The most common causes of dryer fires and how you can prevent them

July 17, 2020

Dryer fires are more common than you might think. Fortunately, they're easy to prevent!

A mother and son using a dryer to do their laundry

When was the last time you cleaned out the lint filter on your dryer? Hopefully recently! What about the dryer duct, or the exhaust vent? There are a number of ways this common appliance can be a potential hazard, and unfortunately, dryer fires account for a large number of home fires each year. However, this is easily avoidable with a few simple preventative measures. Read on as we discuss the most common causes of dryer fires and how you can prevent them!

The facts and stats about dryer fires

While it may be hard to believe, dryer fires are a fairly common cause of home fires. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, dryers and washing machines cause an average of 15,970 fires each year, with dryers causing 92% of them. The unfortunate result are hundreds of injuries and $238 million in property damage. 

Of course, not all dryer fires are the same; there are a number of different ways that they can start a fire. However, of those potential causes, failure to clean and perform routine maintenance accounts for 31%.

Causes of dryer fires

Mechanical and electrical failure

Like anything with moving parts and electronic components, faulty wiring and damaged machinery can potentially cause dryer fires. While such fires are not nearly as common as they are with washing machines, it is still important to have these parts checked and repaired or replaced if necessary. 

Improper use

This refers to any fire caused by using a clothes dryer outside of the manufacturer's recommended guidelines, such as over-stuffing the appliance. However, this may also include situations involving items that shouldn't be put in a dryer, or items with instructions advising against drying with heat. 

In general, items made out of plastic, rubber, and foam are generally not suited for clothes dryers. For example, a simple bathroom item, like a bathmat with a rubber back, could potentially be a fire hazard. 

Dirty lint filters and vents

Clogged vents, ducts, and filters are the primary causes of dryer fires. Usually, this is a result of a buildup of lint, but can certainly be caused by an accumulation of dirt, grass, or anything else that remains after the washing process. 

In addition to the lint filter, the outside vent can also become clogged, which prevents airflow and potentially leads to hazardous conditions. Again, this could be a result of lint making its way through the duct and collecting on the screen. However, it can also become obstructed by pesky birds, insect nests, or rodent nests. 

How to prevent dryer fires

Make sure it is properly installed

Having a dryer that isn't installed correctly can lead to a variety of complications, some of which may result in a fire. Many department stores offer home installation, so take advantage of this whenever possible. 

Make sure that the dryer is connected to a proper 240 volt electrical outlet. Plugging it in to a 120 volt outlet could potentially cause problems. It's also important to make sure that the ventilation duct is attached securely, both to the dryer itself and to the exterior exhaust vent. Finally, choose the location carefully. When placing your dryer, make sure that it isn't too close to other appliances or shelves. 

Clean the lint screen after each use

Clothes dryers rely on proper airflow, and when that is obstructed at any point in the process, heat can build. One of the primary places blockage occurs is the lint filter, which collects stray pieces of cloth and prevents it from accumulating. If you don't clean the lint, and it is allowed to build up, it essentially creates a tinder bundle, which is perfect for starting a fire

That's why one of the most important steps you can take to prevent a dryer fire is cleaning the lint filter after every single load of laundry. The next time you dry your clothes, take a look at the lint filter. You might be surprised by how much a single use can leave behind! Whether it's easier for you to remember to clean it before you start the cycle, or directly after, make sure you do so. 

Clean the vent and duct

Despite all of the lint and dirt collected by the lint filter, it is inevitable that some will sneak by from time to time. Over time, it can build up in the duct between the dryer and the exterior vent outside your home. 

If you notice that your clothes are taking longer to dry, or that they don't seem to completely dry out, you might have an obstructed venting system. Additionally, you may notice a burning smell, or notice that your clothes and the outside of the dryer are too hot. If you notice any of these symptoms, or suspect that the airflow may be obstructed, stop the dryer immediately, unplug it, and check the duct and vent when they have had a chance to cool. At the very least, it is recommended that you remove the duct and clean it every three months, if not more often.

While the outside vent is the final part of the dryer system, if it becomes clogged, the dryer itself can overheat and catch fire. It should be inspected and cleaned regularly. Some vents have flaps that automatically open when the dryer is on, so make sure that this is working properly. If you don't have a cover for the vent, it's important to install one so that it is protected from rain, dirt, and animals. 

Replace ducts

Not all ducts are the same, and some plastic ducts are flammable. Most dryers use a foil ribbed duct, and the folds can trap dust and lint. That's why if you have the option, you should replace these with a smooth duct.

However, not just any duct will do. If you need a replacement for any reason, make sure that it meets the specific requirements outlined by Underwriters Laboratories. Only ducts listed as UL 2158A should be used to vent your clothes dryer.

Have your dryer routinely inspected

While electric dryers are far more likely to cause a fire, gas dryers are unique in that they have gas lines. Similar to checking a gas grill, It's important to periodically inspect both the lines and connections, checking for leaks and improper fittings. To be as safe as possible, this is best done by a professional once every year. 

Use the dryer correctly

Dryers make laundry day a lot easier, but that doesn't mean they're the best option for everything. In fact, in some cases, you may actually be at risk of causing a fire if you aren't properly using it. 

That's why it's important to pay attention to product labels and instructions for washing and drying. Not only could you potentially ruin the item, you could cause a fire. Again, plastic, rubber, and foam are generally bad for a dryer. 

If you have clothes that are soiled with flammable compounds, like oil, gas, or alcohol, do not put them in the dryer as the heat could potentially set them ablaze. Instead, wash them multiple times to remove as much of the chemical or substance as possible. Then, if possible, consider drying them the good ol' fashioned way: on a clothesline. 

Finally, just like operating a stove, oven, or grill, never let your dryer run unattended. That's not t say that you have to sit there and watch it, but don't run it when you're sleeping or when you're out of the house. 

What to do if your dryer catches fire

No matter what the source of fire in your home is, the safest course of action is to evacuate, move your family to a safe location, and call the fire department. While many fires start relatively small, the spread quickly and what may seem like a manageable task can quickly flare up into a dangerous blaze.

That having been said, the appropriate fire extinguisher can help you put out a dryer fire if you catch it early enough. However, if you smell smoke, or otherwise suspect that your dryer might have started a fire, do not open the dryer door. The handle may be hot, and could burn your hand, and the toxic smoke may come rushing out. Always ensure that you have a safe exit and again, always put you and your family's safety first. 

If you are able to put the fire out, unplug it from the wall, unless the connections are damaged. Then, safely exit your home and wait for the fire department.

A clogged dryer vent, one of the most common causes of dryer fires

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by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.