At this point, I feel like I was born knowing that dryers can be dangerous. However, there are several relatively easy ways that you can reduce the risk of dryer fires. I have listed the five most common reasons dryer fires start and how you can help keep your dryer safe and functioning correctly.
Most dryer fires are caused by a lack of cleaning. Other common reasons are vent blockages, mechanical faults or failures, electrical faults or failure, and drying inappropriate objects.
1. Lack of Cleaning
If you look at statistics from the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA; 2020), you can see that 4% of household fires are a result of dryers. Of dryer fires, 32% are caused by poor cleaning.
So, a large portion of dryer fires can be prevented by cleaning out the dust, dirt, and lint from your dryer filters, unit, and vent. Let’s look at why these factors can cause fires.
Dryers gather lint with water that is evaporated from your clothing and linen and dust from the environment. Some of this dirt and lint can end up inside the dryer casing and the dryer vent.
When lint and dust gather and build in the dryer vent, the exhaust system cannot efficiently move air through the ducting. This means that heat can build up, and combining this with excessive amounts of lint and dust can start fires.
Within the dryer, the same can happen. Dust and lint are flammable, and there is an ignitor (gas) or element (electric) that can provide enough heat.
What to Clean
Excessive lint can build in inappropriate locations when your lint filters get overwhelmed or damaged. It is essential to maintain your filters, cleaning and replacing them regularly.
Your vent should be cleared about twice a year (this can be more or less depending on usage), and inside your dryer should be cleaned out when you service the machine.
Thankfully, you will likely notice that your clothes are coming out with wet patches since airflow is impacted, or that your dryer is malfunctioning because the fuses and heat controls keep tripping/breaking. This indicates that the dryer needs cleaning.
2. Vent Blockages
Vent blockages are another of the primary risk factors for vented dryers. We’ve spoken about dust above, but this is specific to the vent and can result from other factors.
Anything that impairs airflow through the exhaust system can prevent heat from being removed correctly. Again, this heat combined with collecting lint can start fires and damage your dryer’s fuse components.
What Creates Blockages?
If you have a compacted vent connection between the dryer and the ducting. This can be the result of damage or twisting that narrows the diameter that air and lint can flow through.
Or the blockage can occur because there is a problem with lint gathering at the backdraft damper that is broken. Insects and animals can also enter and build nests in your vent if the damper is missing.
Or potentially, there is an illegal screen on the vent, which will catch lint, preventing it from exhausting correctly. This is why there are strict termination requirements for dryer vents.
The dryer vent can also become blocked if the duct run is not code-compliant, is too long, or has too many bends. This would slow airflow and encourage the deposition of lint in the vent.
You might also find that the vent is blocked because a sock has made its way through a damaged lint filter. Yes, your dryer can eat socks, which can catch lint for kindling.
3. Mechanical Fault/Failure
If the dryer is not regularly maintained and cleaned, it can be prone to mechanical failures, especially as the components wear with age. This can also occur if there is a manufacturing fault.
Heating elements can fail, resulting in short-circuiting that can start a fire. Heating elements are typically damaged by age, use, and overheating (which has several causes).
Faulty thermal fuses in the dryer can affect the functioning of the heating element, which can increase how long it runs or how often it is being turned on and off.
It can also be a clogged or broken gas valve that causes fires since these are important for controlling and cutting off the gas and heat supply as needed. This problem is generally indicated by a whistling sound as your dryer is running or if it sounds like a blowtorch.
The components in your dryer can be damaged by power surges, meaning the electrical system must function well.
Thankfully, mechanical failures or faults often come with a warning. For example, if your dryer has started making a strange or different noise, you might want to get it checked or serviced.
4. Electrical Fault/Failure
Dryer fires can happen when there are electrical problems. These can be caused by improper grounding or because the wiring is old.
It is essential that your dryer is plugged into and earthed by the correct 3- or 4-slot outlet, and is on a dedicated circuit where needed.
Older houses can have 3-slot outlets for both the 120 V and 240 V circuits, while newer homes distinguish 240 V outlets (needed for electric dryers) as having 4-slots. So, it is important to know which one you are dealing with.
A dryer cord should never be altered to fit an outlet as this can compromise the earthing, which leads to overloading and surges that cause electrical fires.
Don’t plug your dryer into an outlet that can’t handle the appliance, as this can overwhelm the electrical supply, causing damage to the wires and leading to fires.
Extension cords are not recommended for use with dryers as they can easily become physically broken or incapable of carrying the electrical supply.
Risks From Damage Caused
This damage to the dryer’s wiring makes the dryer pull more electricity than necessary, further increasing the risk of fire as heat escapes from the wiring. But this can also occur physically when wires are loosened or broken as the cord is bent or pulled.
Another problem can be if there is a fault with the thermal fuse or thermostat. These components are wired into the dryer and monitor the internal temperatures around the heat source in the drum. If one is not working correctly because of a wiring problem, the signal to turn off the heat may not be activated.
5. Drying Inappropriate Items
Dryers should be installed and operated according to manufacturer directions and recommendations. This includes keeping inappropriate items and materials out of your dryer.
So, what is inappropriate? Anything that is not typical fabrics you find in products like clothes, linens, and towels.
For example, duct tape should not be put in a dryer. The adhesive can melt, causing the tape to come away and get into the dryer. Here it can cause blockages in the filters and vents. The same goes for gum, crayons, and even lip balm might be a problem.
This is a common mistake; I have washed my fair share of items I forgot in my pockets. I am guilty of the gum and lip balm. However, checking pockets before putting them into the washing hamper or machine is always best to ensure you aren’t taking unnecessary risks.
Inappropriate items also include those that are covered in chemical substances. For example, oily materials or those exposed to gasoline can retain the residue of these substances that may combust in the dryer’s heat.