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They are the stuff of epic holiday horror stories. Heaters that conk out during the coldest week of the year. Ovens that die with a frozen turkey inside. Refrigerators that go on the fritz right after you’ve filled them with Christmas goodies. Washing machines laden with towels and sheets that go on strike right before your house guests arrive.

In December we put our appliances on overtime, and yet it’s a time of year when we can least afford the time and money to fix them if they fail us.

Experts however, say an ounce of prevention could head off an apocalypse of broken machines that could quickly suck the fun out of your festivities. Set aside a few hours or an afternoon before the holiday rush to tune up your appliances.

“Life gets in the way and we don’t get a chance to do what we need to do,” said Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, an editor who specializes in home and appliances for the independent, non-profit Consumer Reports. “And a lot of information is buried in the owner’s manual and that is not something most people actually read. Or they just dig them out when they have problems.”

Many people don’t even know that their appliances need routine maintenance, says Ron Allen, owner of Ron’s Appliance Repair in Healdsburg. Or they are not operating them properly, shortening their life or just leading them to operate inefficiently. If you don’t have your owner’s manual, most are not available through the manufacturer online.

So how do you know whether you should repair or replace an appliance?

Lehrman said a good rule of thumb is that if a repair will cost more than 50 percent of the value of the appliance, it’s probably time to replace it.

Consumer Reports recently did a survey of nearly 30,000 subscribers and found out that people are more willing now to try repairs for themselves.

Lehrman attributed the uptick to the amount of information now available. People are willing to at least look at videos on YouTube or the DIY site Repairclinic.com, to see if a repair is something they could manage themselves.

So if you’re game, grab your tool kit, a hardware store shopping list and give your appliances a little TLC to keep them humming through the holidays.

Refrigerator

Clean your condenser. Dust and lint collect there, preventing the refrigerator from releasing heat properly, causing it to run hotter and use more energy and eventually burn out. Allen says most condensers are just below the kick plate on the bottom. Remove the plate — most will just pop off although some are held on with screws. The condenser looks like a small radiator. Use either a vacuum with a soft tip or a condenser brush sold at hardware stores (about $5) to lightly remove dusty build up.

If you have a water dispenser, it’s also a good idea to change your water filter. Allen says that after two to three years, bacteria can built up and make the water bad from your dispenser or ice maker. “The water filter is sometimes down at the lower toe-kick plate. You would turn it counter clockwise and unscrew it and put in a new one and tighten it.” After you replace the filter, run a gallon of water through the dispenser to get the air out of the line.

For a bit of advanced work, Lehrman, of Consumer Reports, also suggests that if the door stops self closing, replace the hinge’s cam riser and check to make sure the gaskets are not loose. “You should also wipe them with mild detergent and water just to make sure they’re clean. They get a lot of residue or buildup.”

Dishwasher

First, remove any gunk lying on the bottom inside, or objects like broken glass or a piece of a spoon. Then buy dishwasher cleaner, available at most supermarkets, and run it through a complete cleaning cycle at the hottest setting. “This helps break up the soap buildup and the calcium buildup that might be blocking the flow of water,” Allen says.

Lehrman says that most newer dishwashers also have filters that can get clogged and that you need to clean yourself. Older models had self-cleaning filters with grinders, but they were noisy. People demanded quieter machines, but that meant filters that need to be maintained. “I was in a meeting this week and we brought it up and someone in the meeting had a panicked look on her face and said she didn’t do that,” Lehrman says. One hint that it needs to be cleaned is a smell that will start emanating from the dishwasher.

For more advanced DIY, you might try cleaning the air gap. This is the shiny cap to the side of your faucet into which your dishwasher drains back into itself and into the garbage disposal. Unscrew the lid or pop it out and inspect the tube from the dishwasher into the garbage disposal. Look for bits of food like corn or pieces that might have collected there, creating a clog. To prevent clogs, make sure to rinse off all hard particles of food before putting anything into the dishwasher.

Oven

Before you start baking all those cookies and gingerbread, check the heat of your oven with a thermometer you can buy at a hardware store. Leave it in for at least 30 minutes for an accurate reading. If it is off, you can recalibrate your oven settings, Allen says, to compensate. Check your manual for instructions. If you plan to clean your oven, do it at least two weeks before a major holiday meal. At least 10 percent of the time, problems arise, and that leaves you enough time to get a service person out. Repair services are in high demand around the holidays so the response time can be slower.

“With the holiday cooking come up, a lot of people will line the bottom of their oven racks or wall with foil,” says Lehrman. “That’s a bad thing to do. The foil inhibits the air circulation and it can damage the interior finish of the oven. And by doing that, you could void the warranty.”

Stove

If your cook top coil doesn’t heat, or heats just intermittently, replace the burner receptacle for a cost of about $10. Minimally, clean out the area around the burner, and clean off the burner igniter on a gas stove.

Washing Machine

If you have a front-loading washing machine, clean it at least once a year by running a special washing-machine cleaner through a cycle. This helps remove soap buildup, gunk and odors. Allen also recommends that if you have a front loader, leave the door ajar between uses to allow the tub to dry out. If you leave it sealed for several days mildew will build up.

Prevent problems by not overfilling your washing machines.

Many machines now also have coin traps. Allen says they’re not hard to find, open and clear out. “Many times I find people’s necklaces. I found a golf tee. Roofers found a handful of nails down there.”

Dryer

Make sure you clean the dryer lint filter regularly, optimally after every load or two. That keeps the air flowing freely. If your dyer is taking longer to dry, it’s likely the dryer duct is getting clogged with lint. If your clothes don’t dry in two cycles, call a professional to come and clean out the vents. In addition to making it harder to dry your clothes, clogged vents can be a fire hazard.

Furnace

Dean Ongaro, whose family has been repairing local furnaces since the 1930s, said this is the time of year when service calls soar. Don’t get caught cold. “Systems area really working hard and if somebody forgot to change their filter, it will take up to Christmas before they start having problems. The takeaway? Change your filter well before the parties and arrival of relatives and before the mercury really dips down low. “Generally, most people use a one-inch pleated filter you can get in the hardware store,” he said. Why is it important? Dust bunnies and dirt will collect in the filter, impeding air flow and stressing the unit.

What else can you do to prevent problems and keep it working well? Don’t close off more than 15 to 20 percent of the registers in your home. Many people mistakenly believe they will save energy by closing vents into rooms they don’t use much. But the effect is to choke your furnace by preventing the air from getting out.

If you don’t get good air flow into certain rooms, you may want to get your ductwork checked. “I’ve had many situations where I find a back room that never heated. I go under the house and the ductwork has been apart for the last 10 years. It’s not only not pumping air into the room but it’s pumping it under the house,” said Ongaro, “and the city of Santa Rosa is not going to give you a tax credit for heating the town.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.