Cleaning: none of us really enjoy it, but we all have to do it. When it comes to a subject like this, the amount of information out there can be overwhelming, and more often than not, you just end up with twice as many questions as you had when you started. That’s why I’ve come up with this straight and to-the-point post about the ten most common cleaning questions we receive at Ask an Expert.

1. How do I remove scum from my glass shower door?

Perhaps the most common, and one of the most frustrating, questions is about removing scum from your shower. Scum is most noticeable on glass doors, but it actually ends up on every surface of the shower, such as the shower head, faucet, handles, tiles, vinyl tub surround, tub/shower pan, some ceilings, and even the curtain if there isn’t a door.

The reason scum forms is because of leftover soap and hard water, which both contain calcium and magnesium, resulting in that unappealing film. As with most things in life, this issue comes down to pH. Hard water is pretty alkaline, and since most household cleaners are also alkaline, they don’t do a very good job when it comes to breaking up the scum. That’s why the best way to get rid of it is by using something with a low pH, which means using something acidic. So, if you use acidic products like vinegar or baking soda (but not together) and mix them with water, you can get rid of that scum in no time at all. You can also add a little dish soap or lemon juice to help things along.

2. Will oven cleaner damage my countertops?

Perhaps the most surprisingly common question out there is about the effects of oven cleaner on a countertop. Most people who write in asking about this one usually have a problem with spilling accidentally, but some people (because they think of it as a cleaner) are actually curious about using it to get grime off of their countertops.

I should start by saying that oven cleaner is an especially toxic product, but as long as you store it safely and correctly, and only use it for cleaning your oven, you shouldn’t have any problems. The reason it’s so toxic is because it contains things like butane and monobutyl ether, which are both tough enough to break down the grime in your oven, but aren’t much good for other uses. Oven cleaner can permanently stain granite and marble countertops, can damage the finished surface of butcher block and tile counters, and can even melt laminate. So, your best bet to avoid damaging your countertops is to put down some cardboard or old newspaper to catch and absorb any oven cleaner that might spill. As long as you’re careful with it and are aware of your movements while using it, you should be all set.

3. How do I properly clean hardwood floors without damaging them?

Cleaning hardwood floors can be tricky, especially if you just spent thousands of dollars having them installed, so you definitely want to know what you’re doing ahead of time. The best thing you can do is stay on top of it by doing a quick basic cleaning once a week with something like a Swiffer Wet Jet (which can be found at your local Home Depot). This is a great way to make sure dirt and grime don’t get caked into the seams and wood grains, which can end up being much more difficult to get out later, and it also helps prevent any damage from happening to the finish of the floor (things that can scratch or degrade that shiny coat on top). For more intensive cleaning, you should just get a bottle of hardwood cleaner (by manufacturers such as ZEP and Bona) and apply it with a mop or a sponge. In some cases, you have to mix it with water in order to get the best results, and in other cases it’s fine as is, so just check the instructions on the bottle before you use it. If you have scuff marks or stains to get out and a wood cleaner isn’t doing the trick, then you should have the floor buffed. You can either rent a buffer or hire someone to do it, although I wouldn’t recommend buying a professional grade unit for yourself unless you plan on using it regularly.

4. Do I really have to clean my deck?

A lot of people aren’t sure how they should clean their deck, how often it should be done, or even if they really have to do it at all. The short answer is that it depends on your house and the conditions specific to your deck. It’s kind of like asking how often you need to change a lightbulb; it depends entirely upon how much you use that lamp or fixture. 

You should clean your deck eventually, but some people only need to do it once every 5 years, some should do it once every 2, and some people should have it done every 6 months. The best thing you can do is perform preventative maintenance in order to stave off a more expensive cleaning. You can do this by simply sweeping it once a month (or shoveling the snow off in the winter), and cleaning out the seams every 3 to 6 months to prevent leaves and needles from rotting the boards (which you can do with a straightened wire hanger). Aside from that, you should have it power washed every 2 to 3 years (or power wash it yourself since you can buy some units for as little as $120), and you should have everything sanded and retreated (with stain, weatherproofer, etc.) every 5 to 8 years. As long as you stay on top of it, you can prolong the life of your deck by 20 years.

5. How often should I power wash the exterior of my home?

The answer to this question is pretty similar to the last one, but I still thought it deserved its own answer. The reason it deserves its own answer is because not only do the conditions vary from house to house, but with siding materials as well. So, if you have vinyl siding and live in an area that doesn’t get much dust and isn’t humid (which means the possibility of mildew forming is pretty low), then you may only have to have it done every couple of years, but if you have a porous material like wood and live in an area with less than mild weather, then you may want to have it done once or twice per year. If you have a material like Hardie Board, then you may only need to have it done when you have your house painted. Usually, every one or two years is standard, but unlike your deck, you really just have to watch to see whether or not it needs to be washed.  A walk around the perimeter of the home once a month should be sufficient to see the state of things.

6. How do I clean my copper sink?

A copper sink is one of the coolest features you can have in your home, but the catch to these old-timey plumbing fixtures is that they require a specific maintenance routine. Otherwise, they could end up losing their aesthetic qualities, or could even be damaged. In most cases, you just have to wipe the sink down with a dry rag after each use, and make sure you don’t get anything acidic on it (lemon juice, ketchup, etc.) and you’ll be all set. The fact that certain foods can damage the finish on these sinks means they are better suited for bathrooms than kitchens. You should also stay away from harsh cleaners like bleach and ammonia since they can harm the finish as well. It’s also a good idea to wash the sink with warm water, a mild soap, and a non-abrasive sponge. As long as you do that once a week, you should be able to cut down on any tedious maintenance. However, the finish on copper sinks, called a patina, can fade or be damaged, and if that happens you’ll have to get a patina repair kit and just follow the instructions on the back in order to bring it back to life (usually, it’s pretty easy to do). Although, if you apply a layer of copper sink wax ahead of time, you should be able to avoid having any damage at all.

7. What are my options for non-toxic cleaners?

As we’re all aware, most cleaners contain some pretty harsh chemicals, so it’s perfectly understandable to not want them in your home, or around your children and pets. I won’t get into which products contain which chemicals, mostly because it would take all day, but also because so many people feel so strongly about this issue, on both sides of the argument. Instead, I can offer a few non-toxic alternatives that just might do the trick the next time you’re cleaning.

The first option that comes to mind is white vinegar; it may stink, but it’s cheap and it gets the job done. This stuff can get rid of soap scum in your shower, it can remove certain stains, and it can even get rid of mildew in its early stages. You can also mix it with water and lemon juice, which helps keeps the strong odor at bay. Other good options are baking soda, lemon juice (on its own), olive oil, borax, and even just regular liquid soap (not 100% all-natural, but still relatively safe).

8. How do I get rid of mildew and mold in my home?

This is perhaps the trickiest question on this list to answer. The short answer is that the only way to actually kill mold is by using products specifically designed to get rid of it, and more often than not, you need to have a professional remediation company come out to do the work. In fact, there are some materials like drywall and plaster where the only option is to get rid of the material itself (which can often mean ripping out ceilings and walls). The reason this is the case is because those materials are porous and mold can burrow deeper than ordinary cleaners can go. Although, if you do see a little mold, there’s no need to worry about tearing your house apart yet, as long as you act quickly to get rid of it in the early stages of growth. Many people believe mildew and mold to be the same thing, with the former just being the infancy of the latter. However, they are actually two separate forms of fungus. Mildew is typically easier to get rid of but still requires some diligence.

I will say, as I’ve said many times over the years, that bleach does nothing to kill mold; the EPA recommends against using for mold remediation at all. Even though it’s been proven time and time again that bleach doesn’t work to get rid of this problem, many people insist that it did the trick for them or someone they know. Bleach essentially camouflages the issue, leaving entire colonies to thrive beneath the surface undetected, only to pop back up stronger than ever in a few months or years. The best way to actually kill mold is by using a fungicide like Shockwave or Moldex since they are designed specifically for this use, and are available your local hardware store or Home Depot. In cases where mold has spread quite a bit, you will need to hire a professional mold remediation company to get rid of it. I should also add that home remedies like vinegar or baking soda make the problem much, much worse, so avoid them as a mold remediation solution at all costs.

9. Which chemicals shouldn’t I mix?

It may come as a complete surprise, or you may already know a few of the combinations, but there are some chemicals which you really shouldn’t mix. Some combinations can end up being toxic, which in extreme cases can end up being fatal to those in the home. This is why it’s so important to avoid making these mistakes in the future. Here are a few things that you really shouldn’t mix:

  • Ammonia and Bleach: By far the most toxic combination out there, inhaling the fumes of these two products together can shut down the respiratory system, or at the very least, can cause scarring of lung tissue.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol and Bleach: This combination can cause kidney and liver failure, retinal damage, and also scarring of lung tissue.
  • Bleach and Vinegar: Okay, so you’re probably seeing a pattern. Bleach doesn’t play well with others, so you should just stick to diluting it with water. Bleach and vinegar together can result in a toxic chlorine gas that can, yup you guessed it, scar lung tissue.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide and Vinegar: This unsavory mix may not be deadly, but it can be downright annoying. It can cause your eyes, throat, and sinuses to burn, and cause painful headaches. It’s the chemical equivalent of spending 9 hours in line at the DMV, but unlike the DMV, this is something horrible and annoying that you can actually avoid.
  • Drain Openers and Drain Cleaners: You may think that all drain cleaners are the same, and you’re probably asking yourself “what’s the difference?” but they actually contain different chemicals that can interact with each other in a negative way. Many of the stronger varieties of this product contain concentrated sulfuric acid while the more mild drain openers (like Drano) contain sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide (yes, that stuff used in soap). The mixing of these two types of drain cleaners can result in toxic fumes or even chemicals exploding from out of your sinks or tub. Yeah, crazy right? If you do use two different types, make sure you leave a few days in between each use, with the water running for a couple minutes at a time, in order to make sure the first chemical is completely gone before the second is added.

10. How do I get stains out of a carpet?

We’ve all been there before, a spilled glass of wine, mud tracked in from outside, or even a family pet who relieved themselves in the living room; carpets are prone to becoming stained. How you get that stain out really depends on what caused it in the first place, which means you’ll have to use a custom approach for each incident. In many cases, all you need to do is dab at the stain with a cloth and some warm water (don’t scrub) as long as you get to it right away. Basically, you want to lift the particles from the stain out of the carpet rather than pushing them further in. For most foods and drinks, which are considered water soluble, all you need is a little water and some detergent or white vinegar (yes vinegar, again) to get rid of it, as long as you act quickly. 

If a stain is allowed to set, then chances are you will probably need to steam it out. Some consumer-grade steam cleaners can be purchased for as low as $40 or $50 while more professional-grade models can range from $200 to $1,800. You can also rent the top-quality models at your local Home Depot if you don’t want to spend the money on a more expensive one. Nail polish remover, isopropyl alcohol, or bleach mixed with water are also good options for non-water soluble stains like ink, paint, and feces. You should also make a note of vacuuming after removing the stain, and using a dehumidifier to dry everything out. Otherwise, you could just be replacing a stain with mold.


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