1. Dust your way to clean walls. In most rooms, the easiest way to get rid of the dust, dirt, and cobwebs that shorten the life of your paint is to run a microfiber dust cloth (such as Swiffer) on a long-handled sweeper over your walls every couple of months. You don’t need to take down pictures or move furniture. Areas that are covered don’t get very dirty—and they don’t show anyway. Don’t forget the ceiling; despite gravity, some airborne dust collects there. It shouldn’t take you more than 10 or 15 minutes to do an entire room. Vacuuming with a soft brush works, too, and so does Grandma’s solution: a clean, white cloth wrapped around the head of a broom.
2. Wash kitchen and bath walls. Remove the residues of cooking and steamy showers by washing the painted areas of kitchen and bathroom walls at least once every year. Do other rooms, too, if they are regularly used by children or a smoker or have a fireplace or wood-burning stove. Start from the bottom. Rub gently with a natural sponge and a soap and water solution Wash and rinse a small area, then move up and do an area that partially overlaps what you’ve already cleaned. Dry the wall with an old towel. Don’t forget to wash woodwork as well.
3. Make your own wall-washing soap. Homemade soap mixtures do a great job cleaning painted walls. Both of these mixtures are inexpensive, simple to make, and at least as good as commercially available cleaners.
• Mix 1 cup of borax and 2 tablespoons of dishwashing liquid in 1 gallon of warm water. You’ll find borax in the cleaning-products aisle at the supermarket.
• Mix 1 cup of ammonia and 1 teaspoon of dishwashing liquid in 1 gallon of water.
4. Test painted walls before cleaning them. It’s safe to wash glossy and semigloss paint, which are commonly used in kitchens and baths and on woodwork. Most modern flat and satin paint are also washable, but always test them in an inconspicuous spot. If paint chalks off on your sponge, don’t wash that paint. Never wash with trisodium phosphate (TSP) except when you are about to repaint; it dulls the finish.
5. Wash high-traffic areas. Even if you don’t need to wash an entire room, the areas around switches and thermostats may need an occasional washing. And so does that area behind the sofa where somebody’s hair leaves a greasy spot. Dust and dirt also tend to accumulate on walls behind TVs or other electronics and above radiators or heating grates. If dusting doesn’t get rid of them, wash the area.
6. Seal in lead paint. Until 1978 many paints contained harmful lead. The most reliable way to test suspect paint is with a lab test. Mail a chip of paint to the lab for a report (check the Yellow Pages or the Internet for a source). If you have lead paint, seal it off with two coats of high-quality paint. As long as the new paint remains sound, the lead is contained and presents no danger.
7. Touch up damage. To keep paint looking fresh, touch up damage as it occurs. Sand and touch up a scraped or chipped surface, feathering the paint over the surrounding area. Fill holes first. And coat a recalcitrant stain with stain sealer before touching it up. If a leak has caused peeling and bubbling, fix the leak source; then scrape and sand the area and repaint it. Whenever possible, use paint left over from the original job.
8. Computer-match your paint color. A leak damages the paint in the corner of the ceiling and a bit of the wall under it. You don’t have any of the original paint left over. Must you repaint the entire room? No, just slice through the paint on the wall with a sharp utility knife in an out-of-the-way area and lift off a good-sized chip. Take the chip to a paint store that has computerized paint-matching equipment, which will generate a recipe the store can use to match the color. Computerized color matching is usually free and it may save you from having to repaint the entire room for a few years.