Until Homeownership 101 becomes a prerequisite for obtaining a mortgage, most of us will learn how to handle many household tasks through trial and error.
And even though they say “One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning,” there are certain tasks—like replacing critical items before they reach the end of their life span—that you don’t want to learn the hard way.
We talked to experts to find out which household items you should replace on a regular basis, and what can happen if you fail to keep up with the required maintenance.
1. HVAC filters
When to replace: Every three months
It’s easy to forget about the filter in your heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. It’s not something you look at every day (or ever), but that filter works hard behind the scenes to keep the air in your home clean and your HVAC system running smoothly.
Replace HVAC filters according to the manufacturer’s instructions—every three months or so, on average. Even if you’re not DIY savvy, replacing the filter is a simple swap.
“Most homeowners can outsource it to their child, it’s that easy,” says Jonathan Faccone, founder of Halo Homebuyers in Bridgewater, NJ. “It’s a must if you want to keep your furnace operating efficiently and preserve its overall life span.”
And if you don’t replace those filters regularly? Running your HVAC system with an old filter can hurt its performance—and it can also invalidate your system’s warranty, Faccone warns.
2. Humidifier and dehumidifier filters
When to replace: Every one to three months
If you live in a climate that sees drastic temperature swings, there’s a good chance you rely on a humidifier or a dehumidifier to keep levels stable.
“This is of particular concern in the northern regions, and especially the Midwest,” says Kyle Larson, general manager at LGC, a home builder in Cedar Falls, IA. “Stability is key—failure to keep humidity in check can ultimately result in condensation, frost, mold, or other undesirable side effects.”
But your humidifier and dehumidifier can’t run on autopilot—you need to change each system’s filters according to the manufacturer’s instructions, which generally recommend every one to three months. If you don’t, your filters can quickly become a hotbed for bacteria and mold, and you may notice that your unit is less effective.
3. Vacuum cleaner HEPA filters
When to replace: Every few months, up to every few years
Life would be a lot easier if it were #nofilter, huh? Alas, the high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in your vacuum is another filter you should be replacing regularly. These filters help capture tiny particles like dust mites, allergens, and bacteria, but over time, they can get clogged and don’t work as well. If you continue vacuuming with an old HEPA filter, your vacuum may lose some of its suction, and it’s far more affordable to replace a filter than an entire vacuum.
Check with your manufacturer to see how often you should replace the filter; some suggest every six months, others say only once every two to three years.
If all this filter-changing is starting to feel like a drag, we get it. But clean filters keep your household equipment in tiptop shape, and they’re also important from a safety perspective.
4. Smoke detectors
When to replace: When they stop working, or every 10 years—whichever comes first
I’ll never forget when my electrician father visited my first college apartment. I sat on the couch, mortified, as he tested each smoke detector, the shrill alarm piercing everybody’s eardrums (sorry, roommates!).
In retrospect, Dad definitely knew best. Resist the urge to dismantle and abandon your smoke detector when it begins the end-of-life chirp. Keep fresh batteries on hand so your detectors are always in good working order, and test your smoke detectors once a month, Larson says. (Yes, really!)
If your smoke detectors are more than 10 years old, play it safe and replace them altogether.
If you can’t be bothered with batteries, consider investing in a hardwired system for your home.
“Despite the cost, smart-home detectors like Nest, Kidde, and others with Wi-Fi connection are great, because they report their status in real time,” he says.
5. Kitchen sponges
When to replace: Every two weeks
Your kitchen sponges do not have nine lives. They barely even have one life, it turns out—experts say kitchen sponges should be replaced every two weeks.
It makes sense, when you think about it: Your kitchen sponge endures a hard life full of daily, dirty use. It’s easy for bacteria from food to get trapped in sponges, which is not only nasty but can create an unsavory stench in your kitchen. Stock up on this staple so you can swap in a new sponge at least once every few weeks.
6. GFCI outlets
When to replace: When they stop working
Outlets with ground-fault circuit interrupters—GFCI outlets for short—are a safety must-have in any room prone to dampness or humidity, like a kitchen or bathroom. These outlets cut the power in dangerous situations (say, if you drop your toaster in the sink).
But even if your house is fully loaded with GFCI outlets, you need to test them regularly to ensure they’re working.
“I tell my clients to make sure to test them monthly to ensure they are operating correctly and don’t get stuck, and to prevent serious or even fatal electrical shocks and electrical fires,” says Jack H. Smith, a Realtor® based in Milwaukee.
Luckily, testing and replacing your GFCI outlets doesn’t require the help of a professional electrician. This handy guide offers a step-by-step breakdown of how to do it yourself.
Lauren Sieben is a writer in Milwaukee. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Washington Post, Milwaukee Magazine, and other outlets. Follow @laurensieben