Clothes Dryer Fires

Friends of mine recently lost their home and everything in it because of a fire that started with the clothes dryer. It burned so hot and so quickly that it warped the structural steel beams. Thankfully, she and her family are safe, but recovering from this overwhelming loss will take them a long time.

According to various sources, there are around 13,000 fires related to residential clothes dryers annually. Each year they cause an estimated $88 million in loss, 300 injuries and 15 deaths. Almost every single one of these fires could be prevented with some basic maintenance and awareness.

Strangely enough, it’s the seemingly harmless element of lint that makes these fires burn so fiercely. This innocent and cozy fluff ignites in a heartbeat because of its high surface area. Millions of small particles packed in a dryer duct provide ample fuel for igniting a house fire.

The first step in controlling lint buildup is to clean the lint screen every time you dry a new load of clothes. As a bonus, keeping the lint screen clean helps your clothes dry faster while using less energy. Even with regular cleaning, however, a large amount of lint makes its way past the screen and into the dryer duct. As the duct becomes clogged, it requires the dryer to work harder at higher temperatures. This situation leads to two causes of dryer fires – electrical malfunctioning and heat buildup.

Dryer ducting materials can hurt or help when it comes to dryer fires. Flexible ducts made of plastic or foil trap lint along their ridged surfaces and are prone to sagging, building up lint at low points. Plastic and foil ducts will also burn readily. Rigid or flexible metal is the safest dryer duct material – it reduces lint buildup and can help contain a blaze if one starts. No matter what ducting material you use, keeping the inside of the ducting clear is crucial to preventing fires. Unplug the dryer and then use a vacuum to clean the entire length of the duct. While you’re at it, be sure to clean any lint behind or underneath the dryer as well any lint or cobwebs around the outlet.

If you are in the market for a new dryer, look for one that uses a moisture sensor instead of a typical thermostat to end the automatic cycle. A moisture sensor keeps the dryer from running longer than necessary, which saves money and keeps excess lint out of the system. If you already have a dryer with a moisture sensor, clean it periodically with some rubbing alcohol on a soft cloth to keep it working properly. Sensors have two slightly curved metal strips and are typically located inside the dryer.

A couple of final notes on dryer safety:
Be careful when laundering clothes that are stained with volatile chemicals like gasoline, solvents or oils. It is best to wash them several times to get out as much of the chemicals as possible and then hang them up to dry. Many of us use the laundry room to store our cleaning products, which are highly flammable and will make any fire that much worse. Try to find another area for Mr. Clean to live – away from electrical or heat sources. Lastly, avoid running the dryer when no one is home or when everyone is asleep. Adding a high temperature range heat detector to the laundry room is also a good idea.
More information on clothes dryer fires can be found on the National Fire Protection Association’s website.

Rigid or flexible metal ducts are safer because they do not sag and trap lint.

Foil and plastic ducts encourage lint buildup. The resulting clog restricts air flow, reducing the dryer’s efficiency and increasing the possibility of a fire.

The above pictures are from the Consumer Reports website:
Consumer Feb. 2008. .

This blog was written for Paul LaGrange’s BuildWrite website and was originally posted on January 16, 2009.


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