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A safe (and clean) nest

Seventy-eight percent of Americans plan on spring cleaning this year. That's an increase of 11 percent from last year.

Why are more of us inclined to clean these days?

There's the emotional boost of a clean house, says the Soap and Detergent Association, which commissioned the annual National Cleaning Survey. There's the primal urge to clean out the nest after a long winter. Or it may be a biologically programmed trait, says Carol Nemeroff, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

"Because we know that good hygiene leads to good health, cleaning may ultimately be related to a basic survival instinct," she said.

Maybe we're also trying to survive the threat of war.

Whenever we feel threatened at a broader societal level, Nemeroff explained by e-mail, we tend to enact more controls and constraints over our bodily purity. Citing the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, she explained that we guard the boundaries we can guard, as a reflection of feelings of vulnerability.

"To the extent we feel threatened (by violence, war, intrusion of terrorists onto U.S. soil, you name it), the urge to control our immediate space and life may increase," she said. Cleaning and organizing the house may be a way of asserting some control where we can.

So as we stand poised for war, it may be our survival instinct coming to the fore. We create safe, pleasant, clean places to shelter and protect our families. What gas masks and duct tape can't do, cleaning solution and spray wax can.

Nemeroff cautioned that the 11 percent increase may be statistically insignificant _ what statisticians call "noise" in the data rather than a real difference. "It's like the difference between scoring a 10, 11 and 9 on three consecutive games where your skill level didn't change but slight random differences came into play," she said in an e-mail. "We would not want to conclude that you "improved' with the 11 score, and then lost your skills with the 9 score."

Characteristics of a fresh, clean house, according to the SDA survey:

+ Clean, fresh smell (37 percent of survey respondents)

+ Knowing dirt and grime are gone (31 percent)

+ Shiny, dust-free look (14 percent)

+ Taking good care of furnishings (11 percent)

No gender stereotyping is intended here, but 18 percent of women said their most rewarding cleaning task was the kitchen, and 17 percent of men said it was the garage or basement. The least rewarding job for men (19 percent) was the bathroom; for women, that garage or basement (19 percent).

Spring cleaning started centuries ago when houses were closed up all winter and the insides became streaked with soot and grime from wood and coal fires. When the weather finally warmed up enough to open the windows, the accumulated filth had to be cleaned away.

That's less important now, with cleaner modern heating systems. And here in Florida, winter is the time we're more likely to open our windows to the fresh air. We batten down the hatches in May or June when it starts to heat up!

Women ages 35 to 54 and men 18 to 24 and 55 to 64 are most likely to spring clean, the survey showed.

Here are cleaning tips for the 78 percent of you who will spend this weekend scrubbing:

+ Work from the top of a room down, so dust and dirt don't settle on surfaces you've already cleaned.

+ Dust first, vacuum last.

+ Carry all your supplies in a caddy or bucket.

+ Wipe down miniblinds with a damp fabric-softener sheet to eliminate the static that collects dust. The same trick works for TV or computer screens.

+ Give cleaning products time to work. Spritz countertops or appliances with cleaning spray and give it time to work before you wipe. You'll save yourself scrubbing effort.

+ Don't clean more than you have to. If a surface isn't dusty or dirty, don't scrub it. If the only fingermarks on the sliding glass doors are around the handle or on the bottom half, at child level, no need to clean the whole door.

+ This is a good time to make the transition from dark winter accessories _ throw pillows, flower arrangements, area rugs _ to lighter spring and summer colors. Poinsettias and holiday centerpieces of pine and glittery ornaments are way overdue for packing away.

+ Use a small foam paintbrush to clean tight areas between cabinets or under appliances.

+ Don't make work for yourself. It makes no sense to scrub and polish the bathroom sink to a shine, then mop the floor and pour your dirty wash water down the sink.

+ Dispose of old household chemicals responsibly. Don't pour them down the drain. Check with your county for a safe waste disposal site.

+ To learn how to make your own cleaning wipes and a dispenser, go to clean/wipes.html.

+ Now's the time to arrange for an inspection of your air conditioning system, before the killer heat of summer moves in.

Sources: Merry Maids; Soap and Detergent Association; Environmental Protection Agency;