Thanks to fire safety campaigns and diligent dryer vent cleaning companies, awareness appears to be increasing regarding the hazards associated with a dirty dryer vent. Since your dryer vent serves as the exit for heated air from your dryer to the outside, any blockages or combustibles (think lint, animal nesting) can pose significant danger. Enterprising homeowners often want to tackle this task themselves. Here are some things you can do yourself, to the extent you choose, whether you take on the entire project or tackle a few tasks in between professional cleanings.
Clean the outside vent
A properly installed dryer vent line begins at the machine itself and exhausts somewhere outside your home. The end of the vent line should be covered in such a way that allows air and lint to escape but prevents animals and debris from entering. Often this is in the form of a hooded vent cover with a damper or flap, or a louvered cover, that opens when hot air from the running dryer forces it open, and then falls back into a closed position by default. A dryer vent should never be covered with a screen, as this can create a fire hazard when lint collects over time in the holes of the screen. If yours has a screened cover, best practice would be to remove it and replace with an appropriate louvered or hooded cover.
Large clumps of lint often congregate around the outside vent, at the mouth or just outside of it, on the hood, flap, etc. Remove the cover if possible, and use a brush or vacuum to remove as much lint as you can access.
Use a dryer vent cleaning kit (at your own risk)
Dryer vent cleaning kits are widely available in home improvement stores and across the internet. Mostly they consist of a set of flexible rods that screw together to create the needed length, and a few different brush heads to place at the end. They can be used from the beginning of the dryer vent line to the outside vent, or from the outside vent in (having disconnected the dryer from the vent line). The brush head rotates with the aid of an electric or cordless drill, and flexible rods are added on for length as the brush head moves deeper and deeper into the vent line.
As easy as they sound, these kits have some limitations, as well as risks to the vent line, particularly breaking off inside, which can make retrieval very difficult and may necessitate disassembly of the vent line if the breakage occurs in a ceiling, wall cavity, or other inaccessible area. If it happens above a finished ceiling, for example, you may find yourself ripping out drywall to get to it. In sum, dryer vent cleaning brushes work best on very short, straight runs, in vent lines made of rigid metal. Although, if the line is short and straight enough, the entirety of it can perhaps more easily be disconnected, taken outside and cleaned, and then reassembled with heat foil tape.
Where the pros come in
If your dryer vent configuration is straightforward and you're willing to invest the time, DIY dryer vent cleaning can be successful. But there are many cases where you're better off forking over the hundred bucks or so for a professional cleaning and the peace of mind that comes with it. Many an HVAC technician has been called to a home after a DIY dryer vent cleaning fail. The most common problems resulting from DIY attempts are breakages of the rods or brush heads inside the vent line, puncturing of flexible duct, disconnecting of the vent line, and pushing all the debris to a specific spot (an elbow, for example) without being able to fully extract it, thereby creating a bigger and more dangerous clog.
The advantage of hiring a professional? Besides technician experience and the versatility that comes from it, specialized tools are key. Most (but not all) dryer vent cleaning companies, rather than using a handheld drill and rods with a brush head, use an industrial air compressor to power a "skipper ball" via a flexible air line. The tech feeds a skipper ball attached to an air line from the outside vent all the way through the dryer duct to the back of the dryer. When the tool is engaged, it swiftly spins around and expels pressurized air from tiny holes on its surface. As the technician pulls the tool out, the spinning skipper ball blasts the lint out with it. Because the tool is connected to an air hose, instead of rods, there is almost zero risk of breakage. Because the skipper ball relies on air pressure and a spinning motion as opposed to rigid bristles and aggressive torque, there is little chance of disconnecting the vent line or puncturing it. Rooftop dryer vent cleaning adds another layer of complexity and risk familiar to HVAC technicians that many homeowners will want to avoid.
Adequately informed and appropriately equipped, the motivated homeowner can significantly reduce the amount of lint contained in their dryer vent line. A professional can always be called in if things go south, or for those of us who may not be so motivated.
Wanna dig deeper? Download our free tipsheet: 5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Dryer Vent Cleaning Company.
Many thanks to our technician Ben S for lending his expertise to this article.