Watch the snow. (Nabil K. Mark/Associated Press)

Cold weather and the rush of holiday activities limit the time we want to spend on maintenance chores in December. But it’s still smart to tackle tasks that will prevent problems later.

Clean the kitchen vent

Whether your kitchen has an over-the-range microwave or a hood that’s vented to the outdoors, clean or replace the grease filter now, before holiday cooking begins in earnest. If you have a filter that can be cleaned, the easiest way is in a dishwasher. Or you can fill a sink with hot water and add dishwasher detergent, then let the filter soak. Be sure to wear gloves if you use the sink approach, because dishwasher detergent is far more alkaline than hand dishwashing soap. Charcoal filters, found on some over-the-range microwaves and other ductless hoods, can’t be cleaned. If that’s what you have, replace it unless you’ve done so recently.

Don’t slip

The Web is a wonderful resource for research, but it also has its pitfalls, one of them being that outdated information lingers. If you Google for advice on deicers, you’ll still find folks who recommend using fertilizer. Yes, it melts ice. But the urea, nitrogen and phosphorus concentrated in synthetic fertilizers run off with the melting water and wind up in Chesapeake Bay. That’s why using fertilizer ingredients on pavement is now against the law in Maryland, as of Oct. 1. Virginia adopted a similar law last year, with regulations that will take effect the last day of this month. Washington’s rules went into effect in early 2013, as part of the Sustainable D.C. Act.

What’s still okay to use? Not salt. That’s a pollutant, too. (It can be toxic to plants and animals.) Deicers containing calcium magnesium acetate are considered the best for the environment. For best results, pick up a snow shovel and clear walkways before fresh snow is tramped on. That’s usually enough, but if ice still forms, try sprinkling on a little sand for traction.

Disconnect hoses

Most exterior faucets have built-in protection against freezing in cold weather, but they work only if no hose is connected. So no matter how busy you are this month, invest a few minutes in unscrewing hoses or checking to make sure they are already off. If you need to use a hose frequently in the winter and find all the connecting and disconnecting troublesome, especially when your fingers are freezing, attach a quick-connect fitting between the tap and hose. The fitting can be left in place all year.

Avoid having to disconnect hoses

For even better freeze-protection of outdoor faucets, replace standard frost-protected faucets with ones that have a built-in pressure relief valve. This type works even if you leave a hose connected because when ice forms and expands, the valve opens and relieves the pressure. Woodford Manufacturing ( makes several models and also offers rebuild kits that retrofit its standard models. The part number is RK-PRV-*, where the asterisk refers to the valve stem length. Determine that by measuring the thickness of the wall at a window or door and add any amount that the existing valve stem projects.

To install, turn off the faucet’s water supply and remove the handle and packing nut. Use the handle to turn the rod counterclockwise until it disengages from the valve seat. With a small screwdriver, pry the packing loose. Pull the rod out of the faucet. A check valve might add resistance, so use a swift pull. Then install the new part.

Retailers in the Washington area include Ferguson Enterprises (202-529-7411) and Thomas Somerville (202-635-4100). Some Ace Hardware and True Value stores can also help.

Watch the snow

Even a relatively light snow can help you pinpoint maintenance issues you might otherwise never notice. Go out periodically after a snow and watch how the snow melts.

If you see vertical strips of bare roofing between thin lines of snow, the attic insulation is probably inadequate. The snow is persisting longest where rafters lie underneath because the wood in them adds insulation.

If you see icicles forming rapidly even when the weather isn’t warming enough to melt snow, warm air is getting into the attic. The insulation could be too thin or there could be air leaks that need sealing. For a great guide on how to do that, go to the federal Energy Star program’s Web site,, and type “DIY guide to sealing” into the search box.

Last call for rebates

If you’ve been thinking of upgrading to a more energy-efficient water heater or furnace, don’t delay. Some rebates and tax incentives put into effect when the recession hit are still in effect, but not for much longer. For example, District residents who buy efficient gas water heaters or furnaces can qualify for $150 to $850 in rebates through the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility’s Web site, — but only until the end of December. (The District’s rebates of $50-$75 for a new energy-efficient clothes washer or an efficient refrigerator extend through next September.) Federal tax incentives for improvements such as insulation and sealing air gaps also end Dec. 31. As long as you didn’t already get the full maximum credit of $500 in 2011 or 2012, you might qualify for a credit of up to 10 percent of the cost (up to the $500 cap). For specifics, type “tax credits” into the search box at the federal Energy Star program’s Web site, In most cases, the tax credit applies only to materials, not labor, and the materials must be installed by the end of this month in your existing residence. Rentals and new construction don’t qualify.

Explore a bit of history

Whether it’s to escape the holiday hubbub or to entertain yourself because nothing’s happening at your house, indulge in a little personal time to explore something you know little about — perhaps the history of your city or neighborhood, or even just your house. Learn from local historians at the D.C. Community Heritage Project Showcase, Thursday 6:30-9:30 p.m, at Dunbar High School (101 N St. NW). It’s free, but you should register in advance at www.dcchp
. Can’t attend but still interested in learning more about where you live? The Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., one of the sponsors, offers tips about tracing the history of your house through the “programs” section of its Web site,

Warm body and soul

As people age, they feel the cold more, and it’s even worse if they’ve been left alone as family or friends drifted away or died. But a dose of holiday cheer can do wonders — especially when it comes with practical help in staying warm at lower cost. That double serving of goodness will be offered at Washington’s annual Senior Holiday Celebration, scheduled for Dec. 12, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., at the D.C. Armory (2001 East Capitol St. SE). Representatives of the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility will be speaking about energy efficiency and weatherization and how the agency can help senior citizens take control of their energy bills. The event also includes informational exhibits and free facials, manicures and massages. There will be live entertainment and a festive lunch. The event is free, but call 202-724-5626 to reserve the ticket you’ll need to get in.

Combat dry air

If your skin becomes dry and itchy and you suffer frequent nosebleeds every December, the air inside your home could be too dry and you might benefit by installing a humidifier. Check first with a hygrometer, a small measuring device that’s often combined with a dial or digital thermometer. Hardware stores sell them for about $10 and up. The ideal reading is 40-45 percent. A reading below 30 percent means the air is dry enough to possibly warrant using a humidifier. Check with your doctor first, though, if you or someone in your family suffers from asthma. Even if asthma isn’t an issue, make sure it doesn’t become one by cleaning the equipment regularly — every three days, if possible. Change water in the pan every day.

Combat moist air

Although many people associate cold weather with dry indoor air, you might have the opposite problem — especially if you rely on open windows to clear out excess moisture in the warmer months. If water frequently condenses on windows or leaves walls moist enough to allow mildew to grow, you need to reduce the moisture in the air. Before you invest in a dehumidifier, consider simpler steps. If you have a vent-free fireplace that burns natural gas or propane, stop using it or at least run it for shorter periods. Run kitchen or bath fans a little longer. If that produces no change, consider upgrading them to ones that exhaust air better.

If you shop for a new bathroom fan, look at models that suit the size of your room. Fans rated by the federal Energy Star program generally are more effective, as well as more energy-efficient, than other models. With kitchen fans, one thing to watch out for is whether the fan actually exhausts air to the outdoors or simply moves it through a filter. A filter can extract grease droplets and smoke smells, but it doesn’t take out moisture.

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