Occasionally, a broken appliance can cause serious damage. The main risks are from water damage: A clothes washer’s supply hoses may burst or crack and produce a spray of water, much like turning a garden hose loose in your house. That’s bad if your washer is located in an unfinished basement, terrible in a finished basement, and a catastrophe on an upstairs floor. Insurance companies, which may have to pay homeowners’ claims after such mishaps, recommend changing washer supply hoses every three to five years. Because insurance companies aren’t buying the hoses, they have selfish reasons for eliminating all possible risk, but other experts recommend replacing hoses after five years, seven at most. Use heavy duty, steel-reinforced hoses, which cost less than $20 a pair.

Although a clothes washer’s discharge hose can also break, this is less of a risk because it’s not under constant pressure. If it does break, the flood will generally be limited to one load of dirty, soapy water. However, if the hose breaks down low near the discharge outlet while the washer is in use, the washer will keep trying to fill and discharge until you turn it off. Consequently, some homeowners replace the discharge hose at the same time they replace the supply hoses.

Another flood risk is the possibility that the water shut-off valve on either your clothes washer or dishwasher fails, and the appliance keeps filling until water spills over the top. This problem is uncommon and most homeowners just live with the risk. But to cut the risk—and also the risk of supply-line breaks—install an electronically activated shut-off valve connected to an electronic moisture detector on each of your supply lines; if moisture appears on the floor, the detector senses it and shuts off the supply lines.

An electronic moisture detector will protect you from the slowest of leaks, too—for instance, a pinhole leak or faulty seal that leaks a little water in a hard-to-see spot below your clothes washer or dishwasher. That kind of slow leak won’t, of course, do sudden damage, but in time may cause your flooring to rot out or damage the ceiling below. To avoid slow leaks, a simpler precaution is to inspect periodically right after running the appliance. Remove the trim strip/access panel below the door to see under your dishwasher.

To avoid slow leaks from your clothes washer, place a plastic pan or tray under the entire washer—but don’t count on this pan to deal with water from a burst pipe or failed shut-off valve. Even if the pan is hooked up to a drain system, it won’t be able to handle an onslaught of water.

The other most common appliance-related disaster is fire. Each year thousands of fires start when dryer exhausts become clogged with lint. The best protection is to note if your dryer seems to be getting less efficient—when, for example, you have to run it twice as long as before to dry a load of clothes. If so, clean out the entire exhaust duct from the dryer to the outdoors. You can buy a 10- or 20-foot flexible dryer vent brush at an appliance parts outlet for less than $40.

Another fire risk has resulted from defects in dishwashers. For example, in 2007 General Electric, Jenn-Air, and Maytag issued recalls for over 5 million dishwashers due to risk of fire caused when leaky rinse-aid dispensers short-circuited the wiring. In 2010, Maytag—including its Amana, Jenn-Air, Admiral, Magic Chef, and Crosley lines—recalled another 1.7 million dishwashers because their heating elements posed a serious fire hazard; a year earlier, it had to recall 1.6 million refrigerators with defective electrical relays. Periodically check the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website to see if your appliances are on a recall list and, if so, arrange for a free repair.

As a general precaution against disasters, run your clothes washer and dishwasher only when you are home. If you are going on vacation, consider shutting off clothes washer supply valves while you’re gone.