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posted: 11/2/2012 4:18 AM

Get your fireplace in shape before winter

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Even with all of the current options, many of us still use a wood-burning fireplace. It adds ambience and warmth to a home. It's very important that you perform regular maintenance to ensure it is operating safely.

Here are some things to take care of before you use it again this autumn and winter.

Like a lot of other cleaning projects, you should do it from top to bottom, with one exception. Open the damper first. Then carefully cover the opening of the fireplace with a tarp and tape it securely around all of the edges.

Be careful when working on the roof! Remove the chimney cap/spark arrester. Brushes are available at fireplace-supply stores, as well as extensions. Buy the one that fits your flue shape and size. Scrub down the sides to loosen debris. (Now you see why it is so important to cover the opening inside the house.) Look down the flue for cracks or gaps, and make repairs as needed.

Give the dust and ash time to settle, and then pull the tarp off. You'll want to make sure the ceiling fan and room vents aren't stirring up the air in the room. You'll want to shovel and vacuum up the ashes. Make sure your vacuum has a very good filter to avoid blowing ash back into the room. Keep a mister of water handy to spray and keep dust down while you are removing the ashes.

Inspect the firebox for loose or cracked mortar, and repair it with heat-resistant material.

Make sure your damper is working. If the seal is loose, repair it as well.

If you are going to use your fireplace, it must be safe. If you cannot clean and inspect it yourself, hire a chimney sweep to do the job. It's extremely important, so don't put it off!

Save on solvent

Solvent is still the fastest way to clean your paintbrushes, but it's costly, and nobody likes to waste very much of it at a time. What we've discovered is you can use a container that's shaped like your paintbrush bristles to hold the brush and enough solvent to cover the bristles and not much more. Some containers we like are a mouthwash container with the top half cut off, a lotion bottle that's been cut in half and a hand-soap container with the top portion cut away. These containers are just a little larger than the bristles and will hold them upright while they soak in less solvent until they are clean.

Attach bookshelves to the wall

Many homes have tall ceilings these days, and to get the most storage in a space like that, your shelves need to be taller. If they are not built-in shelves, you need to be careful that they don't get overloaded and tip forward. One way to avoid this "pitfall" is to secure the shelf directly to the wall. You can use screws if you like, or you can install a hook and eye on the top corner of both sides of the shelf. Install the eye on the wall and the hook on the shelf. This will give you a little more security, and you'll still get all that extra storage with the extra-tall shelf.

Super hints

• A good grinding wheel sure can come in handy in the workshop. But when grinding metal, be careful to use a magnet to clean up metal splinters. If you blow them away, they can end up in your eyes or on your skin.

• For vacuuming stairs and other long reaches, add a section or two of vacuum hose, and you can go farther without the machine. This is the perfect solution for many of us who don't like or can no longer lug around a heavy vacuum canister.

• Don't forget to reverse your ceiling-fan blades in the winter. Instead of the air being blown directly down into the room, the fan should draw the air up and push it back down the sides of the walls. This will help recirculate the warm air in the room.

Q. I use the 90-day furnace filters. My sister tells me I should change them more often than the recommended 90 days. What is your opinion?

A. It depends on several things. Is your whole heating system (ducts) sealed up securely? Is your home clean -- free of dust, smoke, pets? If you remove the filters after 30 days and they are clean, then you can leave them in a little longer. If they have collected a lot of dirt, then you might need to replace them more often.

Q. Our home has standard vinyl siding. It needs to be cleaned, and I'm not sure how to do it. I'd like to do it as quickly as possible. What is the recommended way to do this?

A. Power washers are great for this sort of thing. If you need cleaner, make sure you use one that is acceptable for your machine. Lower the pressure if you need to, and avoid windows and other more delicate household features. A scrub brush can be used on tough spots as long as you don't scratch the surface.

Q. We are going to seal our ductwork up in the attic. We have found several small leaks and suspect there are others. What is the best way to take care of this?

A. Mastic is the best way to seal ductwork. It's a little messy, but it works better than anything else on the market. You can use aluminum tape along with it for some gaps if you want. Don't forget to check and seal plenums as well. If you have flexible ducts, make sure all are free-flowing and are not kinked or restricted in any way. Ducts also should be insulated, so replace any loose insulation. If you take care of all the leaks, then you should see a cleaner, more efficient system, which will keep you more comfortable and keep your bills down, too.

Reader tips

• I finally have a laundry room for my washer and dryer. I also have wall cabinets in which to store cleaners and other things. I had my husband install a fold-up ironing board for me, and he also put a small TV in the room for me. Just last weekend, he added a shelf on the wall with a clothing rod on it. Now I have a place to hang things up in the room. It's wonderful!

• We cleaned out our garage and ended up with a lot of junk to throw away or sell. We donated all of the usable materials to Habitat for Humanity. The nonbuilding materials went to the Salvation Army. I had to do some checking, but I finally found a local place that would take our old batteries, solvent, oil, tires and other "hazardous" materials. Now our garage is clean and neat, and it's so much easier to find what we need for a project or a trip.

• Our basement has metal support columns spaced across it. They never really bothered me, but when we renovated the room, they really became prominent, and not in a good way. We had decided on a sort-of beachy-themed room, so we found some bamboo blinds that were as wide as the height of the room, and we wrapped the columns in these. We used glue to hold the blinds in place, and then wrapped rope around them at the top and bottom for extra security and to give them a neater look. The room turned out great, and the columns actually look good now.

• When we downsized, we lost our off-season storage closet, so I created one in the attic. I installed a closet rod in one corner of the attic and made a closet from foam panels. My wife bought sealable plastic suit bags to protect the clothes, and we have a nice closet space where we can store coats and jackets during the summer. In the winter, we get out the winter clothes out and store boxes of summer clothes there.

• I discovered that baby wipes are great for lots of cleaning projects around the house. Since they are made for babies, they have gentle cleaners in them, and since they are wet and ready to use, they are perfect for the kitchen and garden. I even use them in the bathroom to clean up small messes and to remove my makeup.


• If you are in the market for a new light and fan for your bathroom or other small space, take a look at Broan-NuTone's ULTRA Ventilation Fans with ULTRA Sense humidity- or motion-sensing technology. The fan will automatically detect the level of humidity and activate a multispeed fan. Then, it turns the fan off when the problem is controlled. The motion sensor turns the fan on the high speed when you walk into the room and then turns it back to low when you have left. This is the perfect fan for homes with kids or people who don't think about using a fan to deal with humidity levels. Other features include an energy-efficient motor, quiet blower and Energy Star rating. To find out more, go to

• The RotoSaw from RotoZip is a versatile tool and could reduce the need for additional tools. It can be used as a cutout tool, cutoff grinder, flush-cut saw and a hole saw. Attachments also allow it to become a tile-cutting wet saw, jigsaw or power shears for cutting sheet metal. It's strong, powerful and built to last. Other useful features include a soft-grip housing, an upfront on/off switch and variable speed control. To find out more, go to or call 877-ROTOZIP.

• Write to Al and Kelly Carrell in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006 or visit the Carrells' website at

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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