The clothes dryer is an appliance we easily take for granted. But cycle after cycle of drying, fluffing, and tumbling can take its toll, which is why proper maintenance is a must in order to avoid hazards that can ultimately result in fires.

Indeed, the National Fire Protection Associationreports there were some 14,300 clothes dryer fires in homes in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available. The fires resulted in 19 deaths, 312 injuries, and $67.7 million in direct property damage.

The leading cause of 30 percent of the fires was lack of maintenance. Eleven percent were triggered by an unidentified or unknown-type of mechanical failure, and 10 percent by part failure, leak, or break.

In most cases, clothing was the most common source of ignition. Dust, fiber, and lint are also common ignition sources.

The NFPA says dryers are the third most common type of equipment involved in home fires - following stoves and fixed area heaters.

"We take it for granted that our home appliances will work safely as they should," said Meri-K Appy, vice president of public education for NFPA. "But we need to take care of these devices to keep them safe. Don't let fire start in your home because you didn't clean your lint filter or maintain your dryer."

The Consumer Product Safety Commissionsays that under some conditions, when lint blocks the flow of air, excessive heat build-up can cause a fire in some dryers.

The NFPA and the CPSC offer these tips:

  • Clean the lint filter before or after each drying cycle. Wipe away any lint that has accumulated around the drum.
  • Don't use the dryer without a lint filter.
  • Don't leave the dryer running when you go out.
  • Make sure the air exhaust vent pipe is unobstructed and the outdoor vent opens readily.
  • Keep combustibles like boxes and clothing away from the dryer.
  • Have a professional service your dryer. Gas dryers should be inspected periodically by a professional to make sure the gas line and connection are intact and leak-free.
  • While the dryer is operating, check the outside exhaust to make sure exhaust air is escaping normally. If it is not, turn the dryer off and look inside both ends of the duct for lint; remove any if found.
  • If there are signs that the dryer is hotter than normal, this may be a sign that the dryer's temperature control thermostat needs servicing.
  • If clothing is still damp at the end of a normal cycle or requires longer dryer times the exhaust or lint screen may be blocked.
  • If you have a plastic, flexible duct, check it more frequently. This type of duct is more apt to trap lint than ducting without ridges. Inspect the duct for kinks or crushing, which can greatly reduce the airflow.
  • Closely follow manufacturers' instructions when you get a new dryer. Most manufacturers specify the use of a rigid or flexible metal duct to provide a minimum restriction of airflow. If metal duct is not available at the retailer where the dryer was purchased, check elsewhere. If you are having the dryer installed, insist upon metal duct unless the installer has verified that the manufacturer permits the use of plastic duct.

    In addition to potential fires, clothes dryers also trigger energy bills. The U.S. Department of Energysays that behind the refrigerator, the clothes dryer is the top electricity-using appliance in the house, costing about $85 a year to operate.

    The DOE recommends that if you're shopping for a new dryer that you choose one with a moisture sensor - that means the dryer will automatically shut off when the clothes are dry, saving energy and wear and tear on your clothes.

    The DOE also says gas dryers are less expensive to operate than their electric counterparts - an electric dryer will cost you 30 to 40 cents a load; a gas dryer will cost you 15 to 20 cents a load.

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