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Small projects, big rewards

Spring cleaning can wait — but your home could use some sprucing up by A.C. Shilton, The New York Times | January 23, 2021 at 1:47 a.m.
(The New York Times/Jordan Awan)

Being home all the time has been hard on your house, too.

But between overseeing virtual schooling and emptying your dishwasher on repeat, you might not have the energy to complete multiple repair jobs and do a top-to-bottom clean of your house. That's OK. Spring cleaning can wait until, well, spring.

Instead, consider investing your time in small projects that have big-gratification appeal.

None of these five chores takes more than an hour, and each ends with that satisfying thought: Why didn't I do that sooner? Best of all, unlike the dishes and the bottomless laundry pile, these chores won't need to be done again for many months.


"You know that feeling when you get into a bed with clean sheets? This is that feeling times 10," said Brandi Broxson, a senior editor at Real Simple magazine. Not only does a clean bed feel good, it is better for your health. Bedding and accessories such as dust ruffles and throw pillows can collect dust and pet dander, making them an allergy trigger. Do this at least twice a year, Broxson suggested.

Start with the pillow test. Fold your pillow over; if it stays folded, chuck it. A pillow without its oomph is no one's idea of a good time. If it unfolds, wash it according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Strip off the sheets, duvet, duvet cover, mattress pad and dust ruffle. Wash everything according to the labels (some duvets and dust ruffles require dry cleaning). During this deep clean session, Broxson washes her sheets with a bit of bleach. Or, if they're not white, she'll soak them with a bit of vinegar, which helps remove any smells. If your washable duvet doesn't fit in your washing machine, you can wash it by hand in your bathtub — and get a workout while you're at it.

Sprinkle your mattress with a thin layer of baking soda. After 30 minutes, vacuum the baking soda up and flip the mattress. Dust the crevices of your bed frame and vacuum those dust bunnies underneath the bed.

Don't forget your throw pillows. "I feel like those never get cleaned," Broxson said. Zip off the covers and wash or dry clean according to the labels.


It seems counterintuitive, but sharp knives are safe knives, said Quintin Middleton, a bladesmith based in St. Stephen, S.C. A dull blade requires the cutter to use more pressure, causing a slippery onion or carrot to slide out of place. Sharp knives also prolong the life of the knife, said Brian Casey, a chef and the author of the KnifeGeeky blog.

A motorized knife sharpener will give you an adequate edge, but purists like to do this chore by hand. Different types of knives have different angles, and sharpening by hand allows you to hone those exact angles, Middleton said.

Sharpening once a year is probably adequate for most home cooks, Middleton said. However, many people find the end results so enjoyable that they sharpen their fleet quarterly.

Assess what your knives need. If they're just a little dull, a honing rod could do the trick. But if this is the first time you've sharpened your knives in a decade, you'll probably need to use a whetstone.

Soak your whetstone in tap water for five minutes. Casey advised that you'll want it to stay wet for the whole process. "Dunk it back into the water if it dries out. You don't want sparks or dust flying."

Slow and steady does it. If you have a knife so dull it balks at even a wedge of brie, use the larger grit side of the stone first (a grit in the 1,000 range is a good place to start). Lay your knife on the stone, then tilt so it's at a 15- to 20-degree angle. Starting at the heel of the knife (the side closest to the handle), pull it gently along the stone, maintaining that 15- to 20-degree angle the whole way through the pull. The entire motion should be like an exaggerated J, as you pull your hand back, then loop around to bring the blade back to the stone.

Casey recommended switching sides each swipe to ensure your blade is evenly sharp. Use the finer grit (4,000 to 6,000) once you've got the blade in basic fighting shape. If the knife slices through a piece of paper with ease, it will slice and dice carrots and turnips. Finish by wiping the knife down with a clean kitchen towel.


Drugs expire and get pulled from the marketplace, so making sure what you have is still safe to use will give you peace of mind.

Doing this once a year should be fine, said Dr. Thomas So, a clinical pharmacist at First Databank, which publishes and maintains drug databases for health care professionals.

Consider where your drugs live. If it's the bathroom, you need to find another spot. "That is the worst place to put any of your medications," said So, citing the high heat and humidity of your shower as detrimental to drugs' longevity. He keeps his over-the-counter drugs in a kitchen cabinet, away from the stove.

Check expiration dates. Most drugs will be OK a few months past their expiration date, So said. There are exceptions, though; expired antibiotics in the tetracycline family can actually cause kidney damage.

Discard with care. Don't flush pills, because drugs can seep into our waterways and harm aquatic life. So recommended taking prescription opiates to your local police headquarters.

Check for withdrawn drugs. In April, the Food and Drug Administration called for all ranitidine drugs (often sold under the brand name Zantac) to be pulled from store shelves because they contained a known carcinogen. Check that the drugs you're keeping have not been recalled by plugging them into the FDA's Recalls, Market Withdrawals and Safety Alerts database.


Apart from being gross, drain blockages generally only worsen with time, said Jake Romano, who works for the Ottawa-based plumbing company John the Plumber. Plus, blockages often form in plumbing joints. If the joint wasn't connected properly and a block is causing water — and pressure — to build up, you could end up with a real plumbing emergency.

This is an as-necessary job, but Romano recommends doing a baking soda and vinegar drain cleanse every month to keep things running smoothly.

Try a plunger. "Plungers work just as well for sinks as they do for toilets," Romano said. Cover the drain when there's water hanging out above it and push.

Skip the Drano. Romano said this product can be hard on pipes and verboten in septic systems. Instead, pour half a cup of baking soda and half a cup of vinegar down the drain. Wait half an hour, then flush the whole thing with a pot of boiling water.

Still clogged? You can take the drain stopper out and use a coat hanger to pull any clogs out of the drain. Pull up whatever you can, then repeat the baking soda and vinegar flush.


Food, lint and other contaminants can gunk up filters and zap performance from your appliances, said Katie Sadler, a brand manager for Whirlpool's kitchen and cooking line. At the minimum, you should be cleaning these filters every six months.

Start with your dishwasher. You really should do this every month. A heads-up: It's icky. The filter catches any food left on plates, so it's crucial you empty it. Where precisely the filter is will depend on your make and model, but Sadler said it's usually easy to find and pop out. Remove it, rinse it under hot water and give it a quick scrub.

Move to your range hood. There are two filters in here, Sadler said. One is the grease filter, which should be scrubbed with soap and water every 30 days. The other, a charcoal filter that absorbs odors, should be replaced every six months.

Don't forget... Your HVAC filters, the drinking-water filters in your fridge, and the filters for any home air purifiers. The lint trap cover for your clothes dryer should get thoroughly cleaned every six months, too.


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