When was the last time you inspected and cleaned your clothes dryer? Like many appliances, as long as it is working many people give little thought to preventive maintenance. Dryers are unique among home appliances in that they generate high amounts of heat along with highly combustible lint.
Each year there are approximately 2,900 fires in the US that originate with a clothing dryer causing in excess of $35 million dollars in property loss and averaging 5 deaths and 100 injuries. Like any other fire these incidents are easily preventable with some basic preventative maintenance. Often times there are simple warning signs that are overlooked, dismissed simply as “Well, that dryer is X years old… its not going to work as well as when it was brand new”
Examples of dryer fires at home and on the farm
A couple of months ago my own dryer started experiencing issues. After placing a load in the machine to dry, I noticed that it occasionally wasn’t running as long as it normally should. On other occasions the clothes weren’t fully dried despite running a full cycle. After a week or so my dryer started beeping and displaying an error code. Like everyone, I’m guilty of a little procrastination from time to time and kept resetting the dryer until the load was dry. After a week of this, I began pulling the machine apart anticipating that the problem was probably the result of lint buildup somewhere in the exhaust pipe.
After unplugging and pulling the machine away from the wall, I removed the front panel to access the underside of the lint trap. I was astonished to find that the heating element located just a scant 2-3” from the trap was blackened and deformed. The heating element had failed and began arcing between the coils and the metal housing. Had I not routinely cleaned my lint traps and exhaust pipe, this surely would have resulted in a fire.
As a fire investigator I’ve dealt with numerous dryer fires over the years. One of my first questions to the homeowner is “When was the last time you cleaned your lint trap and vent pipe?”. Often they have routinely pulled the filter but never gave a thought to running a brush through the vent pipe. On multiple occasions I’ve found the screen on the exterior vent completely packed with lint to the point there was no air flow.
Sometimes dryer fires are a result of an electrical malfunction with little to no warning. On a recent farm visit with one of our agents, we were reviewing the mechanical room in the milking parlor. Our Loss Control staff uses thermographic cameras to inspect electrical and mechanical components throughout each property looking for potential problems. On this visit we found that the dryer in the parlor was in the process of experiencing a failure. Heat readings in excess of 400F degrees were found by the control panel, opposite of the heating exhaust. A fire was imminent and would have caused a significant impact to that farm had we not been in the right time, at the right place, with the right equipment. Unfortunately, this kind of story isn’t an anomaly.
As farms continue to increase in complexity, many are finding that investing less than $400 to purchase a thermal imaging camera with your Farm Bureau Member discount through Grainger is money well spent. Beyond fire safety, these tools are immensely helpful with general mechanical and electrical preventive maintenance.
Follow these steps to prevent a dryer fire:
- Clean dryer vent pipe at least every three months. If significant lint buildup is found, consider more frequent cleanings as well as contacting a qualified appliance repair professional to inspect your dryer.
- Never use coiled-wire foil or plastic venting. Dryer vents should be rigid, non-ribbed metal ducts.
- Routinely inspect exterior vent for blockages from lint, animal or insect activity.
- Maintain a clear area around the dryer, and don’t allow clothing or other combustibles to pile up. If a fire does occur, this will help slow the spread of flames.
- Don’t dry items with foam, plastic, or rubber components. A floor rug with a rubber backing for example should be hung to dry.
An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. Taking a few extra minutes to conduct some basic preventative maintenance will help reduce the likelihood of a fire.
Author: Chris Schlechta, Safety and Loss Control Manager