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February 1, 2011 > Clothes dryer fire prevention

Clothes dryer fire prevention

Courtesy of Hayward Fire Department

Clothes dryers are a convenience and necessity to households; however, if they are not properly installed or maintained, fires can occur. An overall increase in dryer related fires occur during the winter and spring months. It is believed that the weather and humidity, quantity and type of clothing worn in the colder seasons could potentially be a defining factor in the occurrence of clothes dryer related fires.

When there is moisture in the air the lint tends to stick to the exhaust area, which means regular cleaning out of both the trap and the exhaust pipe are needed. A lot of lint is trapped by the dryer's filter, but some still travels up the vent with the moist air, sticking to the sides of the vent along the way. The build-up of this lint reduces the air flow, and if not cleaned out regularly can become a flammable source. A blocked vent or exhaust pipe prevents hot air from release, turning the highly combustible lint in the trap or exhaust pipe into a fire hazard. A fire can occur when the blocked exhaust vent causes overheating to the point that lint, combustible items in the dryer or nearby, ignite. Failure to clean out lint traps, vents, and surrounding areas of the dryer has been found to be the main cause of dryer fires. A vacuum cleaner can be used to help clear out lint buildup in the dryer.

Other ways that your dryer exhaust vent can become blocked include crimping of the exhaust tubing or small nests from animals. Contributing factors include electrical failure, mechanical failure, and misuse of material or product. For dryers not located adjacent to an exterior wall where exhaust is vented directly outside, venting systems can also become a contributing factor, especially those with flexible ducts.

Safety tips to prevent a dryer fire:

Don't leave your dryer running unattended. The shut-off switch can fail, causing the dryer to run continually.

Never put any items lined with natural or synthetic material, such as rubber-soled running shoes, in the dryer.

Foam pillows or clothing with foam padding should be left out to air dry.

Never put mops or rags that have been used with a wax, flammable solvents or oils in the dryer. Even if these objects have been previously cleaned, they can still catch fire.

If clothes are taking longer than normal to dry, check for blocked pipes or lint buildup. If the unit is clean, the heater coil on the unit may be malfunctioning. Make sure that dryer vent flaps are not clogged, shut or sticking. A clogged vent occurring from a buildup of lint could make the dryer operate inefficiently and dangerously, and there is a chance that the temperature of the dryer machinery might get hot enough to ignite lint or combustibles.

Replace ripped filters or cracked exhaust vents. Plastic or vinyl ducts should not be used. They can melt, droop down in certain areas creating pockets that might trap lint or collapse and fail to contain the fire within the unit unlike aluminum or steel ducts.

A blocked vent will cause the dryer's high temperature safety switch to continually cycle on and off, which can lead to early failure. Be sure to place a smoke detector in the general vicinity of the dryer.

Keep the area around the dryer clear of flammable materials.

Make sure the dryer is plugged into an outlet with sufficient power.

Another fire hazard is the incorrect illegal installation of dryer venting, which instead of exhausting outside terminates in the attic, crawl space, or interior walls.

Liquid fabric softener can accelerate the burning speed of all-cotton clothing including fleece, terry cloth and velour, according to the consumer watchdog Consumer Reports. Use dryer sheets for these clothes instead.

Clean trap with soap and water until waxy buildup is gone and water flows through.

Ventilation is the one of the most important factors that could curtail the possibility of dryer fires.

Remember to:
Clean the lint screen/filter before or after drying each load of clothes.
Clean the dryer vent and exhaust duct periodically.
Replace plastic, vinyl or foil, accordion-type ducting materials with rigid or corrugated semi-rigid metal duct.
Take special care when drying clothes that have been soiled with volatile chemicals.
Keep a fire extinguisher and a working smoke alarm near the clothes dryer.

When the homeowner/property manager follows the installation guidelines and performs regular inspections on dryer vents, they further protect themselves from dryer fires. A dryer vent service can be hired if it is too complex of a project. A large portion of clothes dryer fires are small in nature and confined to the object and room of origin. It should also be highlighted that there is a household need for the owner to have an advance fire escape plan in place.

For more information on fire safety tips or other Disaster Preparedness related materials, please see our website at: or contact the Hayward Fire Department Emergency Services Department at (510) 583-4948.

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