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Most of us think of our homes as a kind of sanctuary, a safe place where the whole family can repair and regroup. And, that’s the way it should be. But the years wear on a house, just like they wear on us, and eventually we all have to do something to keep where we live safe and sound. For some of us, the first thing that comes to mind is a full-blown home security system with motion detectors, alarms and police call-up capability.

But home security is really a much broader idea than this and should include ways to avoid the common dangers that have been with us for a long time. The 10 topics we discuss here are all pretty basic, but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked. They all have direct bearing on your family’s health and safety. And, don’t forget, most of the big problems around the house tend to have long histories. Way back in the beginning—when diligence counts and prevention is a bargain—fixing them was usually cheap and easy.

This project was originally published in the September 2002 issue of Popular Mechanics. You can find more great projects at Popular Mechanics DIY Central.

Step 1: Fire and Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms have been around long enough to seem ordinary, even unimpressive. Add the numbing effects of 30 years of public service announcements and it’s easy to see why many people let their main-tenance slide. If this sounds familiar, a simple analogy may help refocus your attention. Suppose there was a new device for your car that would provide 2 minutes advance warning of a head-on collision, and you could count on it working nearly every time. Would you spend $5 to have one? And would you remember to replace the battery once a year? Of course you would. Well, smoke alarms work similar wonders every day.

There are two basic types of these alarms: 120-volt hard-wired and 9-volt battery-operated. Each of these alarms has its advantages. Battery-operated models are easy to install and require no wiring, so they’re very affordable. The batteries last about a year in standard alarms, but some premium models now come with lithium batteries that are good for 10 years. These are ideal for vaulted ceilings, stairwells and other hard-to-reach spots. Now required in new construction, 120-volt alarms eliminate the battery hassle. They also can be wired together so that one alarm sensing smoke will trigger others throughout the house.

On the downside, the most basic hard-wired alarms offer no protection during power outages. Some updated versions do come with battery backup, however. In addition to smoke alarms, most homes—those with gas- or oil-fired appliances—should have a carbon monoxide detector. Carbon monoxide (CO) is lethal in high concentrations. Early symptoms include dizziness, fatigue and nausea. CO is odorless, tasteless and colorless and it poses its greatest threat at night, when houses are closed up and people are asleep. All sorts of equipment can produce carbon monoxide, but the usual suspects are gas-fired furnaces and water heaters. The problem is often a back-drafting flue, either because the flue pipe is blocked or the utility room is built too tightly.

Regardless of the source, a CO detector is your best defense. Its chemical sensors will become saturated in time, so expect to replace your detector every seven years or so. Radon gas is another potential hazard, though the threat varies regionally, county to county, even house to house. Radon gas is a radioactive by-product of decaying radium, and it’s believed to be the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. It enters homes through cracks and mechanical openings in basements and in on-grade concrete slab floors. The only way to know if your home traps too much radon is to buy a radon test kit, which costs about $15.

The kit comes with a packet of granulated charcoal that you strategically place in your home. In a few days you send the packet off for analysis. If the test indicates a significant radon presence, it’s time for a long-term test, which can last three to 12 months. A higher-than-acceptable radon finding does not mean that you have to abandon your home, but you should call in a radon mitigation specialist to assess the situation. Most can be remedied for $800 to $2500. The solution usually involves creating a negative-pressure environment under the concrete floor. In many cases, an existing draintile system and sump pit can be used to extract soil gases. Otherwise, a contractor can drill one or more 4-in. holes in the floor, then use PVC pipe and a quiet vent fan to force the gases outdoors.

Step 2: First-Aid Kits

The easiest way to get most of the items you’ll need around the house for minor injuries is to buy a midsize first-aid kit. Expect to pay about $15 for a kit containing about 100 items. There’s nothing exciting about the content of these kits, and you probably own some of them already. Still, buying a prepackaged kit makes sense. It’s put together by knowledgeable people, everything comes in a plainly marked box that a neighbor or a houseguest could locate in an emergency, and it comes with a small, step-by-step first-aid booklet that helps you make sense of all those packets.

While a first-aid kit should certainly be located in a convenient, logical place, many other common household products like solvents, cleaning chemicals and insect sprays should be stored as far away as possible. It must be some primal impulse that has us cramming dangerous household chemicals under the kitchen sink, because the practice is almost universal. And once there, an even stranger thing happens. Everything behind the second row of bottles and boxes ceases to exist. These items are too hard for us to get at and way too easy for young children.

Step 3: Fire Extinguisher

Every fire extinguisher is rated according to the types of fires it can put out. An ABC-type extinguisher will handle fires of flammable liquids, electric short circuits, wood, paper and cloth. As such, it offers good all-around protection for any part of the home. But read the directions carefully and check the gauge monthly to make sure it remains charged. Leave the pin in place and resist the urge to test fire. You’ll only waste the charge and have to refill or replace the cylinder.

Also, remember that a well- practiced escape plan is invaluable in a fire emergency. You may know in a general sense how you might escape a fire, but a room blackened by smoke is very disorienting. In this case, a plan is not a plan unless it’s specific. Conduct a family fire drill in which everyone practices staying low, and develop more than one escape route. There are also several easy things you can do to prevent fires. Avoid letting the kids use candles. And make it a point to unplug—not just turn off—all resistance-heating small appliances when you’re done with them. These include coffeepots, toasters, irons and blow-dryers. On/Off switches can fail and these appliances have long histories as fire starters. And finally, clean your clothes dryer vent regularly, especially where it connects to the dryer, and clear the lint trap after each load.

Step 4: Electrical Wiring

Why do newer homes have safer wiring than older homes? Certainly the cables are better made, there are more circuits and all the circuits are grounded. But perhaps the biggest difference is ground fault protection. Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs)—in the form of breakers and receptacles—have drastically reduced the most common sorts of electrocutions, those involving water. Today, when GFCI breakers and receptacles sense a ground fault, they stop the flow of electricity immediately.

And like smoke alarms, they’re affordable. A GFCI breaker will protect all the outlets on a given circuit, and they cost just $30 to $50 apiece. GFCI receptacles, which can be wired to provide single- or multibox protection, cost around $10. GFCIs are now made for grounded and ungrounded circuits alike, so older homes can have the same protection as newer ones. If you live in an older home, there is also the hazard of circuit over-loading, especially in the kitchen. Builders years ago couldn’t have imagined the number of electric appliances and gadgets we use today. If you have the excess capacity in your service panel, fishing new cables across a basement or attic, or through external conduit, is pretty easy. The main obstacle to expansion is usually a full service panel.

But even a full panel doesn’t always close the door. An experienced electrician may be able to combine under-capacity circuits, freeing space for a new circuit or two. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need a new service line and panel, which can cost as little as $800. Deadbolt Locks Locks provide a lot of protection for the money, and unlike other security options, you usually pay for them only once. Deadbolts provide more protection than locksets because the bolt throws deeper into the jamb and it can’t be jimmied with a credit card. When you add an oversize strike plate, with long screws that reach through the jamb and into the wall framing behind, it really makes a difference. There are four basic types of deadbolts.

The first is a combination lockset and deadbolt, which is essentially a beefed-up lockset. You get a stronger bolt without having to drill a second set of holes. These fit standard pre-drilled openings and cost around $30. The second type is the once-popular rim lock. It mounts on the surface of the door and edge of the jamb and is therefore easier to install. Rim locks start at around $20. The third type is the standard deadbolt with a keyed cylinder on the outside and a thumb throw on the inside. These are the most popular and often are required by code. The final category is deadbolts with two keyed cylinders. These are used on doors with sidelights, to prevent an intruder from reaching through a broken sidelight and turning the lock.

But because it takes a key to open them from inside, building and safety officials see these locks as fire-escape hazards. As such they’re not always allowed in houses. One- and 2-cylinder deadbolts start around $40. Water Heaters A mere second of exposure to water at 150˚F can cause a third-degree burn—the kind that requires skin grafts. Millions of water heaters across the country are probably set this high, or have crept this high on their own. It is not common knowledge that sediment buildup and drifting thermostats can cause water heaters to grow hotter as they age. What’s the best temperature?

Each household will differ depending on water-use habits. Most of us shower with the water around 104˚F, but you can’t set the heater that low or you’ll run out of hot water very quickly. Ideally, that 104˚F mix could consist of two-thirds hot water and one-third cold water, so something between 130˚F and 140˚F usually works. Start low and raise it only if you start running out of hot water. Another way to deal with overly hot water is to install a scald-control faucet. These were once pricey items reserved for nursing homes and hospitals, but in the past 30 years they’ve gradually worked their way into houses.

In fact, many plumbing codes now require them in new construction and all manufacturers make affordable scald-control models. Humidifiers And Dehumidifiers Furnace-mounted humidifiers do a good job of adding moisture to dry winter air. However, maintaining the right moisture level is tricky. Set it too low and your house, skin and sinuses dry out. Set it too high and condensation gathers on your windows and can eventually rot the frames. Prolonged high humidity also grows molds. The problem is that outdoor temperatures dictate the best humidistat settings. Heat follows cold, so in winter the movement of air, and the moisture it carries, is always from the inside out. And, the greater the indoor/ outdoor differential, the more pressure there is to move the air through the building envelope. Naturally, with more warm air escaping on colder days, more moisture is left behind on the cold, impermeable window glass.

If you pay attention to daily weather reports, you can tweak your humidifier performance and save your windows at the same time. Let’s say it’s 30˚F and your humidistat is set at 30 percent. When you know there’s a cold snap heading your way, turn down the humidistat a bit, say, to 22. Leave it there until the cold front clears out, then turn it up again. Some humidistats now have in-plenum sensors that accomplish the same thing. Of course, the flip side of controlling the amount of moisture you add to the house air is regulating the amount you take out. Fortunately, in most humid climates people use air conditioning, which dehumidifies as part of the cooling process. In areas where air conditioning isn’t as prevalent, dehumidifiers are used to dry out house air.

But if air conditioning or a dehumidifier (or both) can’t keep up, suspect a serious moisture problem, one you shouldn’t ignore. There aren’t many things that destroy a house faster than water damage. But what makes a house wet? A range of common and uncommon things. Let’s start in the basement where many of them first appear. If you get water in the basement with each big rain and you can see cracks in the walls, suspect a rainwater runoff problem. The solutions are often easy and inexpensive. Clean or repair the gutters, extend the downspouts out at least 4 ft., and bring in soil to improve the drainage slope away from the foundation. The most important thing to know about basements is that they’re dug with a 2- to 3-ft. overcut.

This overcut gives block layers and form setters room to work and afterward it’s backfilled. The problem with backfill soil is that it’s always—and always will be—more absorbent than the undisturbed soil around it. If it’s not well-managed it will soak up water like a sponge. When the wet soil freezes, it expands at a much greater rate than the dry soil. And because this expansion occurs between the rest of the world and the basement walls, it’s the walls that will yield. In the end, the best solution is to keep this area as dry as practical. It can handle normal rain but not substantial volumes of water runoff.

The best way to do this is with plenty of ground slope away from the house and with good gutters that empty a foot or two beyond the overcut. If the problem is not runoff, it’s probably groundwater or a leak in an under-slab water pipe. Groundwater is often seasonal, so if the problem occurs only in the spring, or after an unusually wet period, a sump pit and draintile system is in order. If you’re pretty sure that it’s not groundwater, suspect an under-slab plumbing leak. These are common in the Southwest where acidic soils eat into copper, but they can happen anywhere. The good news is that these leaks are easier to locate now that some plumbers carry ultrasonic leak detectors.

Find a plumber with one of these and you’re almost certain to find the leak. To limit the damage when water heaters or clothes washers fail, install your next heater or washer in a catch pan, piped to the nearest floor drain. It’s also a good idea to replace the standard washer hoses with braided stainless steel hoses. And finally, some houses are built so tightly that they don’t breathe properly. Called sick-house syndrome, this is a more complex problem than rainwater or a plumbing leak. The symptoms range from water stains on walls and ceilings, to increased headaches and respiratory illnesses. If you suspect that your house is too tight, call your housing department, health department or utility company for testing. The solution is usually a heat-recovery ventilator installed by a heating and cooling contractor. Prices vary greatly, from $300 to $2500, depending on the severity of the problem.

Step 5: Deadbolt Locks

Locks provide a lot of protection for the money, and unlike other security options, you usually pay for them only once. Deadbolts provide more protection than locksets because the bolt throws deeper into the jamb and it can’t be jimmied with a credit card. When you add an oversize strike plate, with long screws that reach through the jamb and into the wall framing behind, it really makes a difference.

There are four basic types of deadbolts. The first is a combination lockset and deadbolt, which is essentially a beefed-up lockset. You get a stronger bolt without having to drill a second set of holes. These fit standard pre-drilled openings and cost around $30. The second type is the once-popular rim lock. It mounts on the surface of the door and edge of the jamb and is therefore easier to install. Rim locks start at around $20. The third type is the standard deadbolt with a keyed cylinder on the outside and a thumb throw on the inside.

These are the most popular and often are required by code. The final category is deadbolts with two keyed cylinders. These are used on doors with sidelights, to prevent an intruder from reaching through a broken sidelight and turning the lock. But because it takes a key to open them from inside, building and safety officials see these locks as fire-escape hazards. As such they’re not always allowed in houses. One- and 2-cylinder deadbolts start around

Step 6: Water Heaters

A mere second of exposure to water at 150˚F can cause a third-degree burn—the kind that requires skin grafts. Millions of water heaters across the country are probably set this high, or have crept this high on their own. It is not common knowledge that sediment buildup and drifting thermostats can cause water heaters to grow hotter as they age. What’s the best temperature?

Each household will differ depending on water-use habits. Most of us shower with the water around 104˚F, but you can’t set the heater that low or you’ll run out of hot water very quickly. Ideally, that 104˚F mix could consist of two-thirds hot water and one-third cold water, so something between 130˚F and 140˚F usually works. Start low and raise it only if you start running out of hot water. Another way to deal with overly hot water is to install a scald-control faucet. These were once pricey items reserved for nursing homes and hospitals, but in the past 30 years they’ve gradually worked their way into houses. In fact, many plumbing codes now require them in new construction and all manufacturers make affordable scald-control models.

Step 7: Humidifiers and Dehumidifiers

Furnace-mounted humidifiers do a good job of adding moisture to dry winter air. However, maintaining the right moisture level is tricky. Set it too low and your house, skin and sinuses dry out. Set it too high and condensation gathers on your windows and can eventually rot the frames. Prolonged high humidity also grows molds.

The problem is that outdoor temperatures dictate the best humidistat settings. Heat follows cold, so in winter the movement of air, and the moisture it carries, is always from the inside out. And, the greater the indoor/ outdoor differential, the more pressure there is to move the air through the building envelope.

Step 8: Water Testing

All private wells are tested for contaminants when they are new, but most get little attention thereafter. New wells drilled nearby offer some comfort because a widespread problem would likely reveal itself in those tests. Still, water quality can be site specific. An abandoned underground storage tank, a current or former livestock feed lot, and runoff from 30 years of agricultural chemicals can all impact a single well. For under $100, you can have your well water tested for the basics: nitrates, coliform bacteria, heavy metals and certain chemicals.

The longer the target list, however, the more expensive testing becomes, and it can escalate fairly quickly. Your county extension agent or state health department may be able to help you narrow the list. If you can’t find a commercial testing lab in your area, ask the health department for a reference. If your well tests high in any category, contact a water-treatment company.

Step 9: Furnace Servicing

Forced-air furnaces usually chug along reliably, so it’s easy to take them for granted. But in fact, they’re fairly complex machines. They run on expensive fuels, so efficiency is important. They cycle on and off dozens of times a day, so lubrication and calibration are important. And, they process more dust than a vacuum cleaner, so cleaning is important. Include an air-conditioning coil and you add slimy bacteria and corrosive carbonic acid to the mix.

There’s also the possibility of a cracked heat exchanger. A traditional heat exchanger absorbs heat from the exhaust gases rising through it on their way to the flue. The furnace blower moves air across the device’s chambers, pushing their heat into the ductwork without sucking up exhaust gases. Years of extreme temperature swings stress the steel chambers, however, and many eventually crack. Cracks allow exhaust gases, mainly carbon monoxide, into the ductwork.

Step 10: Tripping Hazards

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Bio: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.
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