Each month, we publish a series of articles of interest to homeowners -- money-saving tips, household safety checklists, home improvement advice, real estate insider secrets, etc. Whether you currently are in the market for a new home, or not, we hope that this information is of value to you. Please feel free to pass these articles on to your family and friends.
Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?
Most people are now aware that indoor air pollution is an issue of
growing concern and increased visibility.
Many companies are marketing products and services intended to improve
the quality of your indoor air. You have probably seen an advertisement,
received a coupon in the mail, or been approached directly by a company
offering to clean your air ducts as a means of improving your home's
indoor air quality.
These services typically -- but not always -- range in cost from $450
to $1,000 per heating and cooling system, depending on the services
offered, the size of the system to be cleaned, system accessibility,
climatic region, and level of contamination.
Also This Month...
Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent
Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can cost or save
you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your needs.
Important Tips To Keep Your Home Safe
It's much more than a physical structure. It's the place where memories are made, where dreams
are shared, where lives are lived. And many of your home's contents--the video of your baby's first steps,
grandmother's brooch or old family photos, for instance--simply cannot be replaced. That's why it makes
good sense to do everything you can to protect your home.
Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?
Most people are now aware that indoor air pollution is an issue of
growing concern and increased visibility. Many companies are marketing
products and services intended to improve the quality of your indoor air.
You have probably seen an advertisement, received a coupon in the mail, or
been approached directly by a company offering to clean your air ducts as a
means of improving your home's indoor air quality. These services typically
-- but not always -- range in cost from $450 to $1,000 per heating and
cooling system, depending on the services offered, the size of the system to
be cleaned, system accessibility, climatic region, and level of
Duct cleaning generally refers to the cleaning of various heating and
cooling system components of forced air systems, including the supply and
return air ducts and registers, grilles and diffusers, heat exchangers
heating and cooling coils, condensate drain pans (drip pans), fan motor and
fan housing, and the air handling unit housing.
If not properly installed, maintained, and operated, these components may
become contaminated with particles of dust, pollen or other debris. If
moisture is present, the potential for microbiological growth (e.g., mold)
is increased and spores from such growth may be released into the home's
living space. Some of these contaminants may cause allergic reactions or
other symptoms in people if they are exposed to them. If you decide to have
your heating and cooling system cleaned, it is important to make sure the
service provider agrees to clean all components of the system and is
qualified to do so. Failure to clean a component of a contaminated system
can result in re-contamination of the entire system, thus negating any
potential benefits. Methods of duct cleaning vary, although standards have
been established by industry associations concerned with air duct cleaning.
Typically, a service provider will use specialized tools to dislodge dirt
and other debris in ducts, then vacuum them out with a high powered vacuum
In addition, the service provider may propose applying chemical biocides,
designed to kill microbiological contaminants, to the inside of the duct
work and to other system components. Some service providers may also suggest
applying chemical treatments (sealants or other encapsulants) to seal or
cover the inside surfaces of the air ducts and equipment housings because
they believe the sealant will control mold growth or prevent the release of
dirt particles or fibers from ducts. These practices have yet to be fully
researched and you should be fully informed before deciding to permit the
use of biocides or sealants in your air ducts. They should only be applied,
if at all, after the system has been properly cleaned of all visible dust or
Deciding Whether or Not to Have Your Air Ducts Cleaned
Knowledge about the potential benefits and possible problems of air duct
cleaning is limited. Since conditions in every home are different, it is
impossible to generalize about whether or not air duct cleaning in your home
would be beneficial.
You may consider having your air ducts cleaned simply because it seems
logical that air ducts will get dirty over time and should occasionally be
cleaned. While the debate about the value of periodic duct cleaning
continues, no evidence suggests that such cleaning would be detrimental,
provided that it is done properly.
On the other hand, if a service provider fails to follow proper duct
cleaning procedures, duct cleaning can cause indoor air problems. For
example, an inadequate vacuum collection system can release more dust, dirt,
and other contaminants than if you had left the ducts alone. A careless or
inadequately trained service provider can damage your ducts or heating and
cooling system, possibly increasing your heating and air conditioning costs
or forcing you to undertake difficult and costly repairs or replacements.
You should consider having the air ducts in your home cleaned if:
- There is substantial visible mold growth inside hard surface (e.g.,
sheet metal) ducts or on other components of your heating and cooling
system. There are several important points to understand concerning mold
detection in heating and cooling systems:
Ducts are infested with vermin, e.g. (rodents or insects); or
Ducts are clogged with excessive amounts of dust and debris and/or
particles are actually released into the home from your supply registers.
- Many sections of your heating and cooling system may not be
accessible for a visible inspection, so ask the service provider to show
you any mold they say exists.
- You should be aware that although a substance may look like mold, a
positive determination of whether it is mold or not can be made only by
an expert and may require laboratory analysis for final confirmation.
For about $50, some microbiology laboratories can tell you whether a
sample sent to them on a clear strip of sticky household tape is mold or
simply a substance that resembles it.
- If you have insulated air ducts and the insulation gets wet or moldy,
it cannot be effectively cleaned and should be removed and replaced.
- If the conditions causing the mold growth in the first place are not
corrected, mold growth will recur.
Other Important Considerations...
Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems.
Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g., dust)
levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts or go down after
cleaning. This is because much of the dirt that may accumulate inside air
ducts adheres to duct surfaces and does not necessarily enter the living
space. It is important to keep in mind that dirty air ducts are only one of
many possible sources of particles that are present in homes. Pollutants
that enter the home both from outdoors and indoor activities such as
cooking, cleaning, smoking, or just moving around can cause greater exposure
to contaminants than dirty air ducts. Moreover, there is no evidence that a
light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts
poses any risk to health.
If you think duct cleaning might be a good idea for your home, but you
are not sure, talk to a professional. The company that services your heating
and cooling system may be a good source of advice. You may also want to
contact professional duct cleaning service providers and ask them about the
services they provide. Remember, they are trying to sell you a service, so
ask questions and insist on complete and knowledgeable answers.
Suggestions for Choosing a Duct Cleaning Service Provider
- To find companies that provide duct cleaning services, check your
Yellow Pages under "duct cleaning". Talk to at least three different
service providers and get written estimates before deciding whether to
have your ducts cleaned. When the service providers come to your home, ask
them to show you the contamination that would justify having your ducts
- Do not hire duct cleaners who make sweeping claims about the health
benefits of duct cleaning -- such claims are unsubstantiated.
- Do not hire
duct cleaners who recommend duct cleaning as a routine part of your
heating and cooling system maintenance.
- Do not allow the use of chemical biocides or sealants unless you fully
understand the pros and the cons.
- Check references to be sure other customers were satisfied and did not
experience any problems with their heating and cooling system after
- Contact your local consumer affairs or local Better
Business Bureau to determine if complaints have been lodged against any of
the companies you are considering.
- Interview potential service providers to ensure:
- they are experienced in duct cleaning and have worked on systems
- they will use procedures to protect you, your pets, and your home
from contamination; and
- they comply with air duct cleaning standards and, if your ducts are
constructed of fiber glass duct board or insulated internally with fiber
glass duct liner, with the North American Insulation Manufacturers
Association's (NAIMA) recommendations.
- If the service provider charges by the hour, request an estimate of
the number of hours or days the job will take, and find out whether there
will be interruptions in the work. Make sure the duct cleaner you choose
will provide a written agreement outlining the total cost and scope of the
job before work begins.
What to Expect From an Air Duct Cleaning Service Provider
If you choose to have your ducts cleaned, the service provider should:
- Open access ports or doors to allow the entire system to be cleaned
- Inspect the system before cleaning to be sure that there are no
asbestos-containing materials (e.g., insulation, register boots, etc.) in
the heating and cooling system. Asbestos containing materials require
specialized procedures and should not be disturbed or removed except by
specially trained and equipped contractors.
- Use vacuum equipment that exhausts particles outside of the home or
use only high efficiency particle air (HEPA) vacuuming equipment if the
vacuum exhausts inside the home.
- Protect carpet and household furnishings during cleaning.
- Use well controlled brushing of duct surfaces in conjunction with
contact vacuum cleaning to dislodge dust and other particles.
- Use only soft bristled brushes for fiberglass duct board and sheet
metal ducts internally lined with fiberglass. (Although flex duct can also
be cleaned using soft bristled brushes, it can be more economical to
simply replace accessible flex duct.)
- Take care to protect the duct work, including sealing and
re-insulating any access holes the service provider may have made or used
so they are airtight.
- Follow standards for air duct cleaning and NAIMA's recommended
practice for ducts containing fiber glass lining or constructed of fiber
glass duct board.
How to Determine if the Duct Cleaner Did A Thorough Job
A thorough visual inspection is the best way to verify the cleanliness of
your heating and cooling system. Some service providers use remote
photography to document conditions inside ducts. All portions of the system
should be visibly clean; you should not be able to detect any debris with
the naked eye. After completing the job, ask the service provider to show
you each component of your system to verify that the job was performed
How to Prevent Duct Contamination
Whether or not you decide to have the air ducts in your home cleaned,
committing to a good preventive maintenance program is essential to minimize
To prevent dirt from entering the system:
- Use the highest efficiency air filter recommended by the manufacturer
of your heating and cooling system.
- Change filters regularly.
- If your filters become clogged, change them more frequently.
- Be sure you do not have any missing filters and that air cannot bypass
filters through gaps around the filter holder.
- When having your heating and cooling system maintained or checked for
other reasons, be sure to ask the service provider to clean cooling coils
and drain pans.
- During construction or renovation work that produces dust in your
home, seal off supply and return registers and do not operate the heating
and cooling system until after cleaning up the dust.
- Remove dust and vacuum your home regularly. (Use a high efficiency
vacuum (HEPA) cleaner or the highest efficiency filter bags your vacuum
cleaner can take. Vacuuming can increase the amount of dust in the air
during and after vacuuming as well as in your ducts).
- If your heating system includes in-duct humidification equipment, be
sure to operate and maintain the humidifier strictly as recommended by the
To prevent ducts from becoming wet:
Moisture should not be present in ducts. Controlling moisture is the most
effective way to prevent biological growth in air ducts.
Moisture can enter the duct system through leaks or if the system has
been improperly installed or serviced. Research suggests that condensation
(which occurs when a surface temperature is lower than the dew point
temperature of the surrounding air) on or near cooling coils of air
conditioning units is a major factor in moisture contamination of the
system. The presence of condensation or high relative humidity is an
important indicator of the potential for mold growth on any type of duct.
Controlling moisture can often be difficult, but here are some steps you can
- Promptly and properly repair any leaks or water damage.
- Pay particular attention to cooling coils, which are designed to
remove water from the air and can be a major source of moisture
contamination of the system that can lead to mold growth. Make sure the
condensate pan drains properly. The presence of substantial standing water
and/or debris indicates a problem requiring immediate attention. Check any
insulation near cooling coils for wet spots.
- Make sure ducts are properly sealed and insulated in all
non-airconditioned spaces (e.g., attics and crawl spaces). This will help
to prevent moisture due to condensation from entering the system and is
important to make the system work as intended. To prevent water
condensation, the heating and cooling system must be properly insulated.
Should chemical biocides be applied to the inside of air ducts?
Air duct cleaning service providers may tell you that they need to apply
a chemical biocide to the inside of your ducts to kill bacteria (germs), and
fungi (mold) and prevent future biological growth. Some duct cleaning
service providers may propose to introduce ozone to kill biological
contaminants. Ozone is a highly reactive gas that is regulated in the
outside air as a lung irritant. However, there remains considerable
controversy over the necessity and wisdom of introducing chemical biocides
or ozone into the duct work.
Little research has been conducted to demonstrate the effectiveness of
most biocides and ozone when used inside ducts. Simply spraying or otherwise
introducing these materials into the operating duct system may cause much of
the material to be transported through the system and released into other
areas of your home.
In the meantime...
Before allowing a service provider to use a chemical biocide in your duct
work, the service provider should:
1. Demonstrate visible evidence of microbial growth in your duct work.
Some service providers may attempt to convince you that your air ducts are
contaminated by demonstrating that the microorganisms found in your home
grow on a settling plate (i.e., petri dish). This is inappropriate. Some
microorganisms are always present in the air, and some growth on a settling
plate is normal. As noted earlier, only an expert can positively identify a
substance as biological growth and lab analysis may be required for final
confirmation. Other testing methods are not reliable.
2. Explain why biological growth cannot be removed by physical means,
such as brushing, and further growth prevented by controlling moisture.
If you decide to permit the use of a biocide, the service provider
1. Show you the biocide label, which will describe its range of approved
2. Apply the biocide only to uninsulated areas of the duct system after
proper cleaning, if necessary to reduce the chances for regrowth of mold.
3. Always use the product strictly according to its label instructions.
While some low toxicity products may be legally applied while occupants
of the home are present, you may wish to consider leaving the premises while
the biocide is being applied as an added precaution.
Do sealants prevent the release of dust and dirt particles into the air?
Manufacturers of products marketed to coat and seal duct surfaces claim
that these sealants prevent dust and dirt particles inside air ducts from
being released into the air. As with biocides, a sealant is often applied by
spraying it into the operating duct system. Laboratory tests indicate that
materials introduced in this manner tend not to completely coat the duct
surface. Application of sealants may also affect the acoustical (noise) and
fire retarding characteristics of fiber glass lined or constructed ducts and
may invalidate the manufacturer's warranty.
Questions about the safety, effectiveness and overall desirability of
sealants remain. For example, little is known about the potential toxicity
of these products under typical use conditions or in the event they catch
In addition, sealants have yet to be evaluated for their resistance to
deterioration over time which could add particles to the duct air.
Most organizations concerned with duct cleaning, do not currently
recommend the routine use of sealants in any type of duct. Instances when
the use of sealants may be appropriate include the repair of damaged fiber
glass insulation or when combating fire damage within ducts. Sealants should
never be used on wet duct liner, to cover actively growing mold, or to cover
debris in the ducts, and should only be applied after cleaning according to
appropriate guidelines or standards.
Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent
"It's critical that you make the right decision
about who will handle what is probably the single largest financial
investment you will ever make."
Not all real estate agents are the same. If you decide to
seek the help of an agent when selling or buying your home, you need some
good information before you make any moves.
An agent can cost or save you thousands of dollars
Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can
cost or save you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you
should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your
needs. Some agents may prefer that you donít ask these questions, because
the knowledge youíll gain from their honest answers will give you a very
good idea about what outcome you can expect from using this agent. And letís
face it - in real estate, as in life - not all things are created equal.
Hiring a real estate agent is just like any hiring process -
with you on the bossís side of the desk. Itís critical that you make the
right decision about who will handle what is probably the single largest
financial investment you will ever make.
1. What makes you different? Why should I list my home with
Itís a much tougher real estate market than it was a decade
ago. What unique marketing plans and programs does this agent have in place
to make sure that your home stands out favorably versus other competing
homes? What things does this agent offer you that others donít to help you
sell your home in the least amount of time with the least amount of hassle
and for the most amount of money?
2. What is your company's track record and reputation in
the market place?
It may seem like everywhere you look, real estate agents are
boasting about being #1 for this or that, or quoting you the number of homes
theyíve sold. If you're like many homeowners, you've probably become immune
to much of this information. After all, you ask, "Why should I care about
how many homes one agent sold over another. The only thing I care about is
whether they can sell my home quickly for the most amount of money."
Well, because you want your home sold fast and for top
dollar, you should be asking the agents you interview how many homes they
have sold. I'm sure you will agree that success in real estate is selling
homes. If one agent is selling a lot of homes where another is selling only
a handful, ask yourself why this might be? What things are these two agents
You may be surprised to know that many agents sell fewer
than 10 homes a year. This volume makes it difficult for them to do full
impact marketing on your home, because they can't raise the money it takes
to afford the advertising and special programs to give your home a high
profile. Also, at this low level, they probably can't afford to hire an
assistant, which means that they're running around trying to do all the
components of the job themselves, which means service may suffer.
3. What are your marketing plans for my home?
How much money does this agent spend in advertising the
homes s/he lists versus the other agents you are interviewing? In what media
(newspaper, magazine, TV etc.) does this agent advertise? What does s/he
know about the effectiveness of one medium over the other?
4. What has your company sold in my area?
Agents should bring you a complete listing of both their
own, and other comparable sales in your area.
5. Does your Broker control your advertising or do you?
If your agent is not in control of their own advertising,
then your home will be competing for advertising space not only with this
agent's other listings, but also with the listings of every other agent in
6. On average, when your listings sell, how close is the
selling price to the asking price?
This information is available from the Real Estate Board. Is
this agent's performance higher or lower than the board average? Their
performance on this measurement will help you predict how high a price you
will get for the sale of your home.
7. On average, how long does it take for your listings to
This information is also available from the Real Estate
Board. Does this agent tend to sell faster or slower than the board
average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how
long your home will be on the market before it sells.
8. How many Buyers are you currently working with?
Obviously, the more buyers your agent is working with, the
better your chances are of selling your home quickly. It will also impact
price because an agent with many buyers can set up an auction-like
atmosphere where many buyers bid on your home at the same time. Ask them to
describe the system they have for attracting buyers.
9. Do you have a reference list of clients I could contact?
Ask to see this list, and then proceed to spot check some of
10. What happens if I'm not happy with the job you are
doing to get my home sold?
Can I cancel my listing contract? Be wary of agents that
lock you into a lengthy listing contract which they can get out of (by
ceasing to effectively market your home) but you canít. There are usually
penalties and broker protection periods which safeguard the agentís
interests, but not yours. How confident is your agent in the service s/he
will provide you? Will s/he allow you to cancel your contract without
penalty if youíre not satisfied with the service provided?
Evaluate each agentís responses to these 10 questions
carefully and objectively. Who will do the best job for you? These questions
will help you decide.
Important Tips To Keep Your Home Safe
It's much more than a physical structure. It's the place where memories are
made, where dreams are shared, where lives are lived. And many of your home's
contents--the video of your baby's first steps, grandmother's brooch or old
family photos, for instance--simply cannot be replaced. That's why it makes good
sense to do everything you can to protect your home from fire and theft.
Most fires are preventable. First, let's look at the top causes of home fires.
- Cooking fires. Cooking fires pose a serious hazard. Always stay
near the stove when cooking. Avoid wearing loose sleeves while cooking; they
can be ignited by a burner or a grease splatter. You'll also want to keep
curtains and other flammable materials well away from the range or oven. And
never put water on a grease fire, which can cause the hot grease to splatter,
burning you or spreading the fire. Instead, smother it with a lid or another
pan, then turn off the burner. Leave the lid in place until it has cooled off
- Portable and space-heating equipment. Wood-burning, kerosene,
propane and electric heaters can ignite draperies, clothing and other
flammable items. Keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet away from all
heating equipment. Shut off a heater before you leave the room or go to bed.
When you purchase a heater, make sure it's been tested and approved by a
- Careless smoking. Cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths.
Never smoke in bed or in a place where you may fall asleep. Also, use deep
ashtrays so a lit cigarette won't roll out and fall onto rugs or furniture.
It's also a good idea to run water over an ashtray before emptying it into the
trash. A smoldering cigarette butt could set the trash on fire.
- Electrical wiring. You can't see wires hidden inside walls and
ceilings, but there are some warning signs of electrical problems. If lights
dim or flicker, fuses blow frequently or sparks shoot from receptacles when
items are plugged in or unplugged, consult an electrician. Faulty electrical
cords can also spark a fire or cause an electrical shock. Never run cords
under rugs or heavy furniture. Pressure can crack insulation and break the
wires. Don't overload outlets.
- Children with matches. Children playing with matches or lighters
are the leading cause of fire deaths for children 5 and under. Keep these
items up high, preferably in a locked cabinet, out of the sight and reach of
small children. Teach older ones how to handle matches responsibly.
- Holiday hazards. Decorations and candles are a special concern
during the holidays. If you buy a live Christmas tree, choose a fresh one and
water it daily. With an artificial tree, make sure it's made of
flame-retardant materials. Keep candles well away from anything that can burn
and blow them out when you leave the room or go to bed. Fireworks also deserve
special mention. They endanger life, limb and property. Avoid amateurs who set
off fireworks. Instead, attend public displays conducted by trained
pyrotechnicians. Even sparklers are hazardous; they burn at 1200
There are some other simple, common sense precautions you can take to
decrease your chances of a home fire:
- Never store or use gasoline in the home. Gasoline is a motor fuel only.
Keep small quantities in an approved container designed to store gasoline, and
store outside, preferably in a locked, detached shed. Wipe up spills
immediately and never refuel motors near heat sources, sparks or
- Don't overload electrical receptacles.
- Don't use light bulbs with greater wattages than a fixture can
- Don't let combustible materials such as newspapers and rags pile up in
basements and garages.
- Leave plenty of air space around appliances and television sets; they can
overheat and catch fire.
- Use outdoor gas and charcoal grills with caution. Keep them away from
structures, particularly when in use. Never add materials to the fire.
If your home has one or more fireplaces, special precautions can help to keep
home fires burning safely:
- Never burn charcoal or use a hibachi in your fireplace. Both produce
deadly carbon monoxide.
- Protect against sparks by enclosing a fireplace's opening with glass doors
or a sturdy screen.
- Never close the flue while a fire is still smoldering. Carbon monoxide
could build up.
- Never use gasoline, kerosene or lighter fluid to start a fire. Burn only
dry, seasoned hardwood. For extra safety, light fires with long-stemmed
- Have your fireplace and chimney inspected annually. They should be
properly vented and free of blockages. Have them cleaned as needed.
- Protect the top of your chimney with a guard that keeps out birds and
small animals and keeps in sparks that could ignite your roof.
- Keep flammables such as newspapers, magazines, rugs and carpeting well
away from the fireplace.
- Remove holiday decorations from the fireplace and mantle before building a
fire to avoid having the decorations ignite.
- Teach children to stay back from the fireplace.
- Never leave a fire unattended.
- Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
If Fire Breaks Out
Smoke detectors greatly increase the likelihood you'll survive a fire. Place
at least one on each floor of your home and outside each sleeping area. Install
detectors inside bedrooms for added protection. Mount detectors on the ceiling,
at least 4 inches away from the wall. Test detectors monthly and replace
batteries once a year. To help you remember, plan to install new batteries on an
annual event, such as the Fourth of July. Replace smoke detectors after 10
If a fire does break out, take immediate action. Smoke and flames spread
rapidly. Get out of the house right away, then call the fire department from a
neighbor's house or a cellular phone. Fumes overcome most victims long before
flames reach them. Use your safest exit. If you must escape through smoke, get
down and crawl low under the smoke, keeping your head about 12-24 inches off the
If you haven't gotten around to conducting a family fire drill, now's the
time to do it. And visit your local hardware store or home center to invest in a
few fire extinguishers. Extinguishers are classified according to the type of
fire they will put out, and you'll find the classification displayed on an
extinguisher. A Class ABC extinguisher is multi-purpose and works well against
any small, self-contained fire. Keep one in the kitchen, extras in the basement
or garage. Contact your fire department to ask about training. Don't attempt to
fight a fire unless you know you have the right extinguisher to handle that type
of fire, and be sure to keep your back to a safe exit.
Fire Safety Checklist
Take this quick quiz to help you assess your family's fire safety plan:
- Do you follow the fire prevention practices outlined above? Pay special
attention to safety tips on cooking, smoking, use of heating equipment, proper
storage of flammables and precautions regarding children and matches.
- Are your smoke detectors working? There should be at least one on every
floor of your home. Test each detector monthly, and replace batteries
- Do you hold regular fire drills? Several times a year, have your family
practice exiting your home safely and quickly in the event of an emergency.
Designate a meeting place for all family members to gather once they are out
of the house.
- Have you taught your children to "stop, drop and roll"? In the event their
clothing catches fire, kids (and adults) should stop, drop to the floor, cover
their faces and roll over and over or back and forth to put out the fire. Keep
rolling until the fire goes out.
- Have you planned an alternate escape route? It's important to have at
least two escape routes from each room in your home, often a door and a
window. Practice using them now to be sure you could get out in an
- Can you safely exit from the second floor? A chain ladder or other easily
accessible ladder can help you escape from the upper stories of your home in
the event of a fire.
- Do you know how to use your fire extinguishers? Know where your fire
extinguishers are kept, and read the instructions for use before you need
- Do you know the phone number for your local fire department and the
location of the nearest phone outside your house? In case of fire, always
evacuate your home first, then call for help from a cellular or other nearby
Every year, burglars hit more than five million households, stealing more
than $4 billion worth of property. Determined thieves can break into just about
any home, but you can take steps to make entry a lot more difficult for
- Invest in a quality door. Door security begins not with a good lock but
with the door itself and the frame it fits into. Weak door assemblies can be
broken with a single kick, popped open with a jimmy bar or even pried
out-frame and all-from the wall. Strong exterior doors have solid, not hollow,
cores; doors that are sheathed in metal are even better.
- Install deadbolts. Deadbolt locks provide the best protection for the
least amount of money. Ordinary spring-operated locks can be defeated with a
credit card. Intruders can't slip a deadbolt lock because it has a solid metal
bar that fits into the door jamb. To be effective, a deadbolt lock should have
at least a one-inch throw (meaning the metal bolt extends at least an inch
past the edge of the door). Doors with glass panes present a special security
problem because a thief can break the pane, reach inside and unlock the door.
If local laws permit, the solution is a double-cylinder lock-one that
must be opened with a key from inside as well as out. But don't defeat the
purpose by getting into the habit of leaving the key in the lock on the
inside. To exit quickly in case of a fire, keep the key near the door but in a
spot that can't be reached from outside. You might want to hang it on a nail
near the floor where you can find it easily if fire breaks out.
- Don't forget windows. Windows and sliding glass doors also should be
secured. Look for locks specifically made for different window styles at your
local hardware store or home center. You also can secure a sliding glass door
with a broomstick or piece of 1" x 2" lumber laid in the door track when the
door is closed.
- Light up. Outside flood lighting reduces your risk of burglary by
highlighting the exterior of your home at night. You can choose from lights
that remain on all night or motion-sensitive lights that come on only when
someone approaches your home. Motion-sensitive lights save energy and could
catch a would-be thief by surprise. Timers on inside as well as outside lights
give the impression that someone is home, even if you're on vacation, out to
dinner or visiting the neighbors.
Sounding an Alarm
For greater peace of mind, consider investing in a professionally installed
alarm system. Alarm systems come in many shapes and sizes, at prices that range
from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Many installers also charge
monthly monitoring fees, which should be taken into account when you shop for a
system. A home alarm system includes some combination of the following
- Perimeter sensors. These consist of photo cells or magnetic contacts on
doors and windows that sound an alarm when an intruder tries to get inside.
Perimeter sensors are mounted on two points, such as the door jamb and the
door itself. Photo cell sensors are activated when something passes through a
beam of light projected between the two points, while magnetic sensors are
activated when contact is broken between the two magnetized points.
- Heat and motion sensors. You can use heat and motion detectors to protect
specific spaces in or outside your home-a bedroom hallway, for instance, or
your backyard. Heat detectors respond to body temperatures. Motion sensors
- Glass break detectors. These devices recognize the sound of breaking
glass. They activate the alarm when they sense breaking glass in a window or
- Keypad. One or more keypads allow you to turn the system on and
- Audible alarm. A piercing alarm alerts neighbors and the police. And it
lets the burglar know he's been detected, meaning he'll probably leave your
house in a hurry.
Keep in mind that false alarms can be a problem. In addition to annoying the
neighbors and taking the police away from real emergencies, some communities now
assess fines for excessive false alarms. The National Burglar & Fire Alarm
Association reports that nearly 80 percent of false alarms are caused by user
error. Steps to prevent false alarms include regular system maintenance and
ensuring that whoever has a key to your house also knows the codes to activate
and deactivate your system. Local police are a good source of information and
recommendations regarding security systems. They work with the security services
in your area and can tell you what types of break-ins are most common in your
After you've determined which alarm system is best for you, ask your
insurance agent, family or friends for referrals. Get written quotes from at
least three companies. Before you obtain an alarm system, investigate a security
service's reputation and how long it has been in business. Also ask about
warranties and what they cover.
Insuring Against Loss
Homeowners or renters insurance provides money to replace possessions after a
fire or theft. Remember to keep a good inventory of your property, including
serial numbers. A quick way to do this is with snapshots or a camcorder. Store
your inventory in a safe-deposit box or other location outside your home, and
update it every year.
While you're making an inventory of your valuables, consider engraving them
with your name. This makes it easier to trace the goods back to you if they're
stolen. Many local police departments will loan etching tools.
Most insurers recommend that you insure your property at replacement cost.
This reimburses you for what it would cost to replace items today, instead of
paying only for their current, depreciated value. You'll pay a little more in
premiums for this extra peace of mind, so shop around for the best policy and
the best price. Consider only reputable companies and agents. Get at least three
quotes. Some companies provide lower rates if you have more than one type of
coverage with them, such as auto and home. Review your insurance coverage