'Tis the season for overflowing refrigerators, never-ending loads of laundry and hopefully visiting family who will lend a hand. Many people ask their appliances to work a little harder than normal during the holidays, and maintenance throughout the year could be the key to avoiding an untimely breakdown. Often it's as simple as being mindful when you're using an appliance and taking the time to clean it regularly to avoid a costly repair.
Here are a few maintenance tips for refrigerators, dishwashers, laundry machines and dryers. Each of these major appliances has an average lifespan of 10 to 13 years and you might want to start budgeting for your next purchase around the nine-year mark.
There are many factors that contribute to a particular machine's lifespan. However, regular maintenance could help ensure your appliance's longevity, let you avoid expensive service calls and lead to lower utility bills.
Clean the coils to keep the fridge efficient and cool. Your refrigerator may take up a large corner of your kitchen, but it probably takes up a small piece of your mind. We mostly expect refrigerators to keep working. But imagine having a house full of holiday guests and waking up to find that it stopped during the night. Not only are you stuck paying for repairs ($220 to $270 on average), or a new fridge (anywhere from $350 to over $2,500), but you might be making an expensive trip to the store to replace all the spoiled food.
Avoiding the most common cause of refrigerator issues, and potentially spoiling your holiday party, is surprisingly simple. The most important part of refrigerator maintenance is keeping the condenser coils clean. Luckily, the process only takes about 15 minutes, and you just need to do it once or twice a year, depending on how dusty your home is.
The condenser coils run on the outside of the fridge, usually on the back or underneath the unit, and house the heat-drawing refrigerant that runs in and out of refrigerators. A dirty or dusty coil won't release heat as well, causing the compressor to work harder, which in turn shortens its life and can cost you money in higher utility bills.
Start by unplugging your refrigerator. Units that have coils underneath them will likely have a cover on the front or back that you'll need to remove and a condenser fan inside that you should also clean. Try to get as much dirt and dust off the coils as possible. You can buy special coil brushes online or at a hardware store to help. A vacuum could also quickly dispose of dust or dirt, but be careful if there's a drip pan (common on units with a built-in defroster) because the water could damage your vacuum.
The inside of a dishwasher needs cleaning as well. Unlike a refrigerator, your dishwasher might not be a necessity. But it sure is nice to spend time with visiting family and friends rather than washing dishes by hand. In fact, during one recent family visit our dishwasher was being run multiple times per day.
Once again, the solution that can save time and money is simple and inexpensive. If you want to keep the dishwasher running well and avoid those hours in front of the sink, it's important to keep the inside of your machine clean. Mineral deposits from hard water and leftover food scraps can build up, leading to clogged or leaky components and nose-turning smells. To clean out mineral deposits, run an unloaded dishwasher on a cleaning cycle with white vinegar -- a second round with a bit of baking soda is optional. Food scraps can take a little extra attention, and you may need to remove the dishwasher's racks and scrub the inside walls.
Next, gently wipe down and inspect the plastic gasket around the door, a break or leak could lead to an expensive mess. While the gasket only costs about $10, labor costs can be between $75 and $150 an hour, and damage to your floor and anything below it, could be significantly more.
Also, look for buildup in the filter, which you'll likely find at the bottom of the machine where water drains out. A clogged filter could lead to drainage problems and be the cause of odors. If you're battling either of those issues, a simple cleaning might let you avoid calling a service company.
Respect the load limits of your washer and dryer. I am always shocked by the piles of laundry that build up when you have a full house. While the extra towels, sheets and clothes from visiting guests might make it tempting, don't overload your machines. Too much weight can cause parts to wear out and break prematurely. Plus, if you put in too many clothes, you could wind up with detergent residue and need to rerun the cycle (a waste of time, water and energy), or damp clothes that need to be hung or dried again.
Also, gently close washer and dryer doors because too much force could break the switch -- the small part that signals to the machine the door is closed and a cycle can begin. The average cost to fix common washing machine problems is $50 to $150, while dryers' more expensive parts push repairs costs to about $100 to $400.
Regularly check dryer filters to keep hot air flowing and avoid a fire hazard. Cleaning lint out of the dryer's filter is common advice for a reason. A lint-covered filter can reduce airflow in the dryer vent, which could lead to damp clothes and higher utility bills. Over time, it may also lead to a clogged vent hose and eventually blow the dryer's thermal fuse, meaning your dryer won't heat up anymore until you pay to fix it (about $10 plus labor costs). Perhaps more importantly, clogged vents are a potential fire hazard.
Dryer sheets can also leave a clear film on the filter and cause similar problems over time. Take the filter out and gently scrub it with a soft-bristle brush and soapy water to get rid of the film. The outside dryer exhaust vents are another common hazard spot. Even if you clean your filter with every load, it can be a good idea to check the vent for lint buildup once or twice a year. It shouldn't take too much time, and it can prevent a catastrophe. You can clean them with a vent brush or vacuum.
Consider DIY repairs if something breaks. Even with proper maintenance, appliances can break. Unless you have a repairman in the family, you will likely spend $75-plus an hour to hire one. You might consider trying to save a little money by doing the repairs yourself.
The job in question, your comfort level, experience and access to tools will influence which repairs you should attempt, but you won't necessarily be completely on your own. Appliance manufacturers, appliance parts dealers and independent handymen post helpful video guides with step-by-step instructions that you can follow. You can also find the manual for many appliances online, and often your manual will show you how to identify components, disassemble and reassemble machines.
Bottom line: While every appliance will eventually need to be replaced, keeping the components clean and handling machines with care can help extend their lifespan. Make it a regular habit and you'll set yourself up for fewer repair calls and less frequent appliance purchases as well as a better chance to spend time with loved ones, uninterrupted by inconvenient and expensive appliance issues.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.