The MOST Common Causes of Dryer Fires


Whenever we hear warnings about fires in the home, dryer fires are high on the list of concerns. There are fears that these appliances could catch fire and cause serious damage, and there are some alarming statistics to back this up.

So, why are dryer fires so common, how do they start, and what can you do to try and make sure they never happen in your home?

It is so important that we appreciate the risks and how to prevent fires from happening. In this article I’ll discuss: 

  • How dangerous are dryer fires?
  • What are the common dryer fire causes?
  • What can we do to prevent a dryer from catching fire?
  • How to respond if your dryer catches fire. 

Why are dryer fires so common?

Dryer fires are common because there are many variables that can contribute to a fire. Electrical components, high heat, lack of maintenance and lint are common causes of dryer fires. Add in combustible materials, faults, or even some freak accidents, and you can end up with a dryer fire.

These can be devastating when they get out of control.

How dangerous are dryer fires? 

The National Fire Protection Association produced a report detailing dryer fire causes and incidents from 2014 to 2018.

They state that approximately 13,820 home structure fires during that time involved a dryer. That was 4% out of home structure fires for that period.

These fires lead to around 7 civilian deaths, 344 injuries, and $233 million in property damage.

Are there more dryer fires in winter? 

It is also worth noting that the risk of these fires is higher in the winter. This simply comes from more frequent use in the colder wetter months than the summer.

In the summer, we are more likely to air-dry clothes or put them out on a washing line in the sun. In the winter, we have to rely more on machines and have the added problem of clothes getting wet in the rain and snow.

With all these added chores, we increase the risk of the machines wearing out, overheating, and getting a built-up of lint. We may not clean that lint trap as often as we should at this time. 

What are the common dryer fire causes? 

Dryer fires can occur for several reasons. The stats from the 2014-2018 NFPA report show that while there are lots of risk factors to be aware of, from mechanical issues to combustible materials and improper use, one factor is far more prevalent than the rest.

But, there are smaller elements to the data that we can’t overlook. For example, 6% of cases were apparently because there was a heat source too close to combustibles.

This highlights the importance of setting up your dryer in a safe utility room or appropriate part of the kitchen rather than in an outbuilding where you keep your cleaning supplies and fuels. 

On that note, it is also interesting that only 78% of fires happened in electric-powered dryers as the rest were gas-powered.

This shows that while gas-powered dryers are less common, they are still a concern.

Fires from malfunctions, overheating, or unclean drums here could spark and spread to the fuel powering the machine, leading to a bigger risk of intense fires, explosions, and catastrophic incidents. 

Poor cleaning and maintenance can increase the risk of dryer fires significantly. 

Data shows that 32% of those dryer fires in this period were the result of poor cleaning. The high percentage of dryer fire causes listed as poor cleaning is alarming.

So, it is important to understand why this may be the cause. This issue could be down to a range of more specific issues, such as a build-up of flammable material in the vents or a failure to clean out the lint traps.

The lint trap is a chore we can easily get out of the habit of when rushing through household chores. We also may not appreciate how much dirt clogs the vents between the machine and exterior wall.

Once the clothes are dry, we don’t think about much else. 

It should also be mentioned here that the 7 deaths highlighted before occurred in fires where poor cleaning was the attributed cause. This shows the seriousness of this issue. 

There are also risks of dryer fires from mechanical and electrical failures.

The next highest percentage was 27% of dryer fires from mechanical failures or malfunctions. As with the cleaning issue, these faults could relate to a few different issues.

In many cases, the dryer could have been really old with parts that were overheating or wearing out. Then there are 16% of cases due to electrical failure or malfunction.

Here, there could have been a new machine with a manufacturing fault in the electronics where something short-circuited. 

What sort of materials can cause dryer fires? 

Dryer fires in any form can be a big problem, but the intensity of fire could have a lot to do with the materials in and around the machine.

The data from the NFPA highlighted above also talks about the materials identified in known dryer fires and there are two main culprits. 

First of all, there is the fact that 27% of these fires started from lint, dust, and fiber.

Fiber here means loose pieces of cloth or microfibre that came away from materials and remained within the traps and vents with the dust and lint.

From there, 25% of the fires involved clothing. Some of these could be a spark in the machine igniting dry clothing or a deeper risk from the presence of a flammable material. 

Then there 11% that appears to have started from unclassified soft goods. This could be something as simple as bed linen and towels or a piece of soft furnishing that should never have been in there, such as a cushion or pillow.

Finally, there are the starting points that aren’t from organic materials in the vents or drum. 12% of the fires appeared to start in the housing of the appliance and 6% from electrical wires. 

Improper use can lead to dryer fires.

Finally, for these risk factors, we need to talk about improper use. This isn’t where we have forgotten to clean out the lint trap or neglected to service a machine.

This is where we don’t follow the instructions for the device. For example, some people may put items in the dryer that are completely unsafe.

These may overheat and lead to problems with the dryer then cause malfunctions and fires. There are also cases of people trying to dry materials that were wet from flammable liquids.

Your drier should only be for safe materials wet from water and you should always familiarize yourself with the instructions and limitations of your machine.

How to prevent dryer fires

It is vital that we are all aware of important prevention methods for dryer fires. The better we all are at following these practices, the lower the chance of having to deal with a fire.

Cleaning and maintenance solutions have to be top of this list because so many dryer fires are the result of all that dust and lint in filters and vents.

But, you also need to make sure that you follow the instructions for your machine and don’t add any materials or items that aren’t safe. 

Cleaning and maintenance is probably the best area to focus on for preventative measures because of the higher rates of fires. It is important to get back into the habit of cleaning your lint screen and filters after every cycle.

Also, run a cloth around the drum to pick up loose fibers. Cleaning out the vents is a different matter.

But, you can hire a professional to do so each year to make sure that they are clean and will perform better. 

As for maintenance, it doesn’t hurt to get a machine serviced and it is a good idea to get a professional opinion if there is anything unusual.

For example, is the dryer running hotter than normal or can you hear the drum or other part struggling? 

What should you do if your dryer catches fire? 

Dryer fires can be very dangerous because of the heat and electronic components. If there is a small electric fire or you just smell burning.

Do your best to switch off the machine at the main outlet or breaker, but only if it is safe to do so.

It can also help to remove anything that could be an accelerant from the immediate area – again, only if safe to do so. Evacuate the room, close the door, and call the fire department. 

Dryer fires are a concern but avoidable, as there are lots of risk factors associated with dryer fires.

A build-up of lint, improper use, or a simple mechanical or electrical failure could be enough to start a blaze. But, there is no reason to give up on using your machine altogether. With safe practices and regular cleaning, you can lower the risk significantly.

Mike Pertz

I’m Mike, I’m a full time firefighter/paramedic/diver for a department just west of Cleveland, Ohio and the founder of FirefighterNOW. I’m also a columnist for FireRescue1. If you’re reading this blog my guess is you are interested in the fire service. There's information on fitness, gear, interviews, tests and more. I hope you find what you're looking for.

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