Where you live: KEEPING IT CLEAN IN THE LIVING ROOM, DINING ROOM, DEN, AND BEDROOM
In the ideal world, the living areas around your home would just clean themselves. Well, you might be surprised to find out just how close we’re getting. If you make wise choices, a lot of the materials you use to furnish the living room, dining room, den, and bedroom will make housecleaning a snap. There are some time-honored traditions around the home you can dispense with, too, saving yourself a lot of housekeeping grief. And there are some amazing new cleaning gizmos that require no involvement from you whatsoever.
ROOMS FOR IMPROVEMENT
If you could remodel the main living areas of your home with only one goal in mind-to make cleaning chores as easy as possible-how would you do it? What flooring, furniture, paint, lighting, and window treatments would you use in the living room, dining room, and bedroom? I put the question to Deborah Wiener, a Silver Spring, Maryland, interior designer who is known for clever home solutions. Her answers deserve a prominent place in any homeowner’s plans. Remember the Materials on a Program (MOP) philosophy: There’s no need to accomplish all of these suggestions right away. Rather, factor them into your long-term cheat-at-cleaning blueprint.
FLOORING: THE HARD TRUTH
Let’s start at the bottom-with floors. Stone flooring is the easiest to care for. Combine it with one of the new disposable mopping cloth systems, and you’re on Easy Street. “You just take out your Swiffer® mop, and that floor’s going to be spotless in five minutes,” Wiener says. Use slate, terrazzo, or some other stone product throughout the house. If that’s not practical, use slate for part of the home-say, the foyer, down the hall, and into the kitchen. Then use hardwood everywhere else. Hardwood flooring is similarly easy to clean, but it requires a little more protection (from grit and water). Stick to lighter woods, since dark wood shows dust and pet hair more readily. Protect hardwood floors with strategically placed area rugs for instance, by the kitchen sink to catch splashed dishwater. Highly colored and patterned area rugs will hide spills and wear and tear more effectively than solid colors.
BROWN DELIVERS For seating, chocolate brown leather furniture is “the ultimate in easy care,” Wiener says. It won’t show dirt or marks, and pet hair won’t stick to it. When you’re buying a leather sofa or chair, remember that not all leather is finished the same. Here’s how to make sure the leather you buy is high quality: When the salesperson isn’t looking, run your fingernail across the sample fabric. If it leaves a scratch, keep looking. While we’re on the subject of furniture: Buy chairs and sofas with exposed legs rather than the skirted style. The skirts attract stains and dirt from kids’ shoes. For shelving and other storage type furniture, according to Wiener, “Anything closed is better than anything open.” Look for an entertainment center with doors on the cabinets, for instance. Dust will not be able to settle on the objects inside, and closed cabinets are great for hiding clutter when guests come over.
WITH SHADES, YOU’RE ON A ROLL On the windows, forget curtains and blinds. For ease of cleaning, there’s nothing like the old-fashioned roller-type shades. Modern roller shades are available in hundreds of attractive fabrics and styles. To clean, just pull the shade all the way down, wipe with a cleaning cloth, and roll it back into place. The newer cellular or honeycombed shades are very popular and energy efficient, Wiener says. However, they can trap dust-or even the little toys of mischievous children-inside the cells. To clear the shade out, you have to take it down, turn it on its side, and shake.
SCRUBBABLE IS LOVABLE For wall paint, use only water soluble, scrubbable paint. You’ll pay a little extra for this in a premium flat paint, but it’s unquestionably worth it. You’ll be able to sponge up smudges and marks without fear of erasing the wall color at the same time. Flat paint is more delicate than the nail-polish-tough glossy finishes. Wash it using a sponge and a bowl of warm water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. Use a light touch with the sponge, moving it in small circles against the surface. Use the same technique on high-gloss paint, too, before attempting a more stringent approach like glass cleaner. Remember that darker wall colors will hide scuff marks and dents more readily than light colors. For trim paint, however, Wiener uses Benjamin Moore® Decorator White not because she’s a decorator, but because that color happens to be a perfect match for the correction fluid called Wite Out®. She keeps a dozen bottles of it on hand so she can quickly touch up marred and scuffed trim.
SMUDGE-PROOF YOUR DOORS Doors attract lots of finger smudges, Wiener notes, so paint your doors with a glossy finish, which will stand up better to repeated washings. Besides, wood looks better with glossy paint rather than flat. For hardware on your doors and drawers, choose a matte finish rather than a shiny finish. A matte finish won’t show fingerprints. Only your (SI guy will know for sure.
DUST NEVER SLEEPS
Why do we call them “dust bunnies”? Do you think of the dust cavorting under the sofa as warm-and-fuzzy fluff? On the contrary, the dust in your house is a not so cuddly mixture of dirt and pollutants dragged in from the outside, fibers from fabrics, dander from your pets, your own sloughed-off skin cells, and even poop from dust mites. Inspired enough to fire up the vacuum cleaner? No matter how many corners you cut and tricks you pull, now and then you’re going to have to actually clean something, and rounding up household dust is one of those core tasks you cannot completely avoid. Fortunately, dusting is simple and easy. You can make a big impact on a room-give it that “somebody cares” look-with minimal effort. It gets complicated only when you throw obstacles in your own way-namely, clutter. 50 let’s look at how to streamline this most basic of cleaning chores.
DUST BUSTING MADE EASY
Approach the room you’re going to dust with all of your armaments assembled: the vacuum cleaner, electrostatic cleaning cloths (special dust-grabbing cloths available at supermarkets and discount stores), a 5wiffer-type dry mop, and either a step stool or an extendable dusting wand that will reach high shelves. Now, this will go more smoothly if you follow the “De-clutter, then clean rule.” This means the couch cushions are picked up off the floor, the magazines are in their rack, the CDs and books are shelved, and the surfaces around the room are relatively free of odds and ends. Once you’re ready, an orderly set of procedures will allow you to accomplish a basic dusting of a typical living room in 6 minutes. For a How to Cheat at Cleaning deluxe job, well, that will cost you 9 minutes. (If you run over these times, either your room is too cluttered or you’re trying too hard.) This dusting routine will work for just about any living area in the house:
- Always dust from the top down, so that no dust you’ve knocked loose will settle onto an area you have already cleaned. Yes, you’re using electrostatic cloths, which should grab and hold the dirt. However, if it’s been a while since you dusted, there could be some escapees. Walk around the room in a circle, using your dry mop to snag any cobwebs from the upper corners of the room and using your dusting wand (or a step stool and a hand cloth) to wipe any high light fixtures, shelves, and ceiling fan blades.
- Now, with a few clean electrostatic cloths, walk around the room in a circle again, this time dusting everything between your knees and your head-any shelves you didn’t get before, the top of the television, window sills, and furniture. When one cleaning cloth is totally grimy, switch to another. Pay particular attention to any dust that’s visible from a standing or sitting elevation. (If you can see it, clean. Conversely, if it’s not visible, it’s optional.)
- Run your mop or dusting wand along the baseboards.
- Use your mop on any hard flooring. Vacuum any rugs.
You may now declare the room livable-unless, of course, you’re going for your master’s degree in housecleaning, in which case you would want to add the following enhancements to your routine:
- Begin the entire dusting routine just outlined by moving all of the light furniture-chairs, end tables, standing lamps, magazine racks, and such-into the center of the room. When you get to the vacuum ing stage near the end, vacuum around the perimeter of the room.
- Put all of the furniture back into place.
- Vacuum the center of the room.
- Vacuum the sofa and chairs with the upholstery attachment. If there’s time, use the narrow tool to vacuum around the cushions.
DUSTING EVERYDAY OBJECTS
Here’s how to make cleaning go easier as you tackle common dust-collecting objects around the house:
PUT THE GRAIN UNDER GLASS Pop quiz: Which kind of surface is easier to care for-wood or glass? Glass, of course just squirt on some glass cleaner, wipe with a cleaning cloth, and you’re done. No special polishes are required, no anxiety about marks or water rings. That’s why Cynthia Braun, a professional organizer in Lake Grove, New York, had every wood surface in her house covered in glass-desks, end tables, night stands, and dressers.
Go to the yellow pages and find a nearby glass company. It will send a worker out to measure your wood surfaces. The glass probably will be installed on clear disks that create a teensy gap between the glass and the wood so no moisture gets trapped in between. You’ll be able to admire the beauty of the wood, but it will be perfectly protected and you’ll never need to clean it again.
SHOWER YOUR SHADES Stop dusting all of those little crevices in your pleated lampshades. It’s quicker and more thorough to give them a shower, says Braun. Once a year, remove the shades from all of your lamps. Place them two or three at a time in the bottom of your bathtub with the drain open, turn on the cold water, and hose them down with your hand-held showerhead. (If your tub isn’t equipped with one, just turn on the shower and turn the shade under the spray. It might be less messy if you just strip and climb into the tub to do this we’ll never tell.) No scrubbing or detergent is necessary and you’ll be happy to see all of the dust from your lampshades swirling down the drain. Let your shades air dry in the tub, then reattach them to their lamps. Even the standard pleated fabric shades come through this process just fine, Braun says, but don’t try it on wood or silk shades.
SHOWER YOUR PLANTS, TOO Your houseplants will enjoy a shower now and then, too. They’ll breathe easier once you’ve spritzed off that coating of dust that accumulates. Here’s how: Set each plant’s pot into a plastic grocery bag and tie the top of the bag loosely across the top of the pot, leaving a hole for the plant to emerge. Place the plants in the bottom of your tub with the drain open. Turn on a lukewarm shower for 1 minute. Let the plants drip dry in the tub, and then return them to their positions around the house.
PICTURE THIS: ONE FRAME ONLY Limit yourself to one framed photograph in your living room-or at least one photo frame per child. Why? One of the surest ways to cut down the dusting chore in your living spaces is to just put less stuff out. The fewer things you have on shelves growing that little coating of gray fur, the quicker your cleaning will be. Picture frames are a particular problem in many homes, says Braun. People feel like they have to display scores of framed photographs, and each frame has multiple edges and grooves where dust will gather plus that dust-grabbing velvet backing.
Keep a photo album for each child in your family. When you get a new photo of one of your kids, slide it into the display frame. Put the old photo into the album. When the child reaches middle age, he’ll love receiving the album full of his pictures. Because all of the photos were sorted to begin with, no one will have to tear up a family album to distribute them among the kids.
PUT YOUR MENAGERIE UNDER GLASS Keep your knick knacks inside a cabinet with a glass door. This way, your prized possessions are still on display, but you won’t have to dust them nearly so often, says Shannon Ackley, a professional organizer in Shelton, Connecticut.
PLAY AIR PIANO Cleaning that piano in your living room is a tricky business, since liquid cleaners could damage the keys. The quick and easy approach, according to Braun: Blast any dust off the piano keys with a can of compressed air (available at photo shops and computer stores). When you’re not playing the instrument or cleaning it, keep the keyboard cover closed to prevent dust from settling on it. The compressed air trick also works nicely with computers and other electronics, cameras, and chandeliers.
SOCK IT TO ‘EM Suppose you’d like to quickly dust a room but there aren’t any cleaning cloths handy. No problem: Just pull a clean athletic sock over each hand and go around the room wiping surfaces. Start with the finer, less dusty items (knickknacks), then wipe the broader surfaces where you’ll pick up more volume. When you’re done, just peel the socks off and toss them into a laundry hamper (right side out, so the socks don’t trap the dust inside).
BEYOND DUST BUNNIES
There’s more to cleaning your living areas than just dust. Here are some sneaky ways to outwit other kinds of grime.
SPURN THE BURN Quit using your fireplace. Boy, does it hurt to say that. I know as well as anybody the charm of a wood fire behind a screen in the living room. However, the science is irrefutable: Conventional home fireplaces are a terribly inefficient source of warmth. In some cases they actually increase your cost of home heating by sucking furnace warmed air up the flue. At the same time, the typical home fireplace pumps fumes and particles into your home, polluting the air and making cleaning an even harder task. Also, dirt and bugs inevitably hitchhike into your house when you haul in wood. The easiest solution is to have the flue of your fireplace sealed off and quit using it. Put a little candle arrangement in there, and light them when you get a hankering for flame. Alternatively, you could invest in one of the new, high-tech, airtight fireplaces that draw air from the outside for burning. Or you could explore converting to a gas fireplace-some designs are considered energy-efficient. If you’re going to make such an investment, research thoroughly and don’t believe everything you read in the sales literature. Also, modern airtight, advance combustion woodstoves can be a good alternative, providing low emissions and efficient heat transfer into the home.
GIVE DIRT THE SLIP When you outfit your couches and chairs with slipcovers, your furniture cleaning chores become a trifle. Slipcovers-essentially a second skin for your furniture-can be used in a number of strategic ways. Because they come in a wide range of colors and styles, you can easily redecorate your living room without buying new furniture. If the thought of the kids and Fido tramping on the new furniture ties your stomach into a knot, let slipcovers take the dam-age rather than the actual upholstery.
You can always remove a slipcover before guests come over, if you want them to see the splendor of the original upholstery. Or you can pull the slipcover off, give it a shake in the backyard, and put it back in place-no need to vacuum! If the upholstery on old furniture is worn and torn, the addition of slipcovers will add years to its life.
Most slipcovers can be easily removed and washed in your home washing machine. To prevent wrinkles, dry them until they’re just slightly damp and then put them back on the furniture to finish drying. If needed, you can use a warm iron on the slipcover right there on the furniture.
Your slipcovers will have the best fit if you buy them from the manufacturer of your furniture. However, you also can buy slipcovers in retail stores and online.
USE GARBAGE CANS GALORE
When trash is extremely easy to throw into a proper trash can, it’s less likely to wind up in alter-native places-on desks, counters, dressers, floors, and shelves, for instance. That’s why Braun stations trash cans all over the house, particularly in the spots where trash is most often generated (desks, vanities where makeup is done, the scrap-booking and other craft areas, bathrooms, the deck, and the garage). If you station a trash can out on the deck or patio, make sure it has a cover to keep rain and inquisitive critters out.
LINER NOTES A trash can that’s easy to empty will get emptied more often. You may already recycle your plastic grocery bags by using them as liners in your trash cans. Squeeze five of those bags into a tiny ball and put them into the bottom of your trash can. Then install another bag as the trash can’s liner-over the other bags. The next time you need to empty the can, there will be another bag in the bottom of the can just waiting to become the new liner. No running to the pantry for a replacement liner. You can use this strategy in the kitchen, too, by putting extra kitchen bags in the bottom of the kitchen garbage can.
LET RUGS TAKE THE BEATING Your wall-to-wall carpet will develop a path of soiled and worn fibers in high-traffic areas. To preserve your rugs, or to cover stained or tattered spots, lay down runners in high traffic areas. Choose colors and patterns that will hide dirt well.
It’s no wonder that people have strong feelings about how their beds are arranged. You spend a third of your life with sheets, pillows, and blankets all comfy around you in this one confined space. Make sure that your ingrained habits aren’t working against you, however. You might be creating extra housework for yourself or, worse, you might be inviting some tiny, health damaging creatures to snuggle up with you.
QUIT MAKING THE BED
Approximately 60 percent of people surveyed say they don’t make the bed every day. Are they slobs? Not at all-they’re visionaries. Sure, some of my advisers insist that there’s great emotional value in making your bed every day. A tidy bed is a comfort to the soul, the thinking goes, and makes a more inviting place to retire to at the end of the day. If that’s all it takes to make your spirit soar, by all means give your covers a quick tug at each corner and be done with it.
Be aware, however, that scientists say not making your bed actually appears to be healthier. Why? Because the average bed can house as many as 1.5 million hideously ugly microscopic creatures called dust mites. These miniature monsters produce allergens that you breathe in while you sleep, and this is a major cause of asthma and other illnesses.
A 2005 study unveiled at Kingston University in London showed that killing the dust mites in your bed is simple. The mites thrive on the moisture in your bed covers and mattress. When you make the bed, you’re sealing the moisture in-tucking the little dust mites in just the way they like it. However, when you leave your bed unmade all day, the moisture escapes and the dust mites die. I’m sold!
GET CLEVER WITH YOUR COVERS
Maybe leaving your bed unmade all day is too radical for you, even if it is scientifically sound. No problem-there are plenty of other bed management tricks that will protect your health and save you a lot of bother.
SKIP THE TOP SHEET At first this will sound nuts to many Americans: Quit using a top sheet. That’s right. The conventional American way of making a bed requires a fitted sheet on the mattress, then a flat top sheet tucked in at the foot of the mattress, and then a bedspread or comforter layered on top. Well, forget that top sheet-instead, just use a duvet. A duvet, for the uninitiated, is a cover for a comforter. They come in a variety of fabrics, colors, and patterns, giving you a lot of flexibility with decorating. They also simplify cleaning: Your comforter never gets dirty the duvet does. Removing the duvet and washing it is a thousand times easier than washing a comforter itself.
Having the duvet directly against your skin is every bit as comfortable as sleeping with a top sheet. If you dispense with the top sheet, you have one less thing to wash, and suddenly making your bed is markedly easier-just give the duvet a quick yank at each corner of the bed and you’re done in seconds. Top sheets, on the other hand, often bunch up underneath the top cover, making the bed look like a topographical map of the Appalachian Mountains. Europeans will find nothing new in this advice, since they typically forego top sheets anyway.
FIGHT THE MITE If you think dust mites might be a source of your allergy problems, you’ll want to take extra measures to keep them away from you while you’re sleeping. Here are two good moves, according to Jay M. Portnoy, M.D., the chief of allergy, asthma, and immunology at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri:
- Buy dust mite covers for your pillows and mattress. These covers place a barrier between you and the allergens.
- Wash your sheets frequently in water that’s at least 130°F.
PILLOW TALK Pillows take on a musty odor after a while, and the surest solution is this: Buy new ones every 6 months to 8 months. If you’d just like to freshen up a stinky pillow, put it in the drier with a drier sheet. If you’re willing to put more work into your pillows, most of them are machine-washable-check the tag. Even down pillows often can be washed in a gentle cleaner such as Woolite®. (If you bought dry-clean-only pillows, what were you thinking?) Just make sure that any pillow you wash gets really, really dry before you put it back into action. It can take hours of machine drying (gentle or medium setting) to get all of the moisture out of a feather pillow. To punch up the loft of down pillows, it helps to put a couple of tennis balls into the drier with them.
GO PLAIN AND FANCY If you have a hankering for elegant, designer-type bedding, limit these touches to the bed skirt, toss pillows, and duvet. For practical living, the work-a-day bedding underneath (the sheets and pillow cases) ought to be plain 01′ white. Why? So you can easily bleach them if they get dingy or stained, says interior designer Deborah Wiener. You can buy high quality white sheets at discount stores for a reasonable price.
COLLAPSE YOUR COMFORTER Storing a comforter requires a significant amount of closet space. To save room, fold your comforter and slide it into a large trash bag. Then put the hose of your vacuum cleaner into the bag, hold the plastic securely around the hose, and turn the vacuum cleaner on. The comforter will be com pressed to a fraction of its usual size. Seal the bag closed with a twisty-tie. Use the same technique for storing pillows. This extra closet space will translate into less clutter in your bedroom.
BEYOND THE BEDCOVERS
The bed is just 40-some square feet of the bedroom. Here’s how to keep the rest of your inner sanctum neat and clean with minimal effort.
TELL THE TREADMILL TO TAKE A WALK If you’re crowding an office, exercise equipment, and a television into your bedroom, chances are nothing is getting accomplished there. The desk is dysfunctional, the treadmill is covered in cobwebs, and you habitually nod off in the middle of that late night N show. “Ideally, the bedroom should just be for sex and sleeping and that’s it,” says C. Lee Cawley, an organizer in Arlington, Virginia. So give everything but your bed, clothes, and dresser the heave-ho.
BE A CLOSET GADGET JUNKIE Every chance you get, browse home improvement stores, discount stores, and department stores for the myriad clever devices that save space in your closet and make items easy to find. For instance:
- A belt ring, which holds a score of belts while taking up a mere 2 inches of hanging rod space in your closet.
- A mesh bag. Fill it with small accessories such as earmuffs, bandannas, and headbands, and hang it on a hook in your closet.
- A com pact step stool stashed in or near your closet (the folding kind can slide under your bed) will suddenly make the highest shelves of your closet easy to reach-and no longer a museum of forgotten items.
- A shoe bag mounted on the back of a closet or bedroom door will get that jumble of shoes off the floor. It’s also handy for storing other small items, such as rolled up scarves, pantyhose, and gloves.
TWO RODS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Double the hanging space in your bedroom closet by installing two hanging rods, one over the other. Hang one rod 40 inches off of the floor and the other at 80 inches.
GIVE YOUR HAMPER SOME AIR Don’t store your dirty clothes hamper inside your closet. Not only will that rob you of a huge block of storage space but also those musty used clothes will share their odor with the fresh garments in your closet.
HOOK YOUR BATHROBE Mount a handsome hook on the wall near-but not inside-your closet, and park your bathrobe there. Bathrobes often get full of moisture during your shower routine, and an open-air hook will allow it to dry more thoroughly.
MORE CLOSET, LESS CLUTTER If you ever get the chance to remodel your child’s bedroom, devote a large chunk of the room to a seriously expanded closet, Wiener says. Include in that closet generous hanging space, shelving, and other storage. This will limit the need for furniture out in the bedroom at large-thus cutting down on clutter, dust, and nicks and scuffs. “To me, putting everything behind closed doors is preferable,” she says.
Here’s where I advise you to throw out all of the lamps in your house. Bear with me for a moment-I’m not crazy. Remember: Cleaning would be extremely easy, just 90 seconds of dusting, if it weren’t for all of the obstacles that you throw in your own way. You have to walk around lamps, coddle them like babies, and worst of all they are exquisitely designed to gather dust and grime, whether they’re hanging lamps, standing lamps, or table lamps. Look into the upturned shade of your floor lamp. Check your wall-mounted sconces, those hanging fixtures, and the pleated shades of those table lamps. Cobwebs, dead bugs, and dust, dust, dust. Lampshades get old and yellowed, too, and need replacing periodically.
What’s the solution? Install recessed lighting throughout your house, says Wiener. This is the type of lighting that looks like a coffee can embedded in the ceiling. Light shines down into the room, but there is no bulky object intruding on the space of the room-nothing to tip over, nothing to trip over, and nothing to clean.
Most folks would want to hire an electrician to convert a room to recessed lighting. If you have easy access to the floor above (maybe there’s just attic up there) this is a surprisingly easy job, Wiener says. If there’s a finished room above, it’s still not a terribly involved project-you’ll just have to patch some drywall in a few spots. “I do it all the time,” Wiener says.
Sure, installing recessed lighting requires a small investment, but it’s a move that will payoff grandly over the long haul. Use the MOP philosophy: You might not convert the entire house at once. Just factor recessed lighting into your planning for the home and get it done when it’s most strategic to do so when there are workers at the house anyway installing ceiling fans or remodeling the kitchen, for instance. You’ll save on labor costs if the workers don’t have to make a separate house call.
Use extra-long-life halogen bulbs in your recessed lighting, Wiener says-they’ll last 2 years or 3 years without a change, saving you a lot of bother. Also, put all of your lights on dimmer switches. One set of lights could ilium in ate the room over all, and other lights could be focused-say, on work areas or over the bed for reading.
Light has an enormous influence on the perception of cleanliness in your home. Think of yourself as the lighting technician for your own theatrical production. You can toy with numerous variations and combinations of lighting sources, but there are two basic modes that you need to put the most thought to.
Sure, brighter light will illuminate the dust and dirt in your home. But that’s okay, because you’re going to use the bright-and functional mode only for you and your family. If the lighting helps you see dust on a living room shelf, you’ll put that little dusting job on a mental to-do list.
For your day-to-day living, be generous with light. Walk around your house and examine every work area. Make sure good, bright light is provided for the task at hand. This includes reading areas, the office, the kitchen, the laundry room, craft and sewing areas, and the workbench.
If work around the house is not getting done often enough or well enough, poor lighting could be a contributing factor. For instance, Cawley often finds that a client’s kitchen table is cluttered with work papers-so there’s no place to eat comfortably. The resident doesn’t realize that she is instinctively using the kitchen table as a desk because the light is better there. The home office-where those papers belong-is typically in a dark basement, a closet or some other odd corner of the house. Fix the lighting at your desk, and suddenly the kitchen table will be free for dining.
Yes, use of generous lighting means more power consumption and therefore higher cost. To compensate, install compact fluorescent bulbs (they fit into conventional bulb sockets) wherever you can in your home. While these bulbs are initially more expensive to buy than conventional incandescent light bulbs, they’re cheaper in the long run-they consume much less electricity and last for several years. Use of fluorescents or other long-life bulbs also means, obviously, that you don’t have to replace blown-out bulbs as often.
Also, open the blinds and curtains to let plenty of natural light into the house. It’s free, after all. Scientists say that exposure to natural light can help alleviate depression in some cases. I’m not saying that sunlight will give you enough of an emotional bounce to clean the entire house, but at the very least you’ll feel better about not having done it.
The dim-and selective lighting mode is what you use when guests come over. Any clutter, dirt, or dust you didn’t get around to will be undetectable in the dark. For entertaining, turn off the lights in all areas where you don’t want guests to go-the basement, the bedrooms, and your office, for instance. In the areas where your guests will roam freely-say, the living room, dining room, and kitchen-use dim lights in general, with a few narrowly focused lights emphasizing some nice feature of your home. In the living room, this might mean turning on just one corner lamp, plus a small spotlight on a painting (you’ve dusted the frame, of course). In the kitchen, the light focused over the kitchen table is on (you have a nice appetizer spread there), but the brighter overhead light is off.
Such devices as dimmer switches and three-way bulbs will help a lot with dim and-selective mode. As needed, you also can remove 100-watt bulbs from some of your fixtures and replace them with 60-watt bulbs just before guests arrive.
MORE BRIGHT IDEAS
Maybe you’re not ready to convert every single room to recessed lighting. All right, I’ll still help you find some low-maintenance lighting fixtures. Here are some ideas from Jeff Dross, product manager and trend analyst for Kichler Lighting in Cleveland, Ohio:
FOREGO THE GLASS You don’t exactly have easy access to a light fixture that dangles 10 feet above your head in a two-story foyer. So it pays to remember this law of lighting: Any enclosed glass fixture will become a highly visible burial ground for bugs that fry themselves against the light bulb. You’ll need a ladder or scaffolding to get up there and empty their dead little carcasses out periodically. Instead, pick the kind of fixture that has a metal frame but no glass enclosure. Then your only cleaning task is removing dust and cobwebs. You can buy dusters mounted on long, telescoping poles that will quickly clean such out-of-reach fixtures. Or just tape a duster to the end of a broomstick to get the job done.
WARM IT UP Select lampshades in warm colors, such as yellows and oranges, as the light they throw will reveal less dirt, Dross says. Cooler tones grays and blues-produce a starker, less forgiving light.
DON’T DANGLE Don’t buy light fixtures with dangling elements-crystal chandeliers, for instance. Dusting them is a hopeless chore.
A NEW TWIST ON CANDLE POWER Light bulbs that are shaped like candle flame, the kind typically used in chandeliers, gather dust easily-but they’re a breeze to clean, Dross says. Just turn the chandelier off, spray some glass cleaner on a paper towel, and quickly twist the towel around the bulb. “You’d be surprised at how clean this makes the whole room look,” he says.
LOOK FOR LACQUER Make sure any brass or copper in the light fixtures you buy is lacquered-meaning it has a clear protective finish that you can clean with the simple swipe of a cloth. Stay away from unfinished brass and copper, unless you’re willing to just let them corrode. Such fixtures are intended for people with servants who spend their days polishing.
ROUGH SURFACE, ROUGH GOING Avoid light fixtures that have glass with textured exterior surfaces. This kind of trendy glass collects dirt and is a pain to clean.
CLEANING THE AIR
Have you ever met a woman who uses way too much perfume? You almost smother under the tidal wave of sweet fragrance. Her good intentions are actually working against her-and she’s oblivious to the problem, because her nose has acclimated to a high level of that particular scent.
Your efforts to “freshen” the air in your home can backfire in the same way. If you have odor “issues” in your home, layering on yet another scent-even a pleasant one-can create more of a problem than you had in the first place. Ironically, you are the worst person on the planet to judge whether your home smells okay, according to Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., an odor scientist at the renowned Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. While your nose might be accustomed to a high level of artificial fragrance in your house, guests could be bowled over by the odor.
So here we’re going to talk about easy ways to manage odors in your home without smothering innocent visitors. First, it helps to know just a little bit more about your nose and what it knows.
Smell is an old, primal sense, Dalton says. We are not programmed to detect the scents that linger around us all of the time. Rather, we are programmed to pick up changes in the scents that are around us. That’s because in prehistoric times the primary function of our sense of smell was to detect danger (“Uh-oh, predator nearby”) or food (“Mmm, ripe berries”). Messages about odor are processed in the brain in the same area where we store emotional memories. You could say that odors are hard-wired to our emotions.
That is why real estate agents’ odor tricks really work. You know: When prospective buyers are headed to your house, you bake a loaf of bread, put on a pot of aromatic coffee, boil a cinnamon stick in water on the stovetop, or place a drop of vanilla on a light bulb and turn it on. Any of these homey odors will immediately put buyers in a positive frame of mind, imagining your home as a place of family, food, and comfort.
However, don’t go overboard with home scents. If you have a fragrance producing gizmo jammed into an outlet in every room, it’s probably time to unplug and rethink what you’re doing. “I’m not a big advocate of using a lot of fragrance products,” says Dalton. When you overuse a home fragrance, you might unwittingly create the impression that you have something to cover up. So easy does it.
If your own nose is not a reliable judge of the air in your home, how are you supposed to know whether you have odor problems? Ask a friend to drop by, sniff around, and give you an honest assessment, says Dalton. When you do, get right down to business the human nose starts to get acclimated to its environment after only 15 minutes. Your friend can tell you whether there’s a general mustiness about your home, an overwhelming floral scent, or if there are odor problems in specific places around the house-the refrigerator, the cat box, or a kid’s closet, for instance. Make a “hit list” for remedial action.
Here’s another easy way to get a read on your home’s odor problems: When you return home after a week’s vacation, what does the interior smell like? An overused gym locker? You may tell yourself that the house has been closed up and you just need to open some doors and windows to air it out. More likely, Dalton says, that’s what your home really smells like to visitors.
SHEDDING LIGHT ON ODORS
Forget about air fresheners, forget about sprays, forget about potpourri. If you want the easiest, laziest, cheating-est way to freshen the air in your home, here’s what you should do: Start changing your light bulbs. Yup. At this writing, special odor-killing light bulbs are just entering consumer markets. You might already be familiar with compact fluorescent bulbs, the power-saving, money saving bulbs that last for years. The odor-killing bulbs are the same thing, except that they have a coating of titanium dioxide. When the chemical interacts with the bulb’s light, it destroys the organic material in the surrounding air. This technology was developed by scientists looking for solutions to “sick building syndrome,” caused by poor ventilation.
At first, you’ll want to install a bulb near the cat box, in a musty basement, where smokers hang out, and any other place where odors are a particular problem. When you turn the bulb on, it takes about 10 minutes to start its odor destruction. The longer you leave it on, the stronger the effect is. As your conventional bulbs burn out, you’ll want to install titanium dioxide bulbs in every possible fixture for a whole-house odor shield. The bulbs don’t perform miracles, but you will be able to scoop out cat boxes and change the litter half as often. There are some caveats. The bulbs can do their de-stinking only when the open air can circulate past them, so they won’t work in glass or plastic enclosed light fixtures. The bulbs are a bit pricey, too. The less costly brand, Fresh2, is for $20 for a two-pack.
On the bright side: The odor-killing chemicals last for 3 years, and the bulbs themselves can last 7 years to 9 years. The 23-watt fluorescent bulbs also put out the same amount of light as a loo-watt incandescent bulb, meaning they provide a huge energy savings. At this writing, the bulbs are sold in some home stores, and discount stores are soon to follow. They’re easy to find on the Internet.
BREAK THE MOLD
You may have seen scary reports about a creepy form of toxic mold chasing hapless residents out of their homes. Some people want to blame every disease known to humankind on mold. Others claim it’s a lot of hype created by people who want to sue building contractors.
“The only reasonable place to be is in the middle somewhere,” says Portnoy. The truth is, most houses have mold in them and little of it is toxic. While scientists don’t know enough about how mold affects humans, there is evidence that it can trigger allergy symptoms and aggravate asthma. If nothing else, mold is worth controlling in the home because it looks and smells bad. When it gets out of hand, it can even weaken the structure of a house by digesting wood.
Mold needs two things to survive in your home. The first is food-which is the stuff your house is made of. If you remove this food, you won’t have a house left. So let’s move on to the second item, which is far easier to control: water. When the humidity-or moisture in the air-is above 50 percent, you’re encouraging the growth of microorganisms, Portnoy says. A home’s moisture problem is made worse by everyday living, including cooking, showering, other washing, and even people breathing in and out.
Many of the best ways to control humidity in your home fall into the category of one-time fixes, which means they take a little effort up front but continue to payoff far into the future:
- Central heating and air-conditioning systems typically include humidity controls, so make sure you know how to work them. Check your manual or ask a service technician.
- During warm months when you’re not using an air conditioner or if the air-conditioning doesn’t dry the basement air enough, keep a dehumidifier running to pull the moisture out of the air.
- Make sure there are no leaky pipes in your house or a leaky shower stall dripping water into the basement.
- Check whether water is seeping through your basement walls. If you have a seepage problem, use a special moisture-blocking paint (available at home stores) on the interior of the concrete block. Outside, make sure all of your downspouts carry water well away from the house. If problems persist, you may need to have your yard regraded so that rainwater flows away quickly.
- Make sure your home is well ventilated. Exhaust fans that suck moist air out of bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms and vent it to the outside will help control mold. If you have an older home that wasn’t built with exhaust fans, installing them is a surprisingly easy job for a contractor. The next time you have remodeling, siding, roofing, or other building-type work done around the house, see if you can include exhaust fans as part of the deal.
SHOOT TO KILL Now and then, despite your best efforts at controlling moisture in your home, you’re going to come face-to-face with the enemy. The minor mold incursions a few telltale black spots on the grout in the shower or along the rim of the toilet-are easy to dispatch. Just pick up a bleach-based disinfecting cleaner (Clorox® is one brand), squirt it on, wait the prescribed amount of time, wipe, and rinse. The same cleaner will kill even moderate infestations of mold, Portnoy says, on wallboard, ceiling tile, and wood. Not only is the fungus killed, he says, but the bleach will lighten the mold stain and make it look better.
If you discover a large mold problem- say, in wallboard that has grown soft to the touch-the only solution is to remove the contaminated building material and replace it. Don’t attempt this on your own, Portnoy says. The concentration of mold could be severe enough to be harmful. Ask professional home remodelers whether they handle cases like yours. Even if they don’t, they’ll have names of people who do. Just making the repair is not enough make sure you figure out why the contamination happened and fix the source of the problem.
OF MITES AND MEN (AND WOMEN)
The air in your home can be an invisible soup of impurities that can aggravate anybody’s lungs and are a particular nuisance to people with asthma and allergies. These particles include not only mold but also dust mites, pet dander, smoke, and other airborne detritus. If you do have asthma or allergies, explore with your doctor what specific irritants you react to. Your doctor can supply more detail that’s specific to your case than I can provide here. However, here are some broad strokes that any homeowner can make to yank impurities right out of the air with minimal effort.
FIGHT TH E MITES Dust mites are microscopic insect like critters that thrive on, among other things, the skin cells you leave behind in your bedding. The poop they produce is a notorious allergen. The humidity-reducing measures described earlier will help control dust mites. Wash your bedding weekly in hot water, and zip your mattress and pillows up in anti-mite covers, available in department stores and discount stores.
GET A HEAP OF HEPA FILTERS Buy high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters for your furnace and vacuum cleaner. Also buy stand-alone air filtering machines to use in your living areas. HEPA filters remove from the air the kind of microscopic particles that are good at burrowing into your lungs. If you buy a HEPA filter for your furnace, consult your service folks-they may need to adjust the furnace’s fan speed to accommodate the new airflow, Portnoy says. Special HEPA vacuum cleaners are avail- able, or you can buy HEPA bags for conventional vacuum cleaners. HEPA filters need changing with a certain frequency, so pay special attention to the directions. If you buy a stand alone air-filtering machine, make sure you understand the unit’s coverage area. Many can service no more than one typical room-and certainly not the entire house-so you may need more than one. Avoid the type of room air filters that emit ozone, which is itself a lung irritant, Portnoy says. Not all room units perform equally well, and price is not always an indicator of quality. So check consumer publications before you buy.
CHOKE OFF THE SOURCES OF POLLUTION We sometimes cling dearly to lifestyle factors that are ruining the air around us. Make the tough decisions and ban smoking from the house, quit using the fireplace, and stop lighting candles and incense. Quit using air fresheners, and don’t store solvents, pesticides, and other chemicals in your home.
ALLEVIATE YOUR PET PEEVES If you’re allergic to furry pets, foregoing them altogether is best. However, if you have dogs in the house, wash them weekly with a mild pet shampoo-not human shampoo and not common soap. Wash your cats, too, if you can get away with it-just wiping with a damp cloth will help. (And just in case you were thinking about it, don’t spray your cat with disinfectant-believe it or not, Portnoy knows of people who have done just that.) Pet allergens and dust mites will cling to carpeting. Instead, use hard flooring and throw rugs that you can wash in hot water.
GET ALL YOUR DUCTS IN A ROW Sometimes mold will grow on old construction material left behind in ductwork, Portnoy says. Removing it is a good job for a duct-cleaning service. However, despite some of the advertising you’ll see, regular duct cleaning isn’t necessary.
MORE STINK STRATEGIES
Here are more ways to clear the air around your home:
USE ODOR ABSORBERS Baking soda and cat litter are two common household substances that are famous for absorbing odors in confined spaces closets, lockers, drawers, pantries, and refrigerators, for instance. Just pour several ounces into a lidless plastic container and place the container in a hidden spot where it won’t get tipped over. The baking soda or cat litter does all the work-you don’t have to do anything but change it every 3 months.
KNOW YOUR SPRAYS It sounds Pollyannish to say “Read the label on your product,” but it really does help to check the spray can of any odor-fighting product. If you know how the product works, you increase your chances of success in de-stinking the house. Some sprays work by killing odor-causing bacteria on surfaces, some kill bacteria suspended in the air, some trap odor molecules, and others just add a pleasing fragrance to the air (covering upor adding to-the stink). So fit the product to the situation. In a shower stall, use a product that will kill mildew on the tile, for instance.
So there you have it-quite a collection of strategies that will make the main living areas of your home profoundly cleaner and more presentable for very little effort. Don’t forget that when I suggest that you quit making the bed, install different lighting, or use a new kind of wall paint, you get to say, “No, I prefer my own approach.” I’m not the God of Guilt ordering you around. If you weren’t in charge, after all, it wouldn’t feel like cheating.
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