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How to head off disasters at home

For homeowners, it makes sense to tackle minor headaches before they become major migraines. Consumer Reports suggests doing these high-priority projects early.

-- Runaway rainwater

Telltale signs: Rain pouring over gutters and puddling along foundation walls.

Why you need to act: Water can deteriorate siding and foundation walls, eventually finding its way to interior spaces and damaging them.

What to do: Inspect the entire gutter system for clogs and corrosion; you can clear clogs yourself, but if your gutters are corroded, you'll want to talk to a pro about having them replaced.

-- Leaky roofs

Telltale signs: Cracked, curled or missing shingles, which signal that the roof is near its end of life; also cracks in the flashing around chimneys, skylights, roof valleys and the rubber boots around vents.

Why you need to act: If your roof doesn't provide a proper barrier to rain and snow, water can find its way to your home's drywall and insulation, leading to rot and interior water damage.

What to do: You might be able to replace a shingle here and there, or patch leaky flashing. But if your roof is more than 20 years old, it's probably time for a new one. If it's an asphalt shingle roof with only one layer, you might be able to add a second layer over it, lowering the project costs significantly.

-- Insect infestations

Telltale signs: Rotted wood in the sill plate that sits on top of the foundation and cast-off wings along windowsills and walls are evidence of termites. Piles of sawdust along baseboards are a sign of carpenter ants.

Why you need to act: Tiny as they are, these insects can cause major structural problems if left to nosh on your home's wooden framework.

What to do: Call an exterminator. Check for accreditation on the database of the National Pest Management Association (pestworld.org).

-- Foundation crack

Telltale signs: Cracks in the concrete, especially those that are wider than 3/16 inch, as well as signs of the walls bulging and buckling.

Why you need to act: An unstable foundation can compromise the entire structure of your house.

What to do: Hairline cracks can usually be filled with an epoxy injection system. If the cracks seem to be getting bigger, Consumer Reports suggests consulting a structural engineer.

-- Mold and mildew

Telltale signs: Musty odors, dank air and black mold spores growing on surfaces such as bathroom ceilings.

Why you need to act: Any surfaces that harbor extensive mold, including drywall, carpet and ceiling tiles, will need to be removed. Otherwise mold spores will be released into the air, causing allergic reactions and asthma attacks.

What to do: If you catch it early, patches of mold less than 10 square feet can be treated with a homemade solution of 1 cup chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Wear an N-95 disposable respirator, goggles and heavy-duty gloves. For larger outbreaks, or if the ventilation system is contaminated, call in a mold-remediation pro.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Easy ways to save money at home

Don't let your cash go down the drain or out the window. Consumer Reports suggests doing the following to save money at home.

-- Think seriously about solar. There has never been a better time to consider solar power. Over the past five years, prices have dropped 63 percent, based on a broad survey of manufacturers and installers by the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry's leading trade group. And plenty of generous incentives are still available to homeowners.

Tesla Motors, best known for its high-performance electric vehicle, also makes storage batteries for residential solar systems, and the company is developing solar shingles designed to mimic the look of a standard asphalt, slate or tile roof. Installing rooftop solar panels will defray electricity costs while shrinking your home's carbon footprint. A federal tax credit will cover 30 percent of the installation (a savings of about $5,000 for most homeowners), but the incentive will start to be phased out at the end of 2019, and other state and local rebates are also drying up. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency website (dsireusa.org) for a list of programs in your state. Go to CR.org/solar for more information.

Another option: solar water heaters, which can slash your water heating bills by 50 to 80 percent, according to the Energy Department. Given the steep upfront costs, the payback period for a solar water heater could be 10 years or longer, based on Consumer Reports' past tests.

-- Make a video to protect your valuables. If you ever have to replace all your stuff after a household disaster such as a fire or flood, you'll need to provide a detailed inventory of your belongings. But if the prospect of writing it all down as a precaution seems too daunting, grab your smartphone and make a video instead. Capture your furnishings, and don't forget to open cabinets, drawers, closets and boxes, describing aloud what you see. Include contents of bookcases, walls with art and major appliances. Try to capture serial numbers and brand names. If your time is limited, focus on the big and the valuable, and skip, say, cleaning supplies inside the utility closet. Then store the video on the cloud or put it on a thumb drive and stash it in a safe deposit box or fireproof safe.

-- Eliminate drafts. Consumer Reports suggests this easy way to pinpoint air leaks that make for drafty rooms in the winter and can drive up annual heating costs by $100 or more. First, turn on every exhaust fan in the home, including a whole-house fan and kitchen range hood, and hold an incense stick up to suspected leaks around windows, doors and even electrical outlets. If the smoke blows sideways, you have a leak large enough to undermine your home's comfort and efficiency. For around $30 worth of caulk, weather stripping and expandable foam sealant, you can plug the leaks for good.

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To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Easy ways to get healthier

From kitchen to bath, there are simple ways to more wellness. Consumer Reports suggests the following.

-- Splurge on a premium blender. A blender can be a great way to infuse your diet with healthful recipes, including vitamin-rich smoothies, fiber-packed whole-fruit juices and nutritious soups.

-- Go hands-free. You don't have to be a germaphobe to appreciate a toilet you can flush without touching the handle. American Standard and Kohler have introduced "touchless toilets" that flush when you wave your hand over a sensor. Kohler offers a conversion kit for $50 that brings battery-powered no-touch flushing to any toilet.

-- Make your bedroom an allergen-proof zone. Encase box springs, mattresses and pillows in covers made from woven microfiber fabrics (with a pore size no greater than 6 micrometers) designed to keep them free of dust mites and animal dander. Wash your bedsheets weekly in hot water and dry on high heat.

Five Ways to Clear the Air

Animal dander, dust mites, mold, pollen -- it's all right there in the air, not to mention your bath towels, bedding and furniture. These particles can exacerbate respiratory symptoms, bronchitis and asthma for people with such conditions. There's no silver-bullet solution, but Consumer Reports suggests these DIY measures:

1. Control moisture. Use an air conditioner (with a clean filter) or a dehumidifier to help keep things dry in the basement and other damp spaces, where mites and mold tend to thrive.

2. Air it out. Open windows when weather permits and turn on exhaust fans at other times to remove indoor pollutants. You can also use portable or whole-house air purifiers that have a clean-air delivery rate of more than 350 or a minimum efficiency reporting value of more than 10.

3. Cut down on toxins. Instead of ammonia and bleach, try milder cleaning substances; a 50-50 solution of water and vinegar can be used to clean windows. The solution can even cut through grease and mildew. Purchase items such as paint, paint strippers and adhesive removers in small quantities so that you're not storing partially used containers. Even closed, these products can emit gaseous volatile organic compounds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

4. Test your home. Houses built before the late 1970s may have been constructed with toxic materials such as asbestos, and homes in certain parts of the U.S. are more likely to contain radon, a colorless, odorless gas that increases the risk of lung cancer. Testing is the only way to detect radon; check the map at epa.gov/radon to see whether you're in a high-radon area. A radon level of 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) indicates that you'll need to fix the problem through a qualified radon-mitigation contractor, according to the EPA, though even lower levels carry some risk.

5. Vacuum regularly. It's a simple way to help control airborne particulates: Vacuums suck up dust that settles on carpets, furniture and other surfaces. Consumer Reports recommends choosing a top-rated one that cleans while minimizing emissions back into the air.

To learn more visit, ConsumerReports.org

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