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KSL Investigates: Hidden lint clogs can lead to dangerous fires

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Every day, we dry our clothes without incident. But that doesn’t mean they can’t ignite.

“Dryer fires, specifically, are pretty rare, but when they do happen, they’re pretty dramatic,” said Salt Lake City Fire Department Captain Anthony Burton.

Nearly 16,000 washer and dryer fires every year

Dryer fires can also be deadly. According to the National Fire Prevention Association, 15,970 home fires involving washers or dryers occur every year. Between 2010 and 2014, an estimated 13 people died and 440 were injured in these fires. The fires caused $238 million in damages.

KSL Investigators pulled records from the Salt Lake City Fire Department, West Valley City Fire Department and Unified Fire Authority. In the last five years, only six fires were certainly caused by dryers and most caused only minor damage.

Unified doesn’t track dryer fires specifically, but reported 32 appliance fires, including dryers.

One of the more severe fires happened in Salt Lake City in 2017. The incident report states the home sustained heavy damage, with flames shooting “three feet high… from the vent tubing of the dryer.” The damage was estimated at $50,000.

One way Burton suggested keeping dryer fires from becoming too destructive: keeping the dryer door shut if you suspect a fire.

“Close that door,” said Burton. “That confines it, starves it of oxygen, buys us some time.”

If that’s not possible, he cautioned to get out of the home.

Photo: KSL TV
Photo: KSL TV

An experiment

Burton gave KSL Investigators the green light to do an experiment. For $14, we found a dryer (provided courtesy of Utah Discount Appliance Warehouse), some clothes and a vent. We stuffed it with dryer lint and accelerant to simulate a clogged dryer vent.

Then firefighters lit it on fire.

Flames smoldered inside the vent for quite a while before traveling to the barrel of the dryer and igniting the clothes. Once that happened, heavy smoke poured out. When a firefighter opened the dryer door, oxygen fed the flames, which shot out and engulfed the clothes hanging over the dryer. Overall, the fire burned for about 45 minutes, less time than the typical dryer cycle.

“We had quite a bit of smoke in this simulation,” said Burton. “That’s dangerous to all of us.”

During an experiment, flames smoldered inside the vent for quite a while before traveling to the barrel of the dryer and igniting the clothes. Photo: KSL TV
During an experiment, flames smoldered inside the vent for quite a while before traveling to the barrel of the dryer and igniting the clothes. Photo: KSL TV

Newer construction and longer vent runs

Burton said some homes he’s been to have big problems with the vent runs themselves.

“We’ll also see that the vent piping doesn’t even go outside,” he said.

Doug McPhie, owner of Beehive Duct Cleaning, cleans out about 2,000 vents per year and lamented the same problem.

“They place [dryers] for convenience. They’re in closets and center of the house, second, third stories, basements, long runs,” he said.

Long runs equal more bends and more chances for lint to build up.

Another problem? Roof vents.

“Moist lint is battling gravity to get out,” said McPhie.

Vents that run straight to the roof, depending on how long the run, can mean that lint isn’t making it outside the home.

Lack of maintenance

Burton told us the leading cause of dryer fires is lack of maintenance.

“People are not emptying their lint trap, they’re not cleaning the vent,” he said.

Vilate Trussell of Sandy is religious about cleaning her lint trap after every load of laundry. Periodically, she even washes it with a brush.

“I just go back and forth and back and forth until I’m satisfied that it’s clean,” said Trussell.

Some of the debris pulled out of a dryer vent Monday, March 2, 2020. Photo: KSL TV
Some of the debris pulled out of a dryer vent Monday, March 2, 2020. Photo: KSL TV

The KSL Investigators called Doug McPhie to check out Trussell’s dryer vent.

Trussell was not prepared for all the gunk that came spewing out once McPhie’s crew started cleaning out the vent.

“I really do get the lint out of the thing, I really do,” said Trussell.

McPhie said he’s frequently called to homes for service after a repairman visits the home.

“We get about 15 calls a month I’d estimate of people who have an appliance repairman in their home, and they say the reason this part died on your dryer is your dryer van is congested,” he said.

Costly repair bills are one thing, but here are some tips to prevent dryer fires:

  • Clean the lint trap after every load.
  • Make sure your vent runs outside.
  • Make sure the proper cap is on your vent outside to prevent animals from getting in.
  • Have the vent professionally cleaned every six to 12 months, depending on the length of the vent run.
  • Don’t put flammable items in your dryer, like rubber-backed bathmats or anything with oil or gasoline stains.

Trussell’s vent, after cleaning, indicated a 20% increased airflow, which will save her money on her energy bill and prevent her dryer from working too hard.

Some signs it’s time to clean out your dryer vent include:

  • Low air pressure from your vent.
  • Taking multiple cycles to dry clothes.
  • Smelling smoke when running the dryer.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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