The following original article was written by Gary Gentry, The Raleigh Home Inspector, as a guest post for the good folks at Fonville Morisey Realty for publication in their Faces of Fonville blog. Fonville Morisy Realty is a leading real estate company, headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, that routinely provides important professional assistance to people engaged in the process of buying or selling a home. Many thanks to Lisa Sullivan for allowing Quality Residential Inspections to be a contributor!
Raleigh Home Inspector Asks: Is Your Clothes Dryer Quietly Trying To Kill You?
A rather startling question posed by the Raleigh Home Inspector considering that most of us, an estimated 8 out of 10 households, have a clothes dryer in our home and that they’re used on a regular, consistent basis without too much thought. What mighty fine pieces of modern marvel they are, too…those ole’ trusty clothes dryers! They certainly make life easier and they’re generally safe to operate. Let’s be honest, though…we take our clothes dryers for granted! We wash our clothes, toss em’ in the dryer, and expect that the end result will be an uneventful load of nice, dry, clean-smelling laundry. Indeed, that is the usual result. However, as with many of the relatively complex systems that comprise a home environment, there are some safety considerations to ponder and of which we need to maintain an awareness.
Again, clothes dryers are generally safe…as long as they’re properly installed, well vented, and receive periodic maintenance. Maintenance, you say? You mean like changing the oil in the family car? Well, yes…precisely that sort of routine maintenance albeit on, perhaps, a less frequent basis. The clothes dryer and its venting system need…no, require, periodic maintenance to keep you safe and to dry your clothes as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. Let’s examine those two concepts as they relate to clothes dryers…those of safety and of monetary efficiency.
As for the safety aspect, it’s really fairly simple. Your clothes dryer has the potential to catch fire and burn your house down. And, most unfortunately, a resulting house fire can kill you! Have I acquired your attention? Between 2004 and 2006, according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), there were an estimated 15,600 related residential fires that required a fire department response. Those fires caused an estimated annual monetary loss of $99 Million, 400 injuries, and 15 fatalities. The leading cause of those fires was determined to be a failure to maintain the system. What causes these expensive, and sometimes deadly, clothes dryer related fires in the first place?
Clothes dryers do their job by forcing heated air through a rotating drum that contains your load of laundry. As the moisture is released, lint is created from the fibers of the content…clothing, towels, etc. Most of the lint is filtered by the clothes dryer filter…the one we are familiar with that’s usually located inside the door or on top of the unit; most of us are familiar with the need to clean that filter after every load of laundry. But some of that lint makes it past the filter and can collect in the ductwork between the clothes dryer and the exhaust hood (the discharge end of the duct that should…should, I say, be located be at the exterior of the building). The accumulation of lint inside the ductwork, or in an uncleaned filter, serves to create a restriction to the airflow and a concentration of lint which is a very combustible fuel source.
As a Raleigh Home Inspector and owner of a Raleigh Home Inspection firm, I routinely observe and report on clothes dryer ducts that are in very poor condition. Often, the types of installed ducts are conducive to venting problems. There are generally four different types of ducts. There are rigid metal ducts that are smooth on the inside; these are by far the safest types of ducts because they aren’t prone to sagging and are relatively easily cleaned. There are semi-rigid, semi-flexible ducts that are not quite as “good” as rigid metal ducts but are also a reasonable choice. And then there are the other two types…flexible foil and flexible plastic. These latter two types account for the majority of deficient issues that I see relating to clothes dryer ducts. They are thin, are prone to sagging and to physical damage, are not able to be readily cleaned, and should just plainly be avoided. Those plastic ducts will not only do absolutely nothing to contain a fire should one start in or near the duct, they will actually readily burn themselves…bad, bad, bad! Then there’s the “failure to clean” aspect where the duct is mostly blocked with lint. It’s these conditions of improperly installed ductwork, the use of unsafe or improper ductwork, or a failure to maintain the cleanliness of the ducts that cause the most troublesome issues. It’s worthy of note that most all manufacturers of clothes dryers disallow the use of those horrid plastic flexible ducts; nonetheless, they continue to be used in many homes…even in newer homes! Also worthy of note is that, in most jurisdictions, those plastic flexible ducts have never been allowed to penetrate floors or walls… but that’s a commonly observed configuration as well.
Even when an acceptable material has been installed, ductwork can be damaged e.g. that portion of the duct that is behind the dryer between the dryer and the wall. Dryer duct hoods can get bent or become clogged with lint. Or, the back-draft damper of the hood can be incapacitated such that it doesn’t fully close; when this occurs, vermin such as rodents and insects can enter the duct or birds can enter the duct and build nests that can severely restrict or block the airflow.
As for the monetary efficiency of the operation of your clothes dryer (meaning the amount of money you’ll spend to operate it), that’s fairly simple, too. A dryer that’s not well vented, that has a clogged filter, or that has a partially or wholly clogged vent duct has to work all that much harder, and longer, to dry your clothes. Any or all of those conditions will contribute you to having to spend more of your hard-earned money to operate the dryer and can directly (and quickly I might add) lead to outright failure of the dryer. Simply put, it’ll cost you more money to do your laundry while your clothes dryer approaches its pending failure. Then, when it quits, you’ll have the unanticipated opportunity to plunk down a considerable amount of money to replace it. Now, to me, that doesn’t sound like a pleasant scenario. Does it to you?
So…what can you do to prevent potential catastrophe and operate your clothes dryer as efficiently as possible? First, clean your clothes dryer duct, or have it cleaned, on a regular basis; annually might be good starting point but some systems might require more frequent cleaning. Second, make sure that the duct system is in a safe and fully functional condition. Have a professional assess the condition and configuration of the system in your home. Such a professional might be a licensed Home Inspector or a licensed Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) professional…either of these types of professionals should be able to assess your system and make pertinent recommendations. In many instances where flexible foil or flexible plastic ducts are installed, a recommendation to replace those types of ductwork with a more suitable product, one that is both safer and is more readily cleaned, would not be unreasonable.
In summary, clothes dryers are great inventions that make our lives easier on a daily basis. However, we tend to take them for granted and, if not well installed or properly maintained, they can be problematic. An improperly configured duct system, or the use of certain types of dryer ducts, or a failure to maintain the system can lead to an excessive consumption of your money. Much worse and of greater import, these deficiencies can cause a house fire that can take your life or cause significant damage to your home. Inspect your system and its installation, or have it evaluated by a professional and repaired or corrected as needed…the condition of your wallet, and maybe even your very life, may depend on it!
To read other articles written by Gary Gentry, your Raleigh Home Inspector, visit his eZine Expert Author Page.