Smart Design With Suzette: The Garagenous Zone

Los Alamos

Garages have a way of going from (relatively) organized to complete chaos in no time at all. It then becomes a glorified shed. But, let’s face it, garage organization can be daunting and overwhelming. However, if you have a game plan, it can be a piece of cake. In this column, I will help you get started, give options for storage, safety, going green and other tips that you might not have heard before.

The Best Reason to Tackle This Project

If you’re like most of us, your car is a five-figure investment that you can’t do without. Why leave it outdoors, where it can suffer damage from UV exposure, bird droppings and tree sap? Storing it in a garage will keep it a lot cleaner and could help prolong its life.

The Big Clean Out: Getting Started

Organizing pros estimate that only 30 percent of us store our cars in the garage. The reason? Too much stuff! These tips will help you get rid of anything you don’t need.

Set aside at least a full day, or even a full weekend, to get the job done. Make it a family project and invite over a few friends to pitch in and it’ll go a lot faster. Think ahead – make sure you have enough trash bags or a small dumpster; boxes for donation; shelving, storage bins and peg boards on hand.

Sort all items into three piles: keep, donate or sell, and toss. Lay them on dedicated tarps or mark off areas of your driveway with chalk and place them there.

Decision making process – make quick decisions. Ask what you really need in your life to thrive. What should get the boot: outgrown toys, items that are broken beyond repair, expired household chemicals (which need special disposal), and anything you haven’t used in two years or more. If you have a hard time letting go of things that have sentimental value, snap pictures as keepsakes.

While sorting bring the items designated for donation directly into your car so you can drive them off immediately afterwards.

Follow the tips below to bring order to your garage. Courtesy/Suzette Fox​

Draft a Floor Plan

Most manufacturers of garage-organizing systems offer free space planning, so use their services as you research how to store all your gear. Before buying anything, take down your garage’s dimensions and note the size and location of windows, doors, switches, and receptacles, as well as how much space your car takes up. Then use the following rules of thumb as you assign things a home.

Items you use together, such as gardening tools and lawn chemicals, should be stored close to one another. Put bulky equipment, like lawn mowers, in corners, where they won’t get bumped or knocked over by your car. Place frequently used items, like bikes, close to the garage door. Stash seasonal or rarely used items in the hardest-to-reach spots.

Safety First

Though I’m sure you know to open the garage door when your car’s engine is running, installing a carbon monoxide detector will give you added peace of mind. And while you’re at it, check your garage-door opener to make sure it has a U.L.–listed motor and an auto-stop feature that will prevent the door from closing in case a child or pet tries to sneak underneath it.

Chemicals are the number one danger. A lot of people keep pesticides, paints and auto fluids, often in old food containers, which can leak and cause fumes, burns, respiratory problems and fire hazards. Always store such substances in their original containers and out of reach of children, on a high shelf or in a locked cabinet. Chemicals that are poisonous to pets are a huge problem. Road salt and ice-melt mixtures can get on the paws of cats and dogs and cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Antifreeze, in particular, is highly dangerous and can be fatal. It has a sweet smell that attracts pets; as little as one tablespoon can kill a cat; half a cup can kill a dog. Be sure to wipe up any spills immediately, and keep antifreeze out of reach for children, too.

Never put paint and chemicals in the trash or down the drain. They can contaminate the soil and groundwater. Visit; the site’s recycling directory (or its iPhone app iRecycle) will list a collection facility near you.

Get a 5- to 10-pound U.L.–listed fire extinguisher and mount it in an easy-to-access spot. It should carry an ABC rating, certifying that it’s effective against wood, oil, and electrical fires.

Ladders can be a hazard just leaning up against a wall. That may seem like the logical way to store a ladder, but it can tip over very easily, damaging your car or injuring a loved one. Lean it against the wall horizontally at floor level, or, even better, store it on hooks.

Gardening tools should be stored vertically on secure hooks attached to the walls so they’re easy to get to when you need them and they’re out of the way when you don’t.

Extension cords used in the garage should always be rated for outdoor use, even though technically you’re using it indoors. There is just too much chance of moisture on the floor in a garage, so don’t take any chances.

Unmarked stairs are an accident waiting to happen. Even if you have only one or two steps, put a strip of white or reflective tape on the edges so that people can see them, even in dim light.

Clearing the Clutter

Shelving and cabinets are a great way to de-clutter the garage. Courtesy/Suzette Fox

Shelving and cabinets are a great way to de-clutter the garage. Courtesy/Suzette Fox

It’s easy to control clutter if you remember that the four walls of your garage are actually four more floors. With the right shelves and hooks, you can actually quadruple your storage space.

Storage totes are great because they hold everything and they keep it all dry. If you have kids or pets, though, drill a hole in the tote. If the kids are goofing around and get stuck inside, that hole will be a very good thing.

Cabinets are great for storing anything toxic. You can lock the doors to keep the kids out of it. Also look for modular units that make storing toys easy and fun. Rubbermaid has a system called the Fasttrack System. The track mounts horizontally on the wall with screws; the system has a variety of attachments for hanging hoses, tools, even bikes. You can adjust the hooks whenever you need to very easily.

E-Z Ancor’s Tornado hooks have a pin in the back that acts as an anchor in drywall. You put the screws in with a Phillips screwdriver; they’ll hold 30 pounds. If you secure it to a stud, the hook will hold 70 pounds.

Store Elsewhere

  • Paint – Extreme cold or heat can ruin it. Store cans in a more temperate area.
  • Propane – A spark could ignite the fumes. Tanks should always be kept outdoors.
  • Refrigerator – It’s a huge energy drain in spaces that are not air-conditioned.

The Single Most-Important Clutter-Busting Tip

Keep items off the floor whenever possible. You’ll free up much more room for your car and avoid sloppy, impossible-to-sort-through piles. If you purchase ready-made shelving units or cabinets, make sure they’re raised on legs so that you can clean the floor beneath them easily.

If you purchase ready-made shelving units or cabinets, make sure they’re raised on legs so that you can clean the floor beneath them easily. Courtesy/Suzette Fox

Vertical Organizing Systems:

Pegboard $

Pros: Widely available and easy to install, it can be cut to size and even painted to customize the look; several manufacturers make a wide variety of compatible hooks, shelves, and organizers.

Cons: While pegboard can handle lightweight hand tools and other goods, it isn’t sturdy enough for hanging heavy objects, like bicycles.

An example of a pegboard. Courtesy/Suzette Fox

Vertical Organizing Systems: Track-Based Systems $$—$$$

Pros: Shelf standards hang from a single track affixed to wall studs, so these systems can bear the weight of heavier objects; standards, hooks, shelves, and organizers can be relocated easily.

Cons: You must make sure the track is level so that the standards hang straight; they’re best for garage walls that are finished and plumb.

Vertical Organizing Systems: Panelized Systems $$$

Pros: The entire wall is finished with slotted plastic panels that hold lock-in hooks, shelves, and cabinets so that every square inch of wall space can be put to use.
Cons: Some systems must be installed by trained professionals, adding to the cost; you’re limited to system-compatible organizing products.

An example of a shelving system. Courtesy/Suzette Fox

An example of a panel system. Courtesy/Suzette Fox

Use Overhead Space Wisely

The garage ceiling is a great spot for hanging long, flat stuff you don’t use every day, such as ladders and seasonal sports gear. Make sure that any shelves you hang from the ceiling don’t interfere with your garage door’s operation and that there is enough clearance to avoid scraping the roof of your car.

Going Green in the Garage

Old jars get a new purpose as storage for screws, nails and other small items. Use a screw or two to attach the top of the jar to the underside of a shelf. Fill the jar with whatever, and screw the jar onto its top.

Pegboards (mentioned above) are great because you can see everything; the tools aren’t lost in a drawer somewhere. If you want, you can draw the outline of the tools on the pegboard; that way, you can tell at a glance if one is missing and could be in use building a tree fort.

Old metal garbage cans can get recycled, too. They’re great for storing bags of soil and fertilizer — a great alternative to piling them up in the corner. Drill some holes in the bottom so that the nutrients in the soil or fertilizer can “breathe.” Otherwise, they can go rancid.

Old tires can go green, too. It’s not something you can do yourself, but tires can be turned into rubber mulch. It’s a little more expensive, but it lasts for 10 years or so, and it doesn’t fade. It won’t wash away, either; it’s heavier than regular mulch. Some manufacturers also make garden hoses out of old tires and they’re less expensive than new-rubber hoses.

Invest in Good Door and Window Locks

Break-ins often happen when the garage door is left open and the door to the house is unlocked. Always secure the entry door with a deadbolt and keep garage windows locked. Put in a garage-door lock that bolts the door to the sidewalls, and use it when you’re away for an extended period. And always close the garage door—even if you’re mowing the lawn out back.

Worth-It Upgrade: Epoxy The Floor

That dingy concrete slab will look even worse once you’ve tidied up. An anti-skid floor coating resists oil stains and wipes clean as easily as a kitchen countertop does—plus the color chips and paint disguise any imperfections.

Pick up (locally if possible) an all-inclusive kit (such as Quikrete’s Garage Floor Epoxy Kit, about $60), and plan to tackle the project when you’ll have a few days of temperate, 50- to 80-degree weather for adequate drying time. The key to success is diligent prep work—namely a clean, dry slab.

Having a non-skid floor in the garage is a great update. Courtesy/Suzette Fox

Seal The Threshold

Rain, windblown leaves, bugs and mice will find their way inside if the bottom of your garage door doesn’t sit flush with the floor. Create a snug fit by attaching a rubberized strip to the floor where the door lands (such as Threshold Seal, about $70 for a 16-foot strip)—you’ll save yourself some cleanup time.

Upgrade The Lighting and Electrical Systems

A bare bulb over each car bay won’t cut it. For ambient light, opt for 4-foot fluorescent fixtures with electronic ballasts, which give flicker-free light and work well in cold temps. Space them 4 feet apart and use as many as you need to see well at night. Swap out receptacles with ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) that cut the power when there’s a short in the system.

The Best Way to Pull In

Congratulations! You’ve now got room to park inside. Here’s how to make sure that your cars will always be a good fit:

  • Skip the motion sensors that tell you exactly how far to pull the car in; just hang a tennis ball on a string from the ceiling so that it taps the windshield when you’re in the right spot. Ideally, you should be able to walk between the garage’s back wall and your car.
  • Leave the center aisle between two vehicles as wide as possible so that you can roll trash bins to the curb or move bulky objects around without interference.
  • If you have a minivan, back it into the garage with the sliding doors facing the center, then park your sedan next to it facing forward to allow easy access to both vehicles.

Keep It Clean for Good

In spring and summer, keep insects at bay with a pesticide that relies on natural ingredients (Bugzilla, about $20 for 32 ounces;

Keep a bag of kitty litter handy for absorbing oil and grease spills. Place a broom and dustpan or a handheld vacuum near your workbench to tidy up after working on projects.

Clean the floor regularly. At least once a year, weed through your belongings and sell, donate or toss what you don’t need. When your possessions are in their proper places, the garage becomes a delightfully practical space.

As a side note, I’d like to personally thank my friend Ryn for suggesting this column and titling it. I don’t know what I would do without her!

Feel free to contact Los Alamos Interior Designer Suzette Fox to suggest specific design topics or for help with your home. For more information, find her on Facebook at or email her