Dear Mr. HandyPerson: When you have a leaky refrigerator gasket, we all know the dollar-bill gasket test - if you can pull the bill out with no resistance, then you may have a problem (or if you can see moisture on the freezer door).

The difficult and expensive route is to install a new gasket. Before doing that, however, there is one solution you might try.

Put a light coat of petroleum jelly on the entire gasket surface. This will soften up the gasket without harming it. With luck, it will save the need for a new gasket and an expensive service call. - Sanford, Bradenton, Fla.

Dear Sanford: Thanks for the tip. However, Mr. HandyPerson has a similar and slightly easier solution.

First, though, let's take a step back to remind readers that refrigerator gaskets are quite durable, usually able to last for the life of the appliance. The gaskets on the refrigerator and freezer doors of Mr. HP's nearly 40-year-old refrigerator were in fine condition, even when he decided a few years ago to replace it with a new one that uses a quarter of the energy and does not require periodic defrosting (one of his more detested chores).

It may seem obvious to some (though it passes under the radar for many people who are otherwise fastidious about a clean, odor-free refrigerator), but the key to keeping the gasket supple and working to seal the door is to keep it clean. The combination of airborne dust, moisture and small spills can clog up the grooves on the gaskets and effectively stiffen them up so they don't seal evenly on all sides. It doesn't take much built-up crud on one part of the gasket to loosen the seal on the rest of the door.

Some people may be more fanatical about this chore, but Mr. HP has always used a visual check of the gaskets periodically for dust or debris. Over the years, he doubts if he ever cleaned the gasket more than twice a year, which was often enough to keep the original gaskets working fine.

To clean them, he uses a solution of warm water and baking soda (about 1-r cup baking soda to a half-gallon warm water, in a small bucket), a small scrub brush (such as a vegetable or even a fingernail brush) and clean rags dampened with warm water to catch drips and rinse off any residue of the cleaning solution. Then he uses clean, dry rags to thoroughly dry all the grooves and surfaces of the gaskets - front, top and bottom.

By the way, he uses the same baking soda and water solution to clean the insides of the refrigerator, too. Most manufacturers recommend against using soaps, detergents, bleach or cleansers to clean the interior of refrigerators. Mr. HP, who is a little embarrassed to admit this, discovered the reason for this recommendation when he used Comet cleanser to clean a food spill in the fridge. Afterward, he found that it took repeated cleanings with baking soda and water to neutralize the particularly rank odor left behind by the cleanser and the spill (yet another example of learning via memorable screw-ups).

Anyway, after cleaning the gaskets thoroughly, every few years Mr. HP wipes on some mineral oil with a soft rag, getting it onto all sides and into the grooves of the gaskets. Then he buffs it well with soft, dry rags, so as to not leave any oily residue. The mineral oil is probably a lot easier to work with than the petroleum jelly you suggested, Sanford, and is more easily buffed clean so that you don't leave anything sticky to attract more dust and dirt (or in Mr. HP's case, omnipresent cat hair).

Unlike many household cleaners, the baking soda and water solution will not cause the door gasket to harden or crack, and the periodic wipedown with mineral oil will counteract the effects of aging. Mr. HP expects this fairly casual maintenance routine will preserve the gaskets of his current refrigerator until they invent one that uses even less energy.

Mr. HP is unwilling to let go of many tried-and-true things, such as using clotheslines and clothespins, using baking soda and vinegar as the main arsenal for most household cleaning and fixing things rather than throwing them out. Still, he must admit that the standards of modern energy-preserving appliances, low-flow toilets and insulation are truly superior to those of even 10 years ago, and this, as someone once said, is a good thing.

Mark Hetts is a Universal Press Syndicate columnist. He wants to hear of home repair matters that are troubling you, interesting questions, funny experiences and useful tips you might want to share with other readers. Write to: Mr. HandyPerson, c/o Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo. 64111.