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How often you should clean your dryer — and the right way to do it

Just like Joni Mitchell tells us, we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone — and that goes for the miracle that is a properly working clothes dryer.

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How to clean your dryer vent

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How to clean your dryer vent

Play Video - 0:58

Unfortunately, many times our dryers break because we haven’t properly maintained them. Sure, we swipe the thick layer of lint from the filter now and again, but there’s so much more that needs a little TLC.

Tim Smith of Chimney Sweeps of America is an Angie’s List recommended dryer vent cleaner, and he’s breaking down what you need to know to properly clean your dryer. Not only will these tips maintain your dryer’s efficiency — but they will also help prevent the appliance from breaking down. Here are his professional tips for maintaining dryer filters, drums and vents.

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Cleaning filters and drums

Filter

Let’s tackle the easiest chore first. We all know that dryer filters should be cleaned after each use. However, a clean filter may still be clogged if you use fabric softener sheets in the dryer.

Test your dryer filter by clearing it of lint, then pouring a small amount of water onto the filter screen. If the water pools up instead of flowing through the screen, wash the screen in warm, soapy water using a brush. Rinse, retest and repeat until the water flows through.

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Drum

The dryer drum usually doesn’t need cleaning unless you’re drying a load of hairy, pet items or gritty play clothes. In these cases, try to shake the hair and grit off the articles before tossing them into the dryer. After the load is dry, wipe out the drum with a damp cloth to remove hair and grit.

Should lipstick, gum, crayon, etc. accidentally find its way into your dryer, it’s okay to scream. After you cool down, however, follow this advice from Debra Johnson, national home cleaning expert at Merry Maids: “Get the stuff off by warming the dryer a few minutes. (Toss in a couple old towels or rags first.) Remove the excess by scraping it off with a hard rubber spatula. Tackle the remaining residue by wiping the area with a cloth dampened with a small amount of laundry detergent and hot water. Use a dry cloth to remove any excess water or suds.”

Believe it or not, that was the easy part of dryer maintenance. Now it’s time to bring out the big guns.

Cleaning the dryer vent

How often?

Dryer exhaust vents should be inspected and cleaned at least once a year depending on the size of the household and dryer usage. “I have four children and do lots of laundry, so I clean it three times a year,” says Smith.

Why?

Dryer vents accumulate highly flammable lint, and failure to clean out lint is the leading cause of dryer fires. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, over 15, 000 dryer fires occurred in the U.S. in 2010. A plugged dryer vent can also burn out the heating element.

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When?

A telltale sign that the dryer vent needs cleaning is that clothes take longer and longer to dry.

“When it takes 2-3 cycles to dry a load of towels, it’s time to check things out,” says Smith. Another indication of poor or obstructed venting is that the dryer’s external cabinet or it’s control area is hotter than usual. If that happens, disconnect the dryer and check the vent.

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How?

Visually inspect the outside vent opening and remove any obstructions — usually these are animal nests. Vents at ground level are perfect for rodent nests (chipmunks, squirrels and rats). Upper level vents are more attractive to birds.

Next, tackle the lint. There are several options for removing lint build-up.

  • A flexible brush with an extendible wand grabs the lint for easy removal (from $17-34 at home improvement stores).
  • An air compressor blows it out.
  • A combination vacuum cleaner and brush sucks it out. (Just make sure the vacuum hose is long enough.)

Whichever method you use, it’s important to remove the lint throughout the entire length of the vent.

Wait! You’re not finished. After removing the lint from the vent, remove it also from the area behind the dryer—the floor, under the dryer and the back of the cabinet. Why? “The air being pulled into the dryer comes from behind the dryer,” says Smith. “If there’s lint around there, it will be drawn into the dryer, causing further build-up in the vent.”

Yikes! Does all this sound too complicated? Consider hiring a pro to do it. According to Smith, the average professional dryer cleaning runs $89-$179.

This article was originally published March 8, 2016.

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