Ask a Clean Person: How to Shine a Halo

My boyfriend’s Outer Banks house has been lying empty and dormant since he left for deployment in March. He’ll be coming back in February and I’ve volunteered to go down to North Carolina a day early to give the place a going-over so we don’t have to worry about sweeping up the dead cockroaches when he gets in.

I’m happy to do this, but I’ve never taken on a job of this magnitude and I’m not actually a terribly fastidious cleaner in general, so I could really use some pointers on what to prioritize/make sure I don’t skip during my one-day clean-a-thon. All his stuff is packed away in storage so I’ll have plenty of room to operate, but I’ll also have no cleaning supplies (not that he necessarily had that many to begin with) — what should I grab at the grocery store nearby?

You darling girl, that is such a great thing for you to do; I bet coming home will be all that much sweeter for your boyfriend!

Well, first things first since the home is in the Outer Banks: hurricane season was bad this year in that neck of the woods, so you need to find out if anyone’s been in to check for storm damage. If no one has checked, play it safe and pick up a Bad Air Sponge or two to help with any mildew smells there might be. You may also want to get a small spray bottle of a bleach-based cleaning product to help with any mold/mildew spots you encounter.

Moving into the less anxiety-inducing parts of this clean-up: there’s a column about cleaning products basics that I think will be helpful for you to check out (the second Q). Basically the combo of Bon Ami, dish soap, and vinegar will more or less do what you’ll need to do. You’ll also want a broom and/or vacuum, and a bunch of microfiber cloths or rags to help you deal with the dust that will be awaiting you, and trashbags. You might also want to get a small canister of Endust or Pledge to help with the dusting process, though you can certainly dust with a lightly damp rag — but one of the added values of using those products when opening a home is that they smell really nice and will help freshen up the place. Depending on how strapped for time you think you’ll be/how many bathrooms you’ll be tackling, Scrubbing Bubbles is another good option for getting the tubs, toilets and sinks clean in a jiffy.

It’s probably easiest to go room by room, saving all the sweeping/vacuuming for last (so that, if you’re taking a bag of trash out through the kitchen and it drags on the floor you’re not mucking up your clean floors!).

You want to work from the top down, so: dust surfaces first, give the kitchen a thorough wipedown with vinegar solution, go over the bathrooms with Bon Ami or Scrubbing Bubbles, and then sweep/vacuum the floors last. As you clean, dirt and dust will settle on the floors, which is why you want to work top down. If there’s laundry that needs to be done, get that started first: sheets, towels, dish towels — if they’ve been out, they probably could use a whirl through the machines.

The other thing to do is open as many windows as you can the minute you get in there to help get any stale smells out of the home.

Be ready: you’re going to work HARD at this. It’s also really important for you to know when to call it a night and get some REST because really the most important thing you can do for your boyfriend is to greet him when you’re at your best, with a huge smile on your face and your arms wide open.

I just moved in with my wheelchair-bound grandmother to help out, and I’m trying to deal with some bad smells. She’s unable to use the bathroom so she uses a plastic medical commode which she keeps by her bed. Unfortunately “by her bed” is also practically under the a/c air intake for the house, which means it all gets spread through the house … lovely, really. I was hoping you might have ideas on how to either:

1. Redirect the air intake so it isn’t just sucking straight from the commode;
2. Stop the smell from permeating throughout the house.

First of all, what a lovely granddaughter you are to move in to help your grandmother. I’m sure she’s very grateful to you for your care.

I don’t think futzing around with rewiring a vent system is necessary or even really something you want to get into. The best course of action is to invest in an air purifier and place it in your grandmother’s room — it will be nicer for her, too, to not have to smell her own waste.

I found two websites that might be helpful for you when choosing the right product for your needs:

Consumer Reports.


You might want to ask your grandmother’s doctor or nurse practitioner if they have a brand they recommend. You should also look into whether or not her insurance will cover the purchase. Air purifiers aren’t crazy expensive, but they’re not super cheap, either (around $100-$200).

The other thing that might help, especially in the short term, is a Bad Air Sponge.

My boyfriend has leukemia, and has been in the hospital for weeks undergoing intensive chemotherapy. Pretty soon, he’s going to be allowed home for brief furloughs, in order to rest and recuperate before the next round of chemo. His immune system will still be pretty compromised, which means I need to get our apartment super-clean.

I consider myself a fairly Tidy Person. I make the bed, don’t leave dishes in the sink overnight, pick up clutter, etc. However, my standards for a hard clean are a little more relaxed — I tend to wait until things look/smell gross before I get into gear. I’m aware that, by this point, there are already horrifying colonies of bacteria all over everything, but I’ve never had to worry about that before now.

My question to you is, how can I become more of a germophobe? Where do bacteria hide, and how can I get them out? How often should I microwave the sponges, wash the hand towels, and sanitize the doorknobs in order to make our home as safe as possible?

You are good to think ahead to his homecoming; my heart goes out to you both during what must be a tremendously difficult time. I also will ask that our fantastic community of readers talk about any similar experiences they’ve had, things they’ve learned, wisdom they can pass on.

I have a few thoughts and tips that I hope will be helpful:

First, ask his doctor or nurse practitioner for advice. His treatment program probably has loads of prepared information on changes you’ll need to make to your home and cleaning routine to best care for his immune system. There also may be products they recommend you not use, and you should be aware of those.

In terms of preparing the house, take it room-by-room and give everything a thorough cleaning to ferret out dust and corners in which bacteria would be lurking.

Start with the bedroom: move the bed, dresser(s), and nightstand(s) away from the walls, and vacuum/sweep up all the dust that inevitably collects there. If you store items under your bed, take them out, dust or wipe down the containers, sweep or vacuum, and put everything back. If you have hardwood floors, you may also want to mix up a bit of mopping solution and wash the floors and baseboards as well. White vinegar diluted with water will kill any bacteria and the smell won’t linger, so that might be a good option for you.

Do more or less the same for the living room — move the furniture and get up all the dust bunnies, wipe the baseboards, and so on. If you have a vacuum with an upholstery attachment go over the furniture as well.

In terms of the kitchen and bathroom, where most bacteria will lurk, if you do a good hard cleaning before he comes home — focusing particularly on corners that are often overlooked (also behind the toilet in the bathroom and the inside of the refrigerator in the kitchen) — you’ll be in good shape to keep things extra clean going forward.

Consider investing in some wipes (Mrs. Meyer’s makes the most lovely smelling ones!) to keep handy in the bathroom so that once a day you can quickly wipe down the doorknob, faucets and toilet flush handle (where germs gather) with not too much fuss and muss. For the kitchen perhaps you could get a pretty little spray bottle that’s not obtrusive, fill it with the vinegar & water solution and leave it out so it’s always within reach. Grab, spray, wipe with a paper towel — quick way to keep things extra clean. You might also consider a UVC sterilizing wand.

Microwaving sponges can be done once a week, more if you like! (It’s such an easy thing to do, maybe you could just incorporate it into the act of cleaning the dishes, like as soon as they’re done the sponge gets wrung out and goes in the mirco for 10 seconds). Hand and dish towels should be washed once a week at a minimum.

Readers, there’s a happy post-script to this story. I’ve kept in touch with the letter writer over the past few months, and when I wrote to her to tell her I’d be running the question she gave me this update, and her permission for me to share it with you: As of mid-October, my boyfriend is in total remission. He has been home for several weeks, feeling better every day, and we’re enjoying each other’s company very much. I don’t think I included this detail in my original question, but I moved from New York to the Bay Area to live with him about a week before he went to the hospital and was diagnosed with cancer. We’re finally getting to live together, and it’s awesome.

On that happy note, I also wanted to take a moment to give my thanks to all of the ‘Pinners for making 2011 a year I’ll never forget. You’ve touched me, made me laugh, grossed me out in the best possible ways, and most importantly made my life better because you’re a part of it. My best wishes to all of you for a happy, healthy, and super clean New Year!

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?

Photo by FloridaStock, via Shutterstock