle, which is common for most knives, but there is also a model for the 15-degree bevel angle typical of Asian-style knives, as well as one that works with both. YouTube videos can walk you through the steps for sharpening with stones. Or get the best of both solutions with a nonelectric sharpener with surfaces preset to handle the edges when you draw the blade across them, such as the 70M4650 knife sharpener ($21.50 at Lee Valley).

Purchase one or more leak detectors

Company’s coming, so you throw a load of laundry in the wash and turn to other chores, only to discover water all over the floor when you return. Then you have a mess, and you might even need to replace flooring or drywall. A water leak sensor, such as the Feit electric smart water leak sensor ($29.99 at Ace Hardware), can alert you to a leak when it starts, minimizing cleanup and repairs. Installing one by a washing machine is especially wise if it’s in a basement where you need an auxiliary pump to raise the water to your home’s drain line, because then you have two appliances (the washer and the pump) that could malfunction.

If your basement is prone to leaking, you might also want sensors where that typically happens, so you know when you need get out a shop vac or check your sump pump.

Change furnace filters

If your furnace uses a typical filter, about one to two inches thick, you should swap in a new one every three months or so — or more often if you have indoor pets. If you first turned on the heat in early fall, it’s probably time or past time. When the furnace is off, open the door on the side of the furnace where the filter is, or loosen screws if the filter is behind an air vent. If you don’t already have a replacement, write down the filter size and buy a new one. (Or get two, to make the job simpler next time.) Filters are marked to show the way air should flow through them. Fold the old filter to make it more compact when you throw it away.

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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