Home is Where the Help is

Whether you’re a new homeowner or a renter, a prima donna or a bonafide MacGyver, there will come a day when something in your home breaks. Before reaching for the phone (and your wallet), EJF Real Estate Services offers some useful tips for DIY troubleshooting to save you the service call and get your household operating again. 

Garbage Disposal Grinds to a Halt

You’ve pulled off cooking dinner for your date, but the extra glass of wine impaired your judgment on what can and cannot go down the garbage disposal. Lucky for you, these problems can usually be fixed without calling a plumber and ruining the evening’s ambiance.

A. If the unit is not working and/or is making a humming noise. 

  1. Turn off the disposal. (NEVER STICK YOUR HAND IN THE DISPOSAL, WHILE ON OR OFF.)   
  2. Locate the reset button on the bottom of the housing of the unit underneath the sink. (It’s usually red and offset from the center.) 
  3. If the button is protruding, push it back in. If there is no button, the unit should reset itself. 
  4. Turn the switch back on. 
  5. If you hear a humming noise or a grinding noise, turn the switch off right away.

Garbage Disposal DiagramB. If you hear a humming noise producing no action, the disposal is jammed. 

  1. There should be a hex head or an offset Allen wrench attached to the side of the disposal. (This may have been left in one of the kitchen drawers. If not, you can use any Allen wrench that will fit.) 
  2. On the bottom center of the housing, there will be a hole that fits the hexagonal shape of the Allen wrench. (Some cheaper models do not have this option, and you will need to call a plumber.)
  3. Insert the wrench and turn it back and forth until you can turn it all the way around. 
  4. Remove the Allen wrench and test the disposal. 
  5. If you hear a grinding noise, or if it jams again, turn the unit off right away. 

                                                               i.      If nothing happens, start step one over.  

                                                              ii.      If you hear a humming noise, start step two over. 

                                                             iii.      If you hear a grinding noise, proceed to scenario C.

 C. A grinding noise indicates an obstruction the disposal cannot grind down, like a bottle cap or a bone. 

  1. Turn the switch off.
  2. Using tongs or pliers grab the obstruction and remove it. Again, NEVER STICK YOUR HAND INTO THE DISPOSAL, EVEN WHEN TURNED OFF.
  3. Test the unit again. 
  4. If any of the above problems persist, start again at the appropriate step.

D. When it’s time to give up:

  1. If the disposal is clogged or leaking, call a plumber.
  2. If you try twice and it still doesn’t work, call a plumber.

Garbage Disposal No-Nos

E. Important facts and reminders:

  1. Garbage disposals are only to be used for incidental pieces of food that fall into the drain. They are not actually meant to grind up food waste, even though the name might suggest. Too much waste will cause the drains to clog and build up over time, lowering the life span of the disposal and causing plumbing problems.
  2. Only run cold water though the drain while using the disposal. This keeps the motor cool. 
  3. Never put metal, glass, rubber, bones, eggshells, plastic, stringy foods (e.g. celery, asparagus, etc.) or any fabric or paper products into the disposal.
  4. The DC sewer system is not designed to filter out ground-up food and debris, and our waters are already polluted enough.
  5. Never pour chemical drain openers to clear a clog. The chemicals corrode the machine and the pipes, harm the environment, and can cause injury to the plumber doing the repair. If a chemical drain opener is used, please inform the plumber before he or she begins repair. The chemical can cause burns and be extremely dangerous if ingested or comes in contact with eyes.

Bright Ideas to Prevent Burning Out

In the winter, we get a lot of phone calls about incandescent light bulbs burning out quickly.  Typically, the problem is that most people use cheap bulbs, which have a tenth of the lifespan of their higher-rated, more expensive counterparts. Having to replace cheaper bulbs more frequently makes them the more costly choice in the long run.    

Older houses and buildings in Northwest DC tend to run at a higher voltage than the standard.  Voltage for a typical residential home is about 115v, however, homes in Dupont, Adams Morgan, and all the way to Georgetown tend to run just a bit higher than 120v, which is still within code. 

When a light is turned on, there could be a surge above 120v, which causes the element inside an incandescent bulb to pop. The same result can occur if there is a dramatic change in temperature on the element, such as if the bulb is cold before the light is turned on.

A typical light bulb is rated at 120v. However, to help avoid popping an element, GE 130v bulbs are recommended. Though they are more expensive, they will last much longer. Alternatively, while most compact florescent bulbs (CFL) aren’t rated over 120v, they have better resilience against power surges and cold temperatures, since they don’t have elements or conduct a lot of heat. 

If the problem persists, consult an electrician. More than likely, the problem has to do with the circuit breaker being overloaded, and we highly discourage anyone who is not a certified electrician with proper shock protection from literally playing with fire. 

Heat Pump Giving the Cold Shoulder

A heat pump is an air conditioner with a valve that lets it switch between providing air conditioning and heating by reversing the flow of Freon.

Though heat pumps can be extremely efficient in their use of energy, one frequent problem is that the coils exposed to outside air collect ice. To melt this ice periodically, the heat pump switches itself back into air conditioning mode to heat up the coils; but to prevent cold air from pumping into the house, the heat pump also lights up burners or electric strip heaters to heat the cold air pumping out in A/C mode. Once the ice is melted, the heat pump switches back to heating mode and turns off the burners. 

Heat pumps can never produce significant heat at temperatures near or below freezing. That’s why they have resistance heat elements in them. Resistance heaters are durable, but eventually need replacing. They should be routinely checked and cleaned annually. Be warned that resistant heat costs 2.5 times as much as a heat pump. It’s therefore much better to leave the heat pump on constantly to give what it can.

If heat is inadequate or not working:

  1. Turn off the heat pump at the thermostat.
  2. Find the electrical panel and turn off the breaker for the heat pump (usually 30 to 60 amps). It’s probably a double and the largest in the box.
  3. Check the filter. A dirty filter can dramatically slow the flow of air, make the air handler work harder, and shorten the lifespan of the system.
  4. After the filter has been checked and/or replaced, turn the breaker back on. 
  5. Turn the heat back on at the thermostat. All heat pump thermostats have a manual override to turn on resistance heat if needed (also called "Aux. Heat" or "Emergency Heat.")
  6. If the heat is still not working or inadequate, check the compressor outside. If the coils, condensate line, or Freon line are frozen or frosty, turn off the unit at the thermostat and call a technician. If the thermostat is on but the fan is not running at the compressor, turn off the unit at the thermostat and call a technician.
  7. If the fan is working and the compressor is not frozen, but the heat is inadequate, leave the system on while waiting for a technician to respond.

Dishwasher Needs a Washing

Contrary to common logic, dishwashers are not always self-cleaning. If you’re experiencing a buildup of grime or a foul odor coming from your dishwasher, there are a few home remedies that may solve the problem.

Fill a cup with plain white vinegar and put it on the top rack of an empty dishwasher. If the dishwasher has heating settings, choose the hottest one. Run the dishwasher through the longest cycle possible, typically “Pots and Pans.”

When the cycle is complete, sprinkle a cupful of Bartender’s Helper or baking soda on the bottom of the dishwasher and run it through the shortest, hottest cycle.

If you have problems with mold and mildew, add ½ to 1 cup of bleach to the bottom of the dishwasher and run a full cycle. NOTE: DO NOT USE BLEACH IN YOUR DISHWASHER IF YOU HAVE A STAINLESS STEEL INTERIOR. 

When Outside Moves In

A variety of urban wildlife (rats, mice, raccoons, etc.) lives in the District of Columbia and will readily move into structures if access or opportunity exists. While the exterior building shell should be pest-proof, rodents and other wildlife can occasionally get in.

Exterior doors and windows are the easiest access points for pests, so keeping them closed when not in immediate use is your first line of defense.

Pests may also be entering through miniscule breaches in the building façade you may not notice or deem consequential. Walking the perimeter of your home, inside and out, searching along exterior walls for crevices the width of your pinky or larger will give you an indication of what areas need to be sealed. Rats are able to chew through blown-in foam, wood … even concrete, so if the problem recurs, metal or wire mesh may be necessary to secure weak points.

Because rodents live near their food sources (e.g. trash, pet food, etc.) it is especially important to keep all waste bagged in proper containers and disposed of frequently to discourage pest activity. If you notice trash in or around your building, or dumpsters that are often left open or in unsanitary condition, inform management right away. 

Keep all foodstuffs (human food, pet food, and other consumables) in pest-proof containers so they don’t attract rodents or insects. Because birdseed is highly attractive to rats and mice in an urban setting, it is best to refrain from feeding outdoor birds when experiencing pest issues.

Looney Tunes-reminiscent snap traps baited with peanut butter are often the most effective (and humane) means of trapping and killing rodents. Sticky boards trap the rodent in place until they eventually die of dehydration, and poisons can cause rodents to die and rot inside the walls, where they are inaccessible for removal. Inexpensive snap traps of varying sizes can be purchased at your local hardware store and placed in suspect areas around your home. Anywhere you find droppings or exterior entry points is a good place to position traps.

Of course, if problems persist beyond preventative measures, consultation from an exterminator may be the best way to treat the problem.


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EJF Real Estate Services, Inc.
1428 U Street NW, 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20009
202 537-1801