Clothes Dryer Fire Prevention & Tips

ByMarc Silberberg


Insurance adjuster, Kevin Sippy, from Wisconsin, inspects about five dryer fires each year. One fire that he remembers, was caused by the customer laundering a piece of clothing containing a certain type of rubber which was not meant to be dried at hot temperatures. When the internal temperature was turned to high, the material ignited and burst into flames causing the destruction of $44,000 worth of property. Be aware, that some children’s items are made with rubber accessories or appliques.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, each year about 14,630 home fires in our country are caused by clothes dryers. $222 million dollars are lost each year in property damage and eighty percent of these fires start due to clogged vents. Approximately four- hundred people are injured and fifteen die annually from clogged dryer vents. Unfortunately, the sister of an acquaintance of mine was a fatality of dryer fire, leaving a husband and several children behind.

Clothes dryers have been around as long as I can remember and that’s a long time! I do recall the hot summer days at the bungalow colony, when there were too few dryers and too much wet laundry. Some people chanced hanging theirs out on old fashioned clothes lines with clothes pins, gambling that their laundry items would not be rained on. I still hang my one hundred percent cotton duvet covers on my banister to prevent wrinkling, otherwise they would need ironing. By using your dryer less often, you can save some cash and your clothing will last longer.

Most homes and apartments today are not roomy enough to have a place to hang wet laundry. The outdoor clotheslines of the past are rarely utilized today so anyone who wants to dry their clothes, towels, linens etc. is looking for the most efficient clothes dryer around.

Not only is it important to do your research on the best clothes dryer for you, even more crucial are the safety precautions that must be taken to prevent devastating and fatal fires. Once you have your clothes dryer installed by a licensed professional, all is not okay. These technicians will be familiar with the proper installation and proper material used in the installation of the vent pipe, but it is up to you to take it from there.

Put up a sign for all to see in your laundry area stating the requirement of cleaning the lint trap before each use, whether it’s you, your spouse, children, or cleaning help. However, this does not yet address the problem of clogged dryer vents. Bird nests, plant growth, and other debris can clog up a dryer vent.

If you notice these problems, it’s time to get your dryer and vents professionally serviced:

  • That your clothes are damp after a normal drying cycle.
  • A foul smell while your dryer is cycling.
  • The clothing or laundry room seems very hot after drying.
  • Lots of lint coming off the lint screen.
  • There is no air coming from the outside vent.

One year is the general recommended time allowance to get your dryer serviced by an air duct professional. If you notice any negative signs before that, it is imperative that you call someone in to check.

Self-Cleaning Your Dryer Vent

Here is the way an untrained person would try to self-clean their dryer vents. First the dryer needs to be unplugged and the gas turned off (if you have a gas dryer). You must pull out the dryer away from the wall for at least one and a half to two feet. There is a large vent clamp on the back of the dryer that must be loosened to allow the vent to come off. Use a snake brush, to pull the lint from the harder to reach areas. A professional Shop-Vac must be rented to suck out the leftover lint. If there is a clog, your next step is similar to when you get a clog in your vacuum cleaner. Try using an unfolded hanger and just as you must make sure that you do not trigger a hole in your vacuum hose, the same goes for the vent hose. Once all the lint and junk are cleared out of your vent tubing, replace the vent tubing, re-tighten the clamp, and push your dryer back to the wall.

You are not finished yet. Now you must go outside to find the place that the vent comes out of the house. Remove the cover and be sure to remember which screws go where. There may be caulking which has to be removed and re-caulked later. Much the same way you cleaned out the inner tubing, now do it to this exterior tubing. Your final mission, (if you decide to accept it), would be to plug the dryer back in and turn on the gas. Before moving your dryer back, clean the area behind and underneath your dryer. Hopefully when you turn on the dryer any loose debris will work its way outside. Now is the time to reattach the outside vent.

If anyone actually read through these instructions, I am certainly impressed. I doubt that even if you got to the end of these instructions, you would attempt such a challenging feat, especially since your family’s safety is involved. There are some reliable and qualified vent cleaning companies that do this many times a day with professional equipment and personnel. I certainly do not recommend this self-cleaning. By reading the above instructions, you can see how important it is to get your dryer vent serviced yearly.

Some Steps to Prevent a Dryer Fire

1) Never leave your house or go to sleep when your dryer is on. A fire can start by a malfunction of the dryer machinery and or by a lint buildup under the dryer. The lint trap is not a goof proof method for catching all the lint and tiny objects (such as buttons and candy wrappers). Gradual buildup of lint can cause the exhaust duct or heating element to catch fire (temperatures can rise to 550 degrees in the dryer).

2) Articles of clothing, towels and rags can be dangerous places for flammable substances and chemicals to be absorbed. For example, cooking or motor oil, and harsh cleaning agents need special care. It would be better to hang up these stained items rather than putting them in the clothes dryer. If you absolutely must use the dryer make sure that you put it on the lowest heat setting and stay nearby in case, you smell smoke.

3) Keep the vent pipe unobstructed. Clogged vents are one of the leading reasons for dryer fires. The lint buildup accumulates gradually within the vent hoses and this can cause overheating and directly be the cause of a dangerous fire. Even if you are diligent and have your vents professional inspections yearly, be aware that the outside exhaust vent must be cleaned regularly.

4) It is time to discard your accordion vent hose. The accordion type of duct which used to be standard is responsible for increasing blockages. Metal rigid non-ribbed ducts are now required for your dryer unit to be up to current safety standards.

5) When opting to replace your dryer with a new one, these are the most common safety tips. Make sure your dryer is installed by a licensed professional installer. These professionals should check the gas line and connection to ensure that they are free of leaks. Check to make sure the electrical outlet and plug are being used according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Emergency Measures in Case of a Dryer Fire

You’ve followed all the instructions to ensure the safety of your clothes dryer. No one is infallible and something happens that you have neglected to take care of. You smell fire. What should you do? As with any home fire, always have an evacuation plan. Leave your house immediately and call the fire department if the fire is uncontrollable. If the fire is self-contained you can follow these steps if you smell smoke or burning odor or hear strange sounds emanating from your dryer.

1) Leave the dryer closed. Opening the dryer will increase the fire by feeding oxygen to the fire.

2) Always have a five-pound ABC fire extinguisher nearby and pull the pin with a fluid motion. Use it according to directions that you have studied at an earlier time (now is not the time to learn how to use your home fire extinguisher).

3) As soon as you are sure that the fire is out, unplug the dryer from the outlet.

4) When leaving the laundry room, close the door in case there are any smoldering flames that can reignite. Also shut off the circuit breaker or fuse for your dryer.

5) Before purchasing a new product, have your home’s electrical system checked. It could be it was the wiring itself that caused the problem and not any negligence on your part.

Drying clothes has come a long way since the clothesline days. Living in apartments in the olden days, laundry day was a way to socialize with the neighbors. The clothesline was a place where women of the tenements would speak about their news and common struggles. “When you looked at the clothesline, you could tell who lived in the apartment, of the ages and genders of the occupants” (North Carolina Public Radio). There are some conservationists who are going back to hanging their clothes on backyard clotheslines, but for most people, the clothes dryer is here to stay. We hope you will take advantage of these suggestions and call your dryer vent professional at least once a year or whenever you have a question about the safety of your dryer venting. The fire safety suggestions here are by no means complete.

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