Keeping your family safe is your top priority, but it’s tough to remember all the little things you need to check around the house. To keep you on top of your game, we’ve devised a one-day plan for inspecting the most important safety systems, from upstairs to the basement.
Where There’s Smoke
Start your safety audit with some of the most important safety equipment every home should have: smoke alarms. Install smoke alarms inside and outside of bedrooms, plus at least one on each floor of the home, including the basement. If possible, use interconnected smoke alarms that all sound when one does. If you have smoke alarms, clean and test each one, and replace batteries as needed. (Repeat this simple safety measure monthly.) Replace alarms at least every 10 years.
Out the Window
In a fire there may not be a clear path out every door. You need a second way out of any room, and that’s the window in a second story bedroom or other space. Place a fire escape ladder near a window in each upstairs room, and practice with family members where to find and how to use them. Also use this time to refresh your family’s memories about the emergency escape plan.
If your home uses natural gas for cooking or heating, or has an attached garage, you need carbon monoxide (CO) alarms. Called the silent killer, CO is a colorless, odorless gas, and even small doses can be poisonous. If you haven’t done it, install interconnected alarms outside bedrooms and on every level of the home. Test the alarms today and every month so your family becomes familiar with the sound. Also, discuss what to do if the alarms ever go off. (Immediately exit the home and call the fire department.) Replace monitors every seven years.
Gather Some Gear
Always try to be prepared. Get ready today for an emergency by filling a waterproof tub with these must-have items:
- Copies of insurance policies, bank account numbers, passports and other important records
- A three-day supply of nonperishable food and bottled water (one gallon per person per day); can opener; disposable plates, cups, and utensils; extra food and water for pets
- A first-aid kit and personal hygiene items (keep prescription medications handy)
- A battery-powered radio and a flashlight, with extra batteries for both, and a whistle in case you need to signal for help
- Pliers to turn off utilities
- Other items to consider include solar cell phone chargers, a change of clothes and shoes, sleeping bags, matches, a fire extinguisher and games to keep kids entertained
Before heading down the stairs for the first-floor audit, stop and look around. The stairwell is a critical part of your family’s emergency escape route. Prevent dangerous falls by repairing or tightening loose steps and handrails. If the stairs are uncarpeted, add slip-resistant treads, tapes or paint. If you rely only on hardwired overhead lighting to illuminate your stairwell, the area will be dark during a power outage. For safety’s sake install battery-operated, motion-activated step lights. If you already have them, check whether batteries need replacing.
In Case of a Kitchen Emergency
The average kitchen is full of fire hazards and flammable risks. You may be able to stop a small fire from becoming a house-engulfing blaze by placing portable fire extinguishers in the kitchen (where most fires start) and garage (where flammable chemicals are often stored). Add another on each floor of the home, storing each in plain sight and next to exit doors. Inspect extinguishers each month to make sure the pressure gauge is in the green zone, the pin and tamper seal are intact and there are no dents, leaks or rusty spots. If defective, replace it. A fire extinguisher is only as effective as the person using it. Remind your family today about the PASS technique:
- Pull the pin to release the locking mechanism.
- Aim low, pointing the extinguisher at the base of the fire.
- Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly.
- Sweep the nozzle side to side.
Extinguishers should only be used on small, confined fires. If a fire is growing, get out of the house.
A Safe Hearth
Fireplaces and heating elements are the second leading cause of home fires in the US. If your home has a wood-burning or gas fireplace, spend a few minutes thinking about safety. First, a clean chimney is less likely to catch fire; make your annual appointment for a certified chimney sweep to inspect and clean the hearth and flue. Reduce the threat of fire-causing sparks by making sure your fire screen is functional and by moving all flammable materials (carpets, furniture, drapes, etc.) at least 36 inches away from the firebox.
Simple steps keep your air-conditioner in top shape so you don’t have to sweat out the hottest day of the year and also potentially cut annual energy costs. After turning off power to the unit, replace the filter to reduce energy drain. (You should do this every month during the cooling season.) With a garden hose, clean the condenser coils to prevent overheating. Then clear a 2-foot area around the unit to avoid dust and debris buildup that can bog down the machine. Pass a stiff wire through the unit’s drain channels to get rid of clogs, which boost indoor humidity. Now you can turn the power back on. Don’t forget to cover the unit when you turn it off for the winter.
Most Americans use public water, but if you’re a private well owner, you’re responsible for the quality of the water you drink. After checking your A/C unit, inspect your well for cracks, corrosion, broken or missing parts and proper runoff. Also call a state-certified lab for an inexpensive test to check the water for nitrate and coliform bacteria.
While you walk around your home, keep an eye out for potential poisoning risks. The kitchen, garage and bathrooms often house medications, cleaners and other toxic products that can harm children and dogs. Store those items out of reach in cabinets with locks or safety latches.
The Lower Level
It’s easy to forget how much we rely on the hardworking components hidden in the basement ... until one fails. It’s time to head downstairs and give them some attention, starting with the furnace.
After turning off its power supply, check the filter. If it’s dirty, replace it. (Change filters every one to three months.) Clogged filters slow air flow and bump up your energy bill. Worse, excessive dirt buildup can bring down the system, freeze your family and cost a fortune to repair.
Vacuum any visible dust in and around the unit, remove the flame shield and check the burner for corrosion. When finished, turn the power back on and make sure the pilot light is burning.
From the Ground Up
Never heard of radon? Unsure if this radioactive gas mixes into the air you breathe at home? It’s time to find out: Radon is now the second-leading cause of lung cancer (and number one cause of lung cancer for non-smokers).
A byproduct of the decay of uranium, radon is found in the soil under many homes. Levels can vary from house to house on the same block, so every homeowner should test. Ask your local health department if it has free DIY kits. If not, buy one for less than $20 at a home improvement store.
Conduct the test in the lowest level of your home that’s used at least a few hours a week. Place it at least 20 inches above the floor and away from exterior walls. Keep windows and doors closed for 12 hours before and throughout the test.
After the testing period, immediately send the kit to the lab listed in the instructions. If your results are 4 pCi/L or higher, do a second test. If both short-term tests show high numbers, call a licensed mitigation professional to discuss options for reducing radon to acceptable levels.
Give Your Water Heater a Little Love
Trim your utility bill with a simple fix: Wrap your water heater in a blanket, which costs about $20. (Some utilities offer them for free or at a reduced cost.) According to the U.S. Energy Department, an insulated water heater cuts 4 to 9 percent in water heating costs.
To install: Turn the water heater off or turn the gas knob on a gas water heater to “pilot.” Cut the blanket down to size using a utility knife or scissors (it should not cover the top). Cut out an area for the control panel, pipe, valve and burner. Tape in place, and turn the water heater on (no higher than 130ºF).
Once a year, preferably before your area’s rainy season, check your sump pump. The pit should be free of debris and the pipe should be clear so water flows freely. If something doesn’t work, check the power source, then call a professional.