The newspaper headlines read, "An early Friday morning house fire killed a mother, her daughter and another family member." The fire probably started "in or near a clothes dryer inside the home."
Deadly accidents like this are preventable. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates there are 2,900 clothes-dryer fires in residential buildings in the United States each year, resulting in five deaths and $35 million in property damage. The majority of dryer fires are the result of lint buildup inside the dryer or inside the pipe that vents to the outside.
All too often I find a home with the dryer connected to a rigid PVC or a coiled plastic vent pipe. Plastic and lighter weight foils will burn through and allow a fire to spread to the home. Lint is so flammable that it has been said outdoorsmen use it to start campfires.
I also find dryer-vent pipes that are too long (25 feet is the maximum) and with too many elbows to redirect the pipe around corners or around floor joists. Each 90-degree turn is equal to 5 feet of restriction inside the pipe and each 45-degree turn is equal to 2½-feet of restriction. If you use two 90-degree elbows, equal to 10 feet of pipe, then you have only 15 feet of pipe left to use to vent to the exterior.
If the dryer cannot vent properly, the dryer will run longer to dry the clothes, and with each elbow used there is a good chance lint will start to accumulate at the bend. Now you have elbow restrictions as well as lint buildup, and the two together increase the loads on the dryer.
If a dryer is forced to run too often, the dryer's sensors, which are designed to protect the dryer from overheating, can fail. No one knows the condition of the dryer at the scene of this fire or how it was maintained, but the house fire is thought to have started long after the dryer had been shut off. Smoldering lint inside the dryer or vent pipe evidently spread late at night.
Never leave a dryer running when you're away from home, and never leave it running while you're sleeping.
To ensure proper and safe operation of a clothes dryer, the lint screen should be cleaned with each use, the dryer-vent pipe should be cleaned at least twice a year and the area around the lint screen and behind the dryer should be vacuumed often to remove the accumulated lint.
I found the following useful information at The Laundry Alternative Inc. (www.laundry-alternative.com/clothes_dryer_fire.htm):
"Make sure the dryer duct is made of solid metallic material. Both vinyl and foil are combustible and spiral-wound surfaces tend to catch lint more readily.
"The dryer duct should vent to the exterior and in no case should it vent to the attic or crawl space. Avoid the use of inside heat recovery diverter valves or termination boxes, which do not comply with current standards.
"Avoid kinking or crushing the dryer duct to make up for installation in tight quarters -- this further restricts airflow. If you really want to save the extra space, the Dryerbox is a new invention that allows the dryer to be safely installed against the wall.
"Minimize the length of the exhaust duct (maximum recommended lengths depend on a number of factors, such as number of bends, and vary by model -- check with your manufacturer for their specifications). If this is not possible, you can install a dryer-duct booster.
"If at all possible, use 4-inch-diameter vent pipe and exterior exhaust hoods that have openings of 16 square inches or more, which offer the least resistance to air flow.
"Don't use screws to put your vent pipe together -- the screw shafts inside the piping collect lint and cause additional friction."
• Dwight Barnett is a certified master inspector with the American Society of Home Inspectors. Write to him with home improvement questions at d.Barnett@insightbb.com.
Scripps Howard News Service