Among the charming features of the United States’ older homes are their hot water heating systems. The prevalence of this rather antiquated system in older homes is a big reason why most are located in the Northeast.

For folks there, it’s almost hard to imagine it any other way. They’ve gotten used to life without the drafts so often associated with forced-air systems – not to mention the odd noises, like clanking and gurgling, that go along with theirs.

Hot water heating systems work like this: a central boiler, warmed by either gas or oil, heats the water. The water then makes its way throughout the house via pipes that are much smaller in diameter than your average duct.

It’s sounds a bit like a water park in your walls, doesn’t it? It really would be if one of your pipes burst! Though this is a pretty scary thought, it’s unlikely to happen. One of the main reasons is the expansion tank, which accommodates extra water in the system as it expands and recedes.

When it comes to maintaining your hot water heating system, you can’t necessarily do it all. There are some jobs that only a professional can handle, like a furnace tune-up.

But don’t go thinking that this lets you off the hook. You are more than capable of getting your hot water heating system ready for the winter chill with a couple maintenance musts. Here are the three problem areas you need to maintain.

1. The Boiler

If you don’t brush your teeth for a week, it’ll start to show in your smile. In the same way, hot water heating systems can get bogged down by sludge, which results from the build up of minerals and rust. Fortunately, de-sludging your system is easier than you might think. All you need to do is drain water from the boiler.

Before you start, make sure to turn off the burner and close the water inlet valve. The water will still be piping hot at this point, so go occupy yourself for two hours or so while it cools. Once enough time has passed, it’s time to get draining.

The objective here is to drain the water into a metal bucket (the bigger, the better) until it’s clear. This is accomplished by opening the drain valve and letting the water run until you get the desired result. That done, you’ll need to close up the drain valve, open the supply valve and turn the furnace on.

You can usually get away with doing this about once a year. However, if you have an older system, you might need to be more vigilant. But that wasn’t so hard, was it?

2. The Tank

Guess what? You need to drain this, too.

Well, maybe. If you have a newer system, that is, one with a diaphragm tank, skip to number three, because there’s no draining your diaphragm tank. If you’ve got a more elderly system (read: a tank with a drain valve and a shutoff valve), you should be draining it every year.

Let’s talk about how this works for a moment. First, you’re going to want to close the shutoff valve. Next, open the drain valve and let the water run into a metal bucket. Once the tank is drained, close the drain valve and open the shutoff valve.

One thing to note: if no water comes out when you open the drain valve, try opening the drain valve’s vacuum-breaker plug, if it’s got one. That will generally get the water flowing. Do make sure to close it again right after you close the drain valve.

3. The Radiators

Air can get stuck inside your radiators and do awful, annoying things like stopping hot water from getting in. To fix this, you’ll need to bleed your radiators every year. Don’t worry: it’s not as gruesome as it sounds. It’s basically a process of letting out that hot air.

For this, you’ll need a pan. Stick it under the bleed valve and then open the valve with either a screwdriver or radiator key (you can pick these up at most hardware stores). Keep the valve open until water starts to flow out. This is a sign that you have bled all the trapped air.