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Clean Your Dryer Vent to Save Money and Prevent Fires

A washer and dryer pair in a sunny laundry room

Cleaning out the vent of your clothes dryer is hardly a glamorous task, but it’s a necessary one that decreases the risk of fires in your home and saves you money too. Here’s how to do it.

The vast majority of problems you’ll experience with your dryer are a direct result of failure to routinely clean the dyer. It’s easy to not think about it, and if you’ve never cleaned out your dryer, we certainly won’t hold it against you. Doing so is important both from the standpoint of extending the life of your appliance and safety. Here’s why and how to do so.

Why Clean Your Vent?

When it comes to cleaning tasks around the home, some things are low-priority and low risk, and then there are things that you simply shouldn’t dump in the some-day-never category.

Dusting the trim above a doorway is one of those low-priority type tasks. Yes, it’s nice to have all the trim work in your home dusted, but if you neglect it (for years even), nothing awful will come of it. Dryer vents, on the other hand, are a different story. There are nearly 3,000 reported dryer fires a year in the United States, resulting in an estimated five deaths, 100 injuries, and $35 million in property damage according to the U.S. Fire Administration. A third of those fires are directly attributable to a failure to clean the dryer.

Fire prevention PSA from FEMA, encouraging people to clean their dryer vent once a year.
U.S. Fire Administration

Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid something as serious as a house fire resulting from a poorly maintained dryer, not cleaning the vent decreases the efficiency of your dryer (which wastes both energy and money), reduces the lifespan of the dryer (consider not cleaning it akin to not changing the oil in your car), leads to clothes drying improperly (which can lead to odors), and can cause the building up mildew and mold in the dryer vent (which also leads to odors).

Strong Indicators Your Dryer Vent Needs Cleaning

Cleaning your dryer vent at least once a year is a definite must-do bit of home maintenance. Whether you experience any of these indicators or not, you should still take the time to do it.

If you experience any of the following things, however, you’re long overdue for a cleaning and should attend to it as soon as possible.

Your Dryer Is Drafty

If you feel a bit of a draft inside your clothes dryer when you’re emptying it, that indicates the flapper on the exterior of your home or apartment is stuck open. Typically compacted dryer lint and debris is the cause of this situation, as it builds up enough to prevent the cover on the end of the vent from closing correctly.

Your Clothing Isn’t Completely Dry

If you’ve run your clothes through a full cycle and they aren’t completely dry, it’s a good indicator the damp air from the dryer is not venting efficiently. If they’re still really damp, it’s likely the dryer heating element is malfunctioning (and you should call in a service person to look at it) but if they’re warm but still a little damp (when previously that particular drying cycle did the trick), it’s likely a ventilation issue.

Your Clothing Smells Odd

Recently we talked about what to do if you’re dealing with funky smelling towels. If you’re confident that the washer isn’t the source of your clothing’s funky smells, it’s entirely possible the dryer is at fault.

While the hot, dry air the dryer pushes through the dryer creates a hostile environment for things like mildew and mold, if you have a severe lint buildup (which, in most households, is mostly organic material like cotton fluff), then you have the place for odor-causing microbes to take hold. Further, if you live in a humid climate and the flapper of your dryer hasn’t been closing correctly, as we talked about above, humid air from outside your home is leaking back into the dryer vent and mingling with all that lint stuck on the sides of the vent.

In addition to odd smells from the funky buildup in the dryer vent, if you have a gas dryer, inadequate ventilation will also sometimes leave a lingering combustion smell on your clothing.

Your Clothes and the Dryer Are Hot

This is where we’re getting into the danger zone indicators. Not drying well is one thing. Clothes that seems way too hot and a dryer body that is unusually hot to the touch are a much more dangerous thing. If you take a load of towels out and are surprised at how hot they feel or how hot the metal body of the dryer is to your touch, you should cease use of the dryer until you clean the vent and further investigate the source of the problem.

Clothing should feel warm, and the body of the dryer will get warm while the dryer in operation but anytime either of those things feels surprisingly hot to the touch you’re creeping into the fire-risk territory.

Your Laundry Rooms Seems Hotter or More Humid Than Usual

If the laundry rooms seems warmer than usual, and especially if it seems more humid than usual, there’s a good chance that hot, moist air is being forced through a weak point somewhere in the dryer vent system because improperly sealed tubing combined with the force of the blower in the dryer pushing against the lint buildup is forcing the air out into the room.

If you have a gas dryer, the expelled air isn’t just bad for the room (because of the dampness) but bad for you (because of gases in the exhaust like carbon monoxide). Like the too-hot-dryer situation above, this is a dangerous situation, and you should cease use of the dryer until you clean the dryer vent and reseal it.

How to Clean Your Dryer Vent

Now that we’ve put a sufficient terror in your hearts, the good news! Cleaning and maintaining your dryer’s ventilation system is really simple and a task that anybody, even someone with limited-to-no home improvement chops can take on. (But, as always, if you’re worried about the job, it’s best to call in a handy friend or hire a professional.)

The Tools You’ll Need

To clean out the vent ductwork, you’ll need the following tools:

  • A Dryer Vent Brush: I’ve owned this model for years and recommend it to all my friends. It’s a circular brush that you attach to a series of screw-together-fiberglass poles to feed into the duct.
  • A Small Vent Brush:  A smaller vent brush, like this one, is perfect for cleaning out the lint trap on the dryer itself. Look for a long flexible wire brush you can really wiggle around in the vent try to loosen and remove stuff.
  • A Vacuum Cleaner: You’ll be making quite a mess, so it’ll pay to have a vacuum on hand to not only clean up the lint from the floor but vacuum the lint trap and ducts.
  • Screwdrivers: You may need a screwdriver to unclamp the duct, and you’ll definitely need a screwdriver if you open up the dryer to deep clean the blower.
  • Foil Tape: For your dryer vent you need proper foil tapenot duct tape. Only foil tape is properly rated for use on the hot dryer vent.

Armed with the right tools, the task will be a breeze.

Clean the Lint Trap and Trap Housing

First, the easy step. Remove the lint trap from the dryer and dispose of any lint accumulated on it if present. Use the small vent brush to reach into the lint trap housing and break free any accumulated lint. Keep the vacuum on hand to suck it up as you bust it free.

If you want to go the extra mile here (especially if, after shining a flashlight into the trap housing it appears like you’re not making headway with the small vent brush), you may wish to clean the trap housing and blower assembly from the inside out. To do so, you’ll need to look up a service manual for your particular model dryer, remove a panel (or potentially the whole housing) of the dryer and access the trap housing. On my Whirlpool dryer, this is as simple as unscrewing a few sheet metal screws on the front of the unit and then a few screws on the trap housing, but your experience may vary significantly here, and you can skip this step if using the smell vent brush appears to have cleaned out the trap housing sufficiently.

Clean the Vent Itself

Person vacuuming out a dryer vent with a vacuum
Benjamin Clapp/Shutterstock

After attending to the dryer body, unplug the dryer and pull it gently away from the wall to gain access to the rear of the appliance. Move the dryer just far enough so you can get to the back of it to unplug the power cord and disconnect the vent. If you move the dryer too far without disconnecting the vent, you’ll bend the rigid tubing. Don’t have rigid tubing behind your dryer? That’s not up to code these days in most locales and a considerable fire hazard (all dryers should have rigid metal exhaust vents and not flexible vinyl or foil tubing)—replace your flexible tubing with rigid tubing immediately.

With the dryer disconnected from the vent, take your dryer vent brush and begin feeding it slowly into the tube such that the large brush head is moving from inside the house towards the exterior vent. Only turn the brush clockwise (as turning it counter-clockwise will loosen the threading on the rod segments and lead to the brush getting stuck in in the vent). Work it back and forth through the vent slowly to break up the lint buildup, clean the vent walls, and push the lint out.

Use your vacuum to clean up the expelled lint and vacuum out both the vent connection on the back of the dyer and the portion of the dryer vent tubing you can read with the vacuum.

Reconnect the dryer to the vent tubing and seal any portions of the tubing that were disconnected using the foil tape. Run the dryer for a few minutes to blow out any loose lint. Now is a perfect time to examine the dryer vent for leaks. While you can hold your hand near any taped joints in the dryer vent to check for air leaks, it’s a lot faster to puff some baby powder or chalk dust near the joints to see if air is blowing out. Retape any leaking joints to ensure the dryer vents completely outside your home.

That’s all it takes. It’s dusty, you’ll be grossed out by how much lint is in there (every year, without fail, I know I am), and it’ll kill an hour or two of your weekend… but you’ll have a happy drier and a radically decreased risk of a fire breaking out in your laundry room.

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at LifeSavvy, Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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