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 / Updated  / Source: TODAY
By Karen B. Gibbs

Just like Joni Mitchell said, 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.

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 then, but there’s so much more to do.

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 about properly cleaning your dryer. These tips will not only maintain your dryer’s efficiency, but also prevent the appliance from breaking down. Here are his professional tips for maintaining dryer filters, drums and vents.

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How to clean dryer lint traps and drums

  • Filter

Let’s tackle the easiest chore first. We all know that dryer filters should be cleaned after each use. However, your 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.

  • Drum

The dryer drum usually doesn’t need cleaning unless you’re drying a load of hairy pet items or gritty play clothes. In those 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 OK 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 for 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,” she said.

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

How to clean dryer vents

  • 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,” said 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, more than 15,000 dryer fires occurred in the U.S. in 2010. A plugged dryer vent can also burn out the heating element.

  • 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,” Smith said. Another indication of poor or obstructed venting is that the dryer’s external cabinet or its control area is hotter than usual. If that happens, disconnect the dryer and check the vent.

How to clean your dryer vents

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 buildup.

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

But wait! You’re not finished yet. After removing the lint from the vent, also check 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,” said Smith. “If there’s lint around there, it will be drawn into the dryer, causing further buildup in the vent.”

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

Using interviews with specialists, online reviews and personal experience, TODAY editors, writers and experts take care to recommend items we really like and hope you’ll enjoy! TODAY does have affiliate relationships with various online retailers. So, while every product is independently selected, if you buy something through our links, we may get a small share of the revenue.

This article was originally published on March 8, 2016.