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Gunk be gone: Cleaning the dryer vent is good for your home

Laura Firszt
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Daily Comet

Have you ever watched professional dryer vent cleaning in action? I just did. Amazing how fast and efficiently that crew worked to take care of all 32 units in my condo complex. Equally amazing was how much gunk they got out of those dryer ducts.

Now if you live in a single family home, you might not have the chance to witness dryer duct cleaning on such a grand scale (and you might not find it as enthralling as I do, but please don’t judge). However, no matter where you live, regular cleaning of the dryer vent is important for your home.

Learn three compelling reasons why, plus dryer vent cleaning cost and maintenance tips.

Why dryer vent cleaning is essential

1. Energy efficiency. Over time, your dryer vent (which carries away water vapor produced by the clothes drying process) gradually gets clogged with dust, lint and hair from your laundry.

Obviously, a blocked vent won’t do its job as well, meaning that the dryer spin cycles will become less efficient and drying times will be two or three times longer than normal. Besides the increased wear and tear, your dryer will require more electricity or gas to operate, raising your fuel bills.

2. Relative humidity regulation. Another side effect of a clogged dryer vent is higher indoor humidity. The lint buildup inside the venting system acts like a sponge, absorbing and holding moisture from the dryer, rather than channeling it safely outdoors.

This raises the relative humidity above the ideal of 30-50% leading to dampness-related problems such as condensation on your windows. If untreated, the eventual result is likely to be mold damage to your house.

3. Safety for your home and family. Clogged vents threaten your household’s safety. They increase the likelihood of short circuits and other electrical hazards and in the case of gas dryers, prevent proper exhausting of carbon monoxide.

In addition, they cause the dryer to overheat, a serious fire risk. The US Fire Administration reports an annual 100 injuries, five deaths and $35,000,000 in property loss from residential clothes dryer fires. The leading cause of dryer fires? Quite simply, failure to clean the dryer.

When should you clean your dryer vent?

Once a year is recommended for dryer vent cleaning. Clean more often if you do large amounts of laundry, you have a long and/or angled dryer duct, or you spot any of the following "clogged vent warning signs":

- Laundry loads take longer than usual to dry.

- Clothes are hot when you take them out.

- Your lint trap collects more gunk than normal.

- The dryer’s exterior is hot (not just warm) to the touch.

- The air in your laundry room feels exceptionally warm and/or humid.

- You detect a smell of scorching or burning near the dryer.

- The outside dryer vent cap or louver is not opening normally.

Dryer vent cleaning: DIY or call A pro?

DIY dryer duct cleaning for the average home is not a particularly difficult task. CNET offers a clear how-to vent cleaning guide. (If you’re into gadgets, you might want to buy a dryer cleaner kit online; however, these are effective only for shorter vent pipes ... and have been known to get stuck in longer ones.) CAVEAT: Wear a breathing mask to protect yourself from the clouds of lint that you’ll let loose.

You may find it more cost-effective to invest in a professional dryer vent cleaning service. This is especially true if:

- you have respiratory problems

- you’re short of time and energy

- you’d prefer not pay for, or store, all the necessary equipment

- your dryer vent pipe is long (10 feet or more) or has several bends, curves or angles

- you have a rooftop dryer vent, rather than one on an exterior wall

Dryer vent cleaning cost

The cost to hire dryer duct cleaners near you - usually an HVAC tech, plumber, or handyman - is not prohibitive, about $130 on average. Expect the whole process to take about 30-45 minutes. And if that’s your thing, enjoy the show.

Dryer vents and local building code

Building code specifications for dryer vents vary from area of the country to another. InterNACHI, the International Association of Certified Home inspectors, offers recommended safety guidelines, based on International Residential Code Section M1502: Clothes Dryer Exhaust.

8 preventive dryer vent maintenance tips

Here are eight practical tips to help your dryer vent stay clear longer:

1. Clean the lint screen. Pick lint off after every use. Handwash the screen occasionally to remove fabric softener residue (dry thoroughly before putting it back). Once monthly, use a skinny, long-handled brush to clear the lint trap, the cavity where the screen sits. (The first time I ever did this, to a 2-year-old dryer, I pulled out a softball-size clump of dust.)

2. Clear around the dryer. Make sure the area under and behind your dryer is free of dust bunnies, animal hair, etc. Never stack your freshly washed clothes on top of the dryer.

3. Keep unhemmed or torn fabrics out of the dryer. Raw edges, such as those of quilt pieces or cleaning cloths, fray more easily, producing larger quantities of lint. Hem them first or line dry.

4. Avoid machine drying rubber or plastic. Bathmats, pet beds, running shoes, and other items containing rubber or plastic may deteriorate when machine dried. Particles can flake off, clogging your dryer vent.

5. Always air-dry dirty clothing or towels. If you dry, say, a sandy bathing suit, all that sand will end up in your dryer and its vent system. NOT a good idea. Air-dry soiled items instead.

6. Never cover the vent outlet with a screen. The vent flap should be sufficient to keep out small animals. A screen will trap some of the lint which ought to be going outdoors.

7. Install a metal duct extender. If you haven’t already, do yourself and your family a favor by installing a smooth metal duct extender (the piece that connects the dryer to the wall vent). Plastic and foil are easily crushed, restricting airflow ... not to mention that they’re both flammable at high temperatures.

8. Buy a full-size dryer. Is it time to replace your dryer? Unless you’re squeezed for space, purchase a full-size model, rather than a smaller, stackable one, nd have it professionally installed. It will do a much better job of blowing air, as well as drying your laundry.

My two cents on dryer vent cleaning

And what’s the verdict, after the dryer vent cleaning at my home?

My clothes are drying faster, the dryer itself feels cooler and I don’t worry about dryer fires anymore. I’d call that a win.

Laura Firszt writes for networx.com.