Living smart: Dryer vent cleaning prevents fires, improves efficiency

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

What you canít see can hurt your wallet, or worse.

Some of the biggest threats and money sieves at home are things you canít see, like your clothes dryer vent.

The easily neglected piping, which in larger homes can exceed 40 feet, often goes ignored for years, sometimes decades. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, that inattention causes more than 15,000 fires annually.

"A lot of people donít understand how bad the problem can be," says Scott Smedstad, owner of Arizona Air Duct Cleaning in suburban Phoenix. "A lot have never had it done."

According to Glen Mayfield, owner of Dryer Vent Wizard of Central Indiana, if your dryer takes more than 40 minutes for a load, feels hot to the touch while running or collects large amounts of lint during operation, youíre probably ready for a cleaning.

If you want to clean your dryer vent on your own, thereís equipment available, including brush kits that cost anywhere from $15 to over $50 based on length and quality.

Both Smedstad and Mayfield say results vary.

"Many do it successfully, but (the brushes) can break or disengage, so you have to be careful to make sure it works properly and it doesnít get stuck," Mayfield says. "Iíve retrieved a lot of them."

Smedstad has also seen good intentions go bad.

"Rarely is someone going to have enough or the right equipment to do it on their own," Smedstad says.

The longer the ventilation pipe, and the more bends and buildup it has, the more difficult the job. Professionals like Smedstad and Mayfield use a sturdy snake or power brush to release clogs, along with a strong vacuum to remove the impediments.

Along with substandard brushes, Mayfield and Smedstad shudder at another do-it-yourself tactic: using a leaf blower to clear the vent from the inside.

"You can do that if itís thoroughly cleaned first, but most people blow it and plug it up 10 times worse," Smedstad says. "Sometimes itís packed in so bad people have to cut the ceiling out to take the pipe apart. It isnít a real good idea."

Mayfield agrees.

"Lint is moist, and a blower canít clean it out," he says. "Itís like a snowball, and the more it rolls the bigger it gets."

Lint isnít the only enemy, as birds are a common infiltrator. Entering from the outside, they love building nests in the closed, warm space.

"Theyíre a huge problem," Mayfield says. "Sometimes theyíll peck the vent cover until they can get it open, and they can get in even if itís in good shape. Weíve found them six and eight feet deep into the vent."

How much does dryer vent cleaning cost?

Smedstadís average dryer vent cleaning costs around $95, while Mayfield charges $125 to $175, depending on the job.

The service saves customers money both short- and long-term. Mayfield cites industry studies that say clogged vents can add $18 to $25 to your monthly energy bill. Also, since clogged vents render dryers ineffective, it isnít uncommon for a homeowner to scrap a unit because they think itís shot.

"Theyíll go out and buy a new one, have the same problem and then call us," Mayfield says. "Then theyíll say, ĎOh, my gosh, I got a new one and didnít even need it.í"