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Originally published Monday, August 13, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Dirty Secrets: Cleaning your home's hidden grime and germs

Tips on cleaning earbuds, toilet brushes, ceiling fans, ice makers and more.

The Kansas City Star

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You keep a pretty clean home. Sure, sometimes your rigid cleaning schedule has to bend here and there to accommodate life, but your house/apartment/condo stays pretty darn tidy.

You're not bragging or anything, but you certainly have nothing to be ashamed of. You clean all the usual suspects: kitchen sinks, counters and floors. Bathroom countertop, toilets, showers. You vacuum the carpets, dust the furniture, and maybe even hit the blinds and curtains now and then.

Good to go? Maybe, maybe not. There's a whole host of everyday objects and high-use home appliances that may often go overlooked during cleaning jags. And failure to be a completist when it comes to cleaning may not have that many obvious repercussions, but it can cost you in terms of appliance and electronic performance, allergy attacks and general hygiene.

So go ahead. Grab a bucket, a can of compressed air and a little extra bleach. Roll up your sleeves and get ready to expand that household chore list by a couple of items this weekend.

TOILET BRUSHES

Difficulty: Minimal. Some grossness factor, though.

You religiously clean your toilet, because, y'know, ewww. But do you make sure to clean the mechanism that cleans the toilet?

"Your toilet brush should be cleaned every time you use it," cautions Shana Cowart, area district customer service trainer with Bed Bath & Beyond. "Rinse it after every use and replace the head when needed."

Not doing so could mean growing a little Petri dish of germs in the corner of your bathroom.

Cowart doesn't recommend doing anything extreme. "Just rinse it after every use. If you feel like it's still not clean, pour some bleach on it."

If the brush has replacement heads, all the better. Replace periodically when it's showing a bit of wear and tear, she said. And if it doesn't have replacement heads, consider going with a new brush whenever ol' reliable starts looking a little tattered.

CEILING AND ATTIC FANS

Difficulty: Varies, from rather simple to a little bit complex.

Fans pose a little bit more of a challenge than toilet brushes because they're quite a bit less accessible.

That being said, "if you stay on top of keeping ceiling and attic fans clean, it's a pretty easy process," says Bryan Dunning, assistant store manager of the Lowe's in Gladstone, Mo.

Ceiling fans are rather simple, though you may need a long duster or stepladder to really get the job done ("with a vaulted ceiling, it may not be as feasible," Dunning said).

The key is dedication. Hit the ceiling fan blades with disposable dusting pads every couple of weeks, and you should be fine. Naturally, if you wait significant stretches between cleanings, expect a lot of dust falloff when you finally do get around to it. For $3 a pack, you could also invest in a filter that sits on top of the blade, but cleaning is still recommended, Dunning said.

Attic fans are a bit trickier.

"Step 1 is to definitely make sure you have your breaker turned off. Since the switch is usually below the fan, you don't want to be near one when someone turns it on," Dunning said. "They can put out a lot of power."

Cleaning attic fans is fairly similar to ceiling units.

"You can use a mild cleaning solution and wipe off the metal blades," Dunning said. "And with the motor, you can use a can of compressed air to clean out any dust and dirt in the motor."

Dunning suggests syncing attic fan cleaning with your furnace filter changing schedule.

Cleaning both kinds of fans gives the same benefit: less debris in the air and a longer appliance life span. Dunning also notes that dirty and dusty motors run hotter, meaning less efficient cooling.

"If you work these things into your cleaning routine, you should be fine," he said. "It's like preventative medicine. It heads off problems down the road."

HOME AUDIO SPEAKERS

Difficulty: Simple. And a light touch is definitely preferred.

Fans aren't the only household staple where dust may affect performance. Consider your home theater and stereo speakers.

Jennifer Braniff-Harmon, local covert operations agent with Best Buy's Geek Squad, says that if noticeable dust is building up on the exterior of your speakers, it's time to clean them.

It's not just for aesthetics. "Keeping your speakers clean will help keep the sound quality in tip top shape," she says.

Gentleness is the key.

"Remember not to spray the speaker case or grill directly and especially avoid using harsh chemicals," she cautions. "A dry or water-damp cloth is the ideal cleaning method."

If you actually have to go under the grill to get at dust buildup, do not use anything abrasive. Braniff-Harmon recommends a feather duster.

EARBUDS

Difficulty: Varies based on use and your fine motor skills.

Speakers, of course, come in all shapes and sizes — from floor-filling subwoofers to the ubiquitous earbud. And just because your headphones aren't typically subject to public scrutiny doesn't mean they don't need the occasional once-over.

"Earwax can interfere with the sound quality of your earbuds, so I recommend cleaning them whenever you see the buildup," said Jennifer Braniff-Harmon, local covert operations agent with Best Buy's Geek Squad. "If you are able to remove the plastic bud, you can get a more complete clean inside the 'canal' with a cotton swab where the buildup can really affect sound quality."

If the gunk is particularly resistant to cleaning efforts the detached buds — not the actual speakers — can be given a soak in a light mix of water and dish soap, she added.

Naturally, if you're a workout warrior who can't exercise without your iPod, you may find your earbuds picking up dirt and sweat at a higher rate. If they're dying out at an alarming rate, Braniff-Harmon recommends tracking down a set specifically designed with exercise in mind. Several manufacturers, including Yurbuds and Phillips, offer such models.

KEYBOARD AND MOUSE

Difficulty: More time-consuming than you might think, especially if you eat near your computer.

A quick rule of thumb from Jennifer Braniff-Harmon, local covert operations agent with Best Buy's Geek Squad, when it comes to cleaning tech equipment: "You don't have to overspend on cleaning products, as most devices can be cleaned with common household ingredients. Eyeglass cleaning wipes are cheap and contain rubbing alcohol for sanitizing, making them my favorite for cellphone, keyboard, headphone and monitor cleaning."

And the computer keyboard (and sometimes mouse) "are some of the dirtiest gadgets in your tech lineup."

Braniff-Harmon recommends sanitizing after any illness or at least every three months. If you eat near your keyboard and it's growing fairly crumby, take care of it sooner. Crumbs in the keyboard can cause damage.

Before attempting any cleaning, turn the computer off.

"Then you can take one of the eyeglass cleaning wipes that are great for cleaning gadgets to wipe down the keyboard. Cotton swabs with a little rubbing alcohol diluted in water are perfect for getting those stubborn stickies and upping the germ killing," she said.

Those eyeglass cleaning wipes are also a good solution for your computer mice.

What about the computer itself? It's important to keep it relatively free of dust.

Feel free to dust off the exterior, but exercise caution inside the tower. "Do not vacuum inside your computer," Braniff-Harmon said. "Static electricity caused by vacuuming does not like your computer parts and can cause serious damage."

Go with compressed air instead.

REFRIGERATOR ICE MAKER

Difficulty: Involved. Varies with model.

Dust isn't likely to be a significant issue with your refrigerator ice maker, but other concerns may arise.

"If you look at your ice, and it's getting discolored, that's a sign that it's a good idea to clean your ice maker," Lowe's Dunning said.

First, check your owner' manual for step-by-step guides.

Typically, Dunning said, it will involve turning off the ice maker and shutting off the water to the water line. You'll probably have to let the water run through, then use a mild detergent to clean the line. A mild detergent solution can also be used on the various parts of the ice maker.

"A lot of units now have a filter with the ice maker. These filters can last for different times, and some will give you an indication when they need to be changed," he said.

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