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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006 02:32 pm

Cleaning hardwood floors

It all depends, of course, on the type of finish

Cleaning an air filter will improve a lawnmower's performance.
Dear Gene: What is the best way to clean finished hardwood floors? Should we use plain water, vinegar-water mix, oil soap or what? I get a lot of conflicting advice.

How you clean depends on the type of floor finish. Here are some guidelines based on recommendations by NOFMA: The Wood Flooring Manufacturers Association (, a trade group.

If you have a surface finish such as polyurethane that has not been waxed, you can use water sparingly. For general cleaning, mix half a cup of white vinegar and 4 cups of warm water. Dip a sponge mop or clean cloth in the mixture and wring it nearly dry. Clean a small section and wipe dry, then go to another section. You can also use a special wood-floor cleaner, but avoid cleaners that contain or are mixed with water. Oil soap is not recommended for general cleaning. You should also keep grit off the floor by using a dust mop or vacuum regularly.

Floors that have been waxed should not be damp-mopped. You can usually identify a waxed floor by rubbing a thumb across the finish — if it smudges slightly, it is waxed. These floors should be cleaned with solvent-based cleaner-waxes, sold at most home centers and flooring dealers. To make sure the cleaner has a solvent base and not water, remove the cap and sniff it — it should smell like mineral spirits.

Excessive water can be harmful to any wood floor. Even if the floor has a tough surface finish, water can seep into cracks between boards and possibly lead to warping and other problems.

Dear Gene: I want to refinish the ceiling of my screened porch. There are some dark areas on the ceiling that I suspect are mold. Is there a test? How should I clean and prepare the ceiling before refinishing?

The stains are probably mildew, and there is a way to find out. Daub a little chlorine bleach on one of the stains. If the treated area of the stain fades, it is mildew. If the bleach has no effect, the stain is dirt. If you are dealing with mildew, scrub the ceiling with a solution of 2 cups of bleach and 1 tablespoon of TSP (trisodium phosphate, sold at paint stores) in a gallon of warm water. If cleaning dirt only, skip the bleach. Wear goggles, rubber gloves and protective clothing when using TSP and bleach.

Dear Gene: How do I find out what brand of storm window is the most energy-efficient? Also, a contractor wants to charge me $100 each just to install the storm windows. Is that reasonable?

I don’t know of any independent ratings of storm-window efficiency. Aluminum-framed storm windows, which are most common, are generally effective if they are of good quality and are sealed well. The $100 fee for installing a window does seem high to me, unless there is a special problem with your windows. An experienced worker can install a typical storm window in 10 minutes or less; it is just a matter of applying some caulk, fitting the window into place, and adding some screws. You should be able to do it yourself if you feel that you can work safely on a ladder.

You should also check out inside storm windows before buying. These are installed from the inside, so there is no ladder work, and inside storms usually have excellent energy efficiency. For more information on inside storms, go to the Web site and type “inside storm windows” in the search space.

Quick tip: If your gasoline-powered lawnmower seems to be laboring and running poorly, check the air filter, which often becomes dirty and clogged after several months of mower use. The owner’s manual for the mower should have detailed instructions for cleaning or replacing the filter, but in general foam-type filters can be washed and reused and paper filters must be replaced if excessively dirty. Mower performance can sometimes be improved temporarily simply by removing the filter from its housing and wiping or bumping off accumulations of dirt and bits of grass.

Foam filters can be washed in a detergent-water solution and dried. Before replacing a foam filter, saturate it evenly with automobile engine oil. Squeeze out excess oil and install.

Send questions and comments to Gene Austin at or 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, PA 19422. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Copyright © 2006 Gene Austin