How can a tumble dryer catch fire when unplugged?

Fire Risk I’ve just read a news article about another tumble dryer that caught fire causing serious damage. The article also mentions that 3 people have died and 300 injured in recent years in fires caused by tumble dryers.

However, what’s different and more shocking about this one is that it is reported that the dryer had been unplugged at the time –

Fire at Honley home after UNPLUGGED tumble dryer bursts into flames

The article didn’t offer any explanation as to how that was possible.

How could a dryer catch fire when not even plugged in?

If a dryer was definitely unplugged it should be impossible to catch fire. However, it might have already caught fire inside and so unplugging it wouldn’t prevent the fire. The only other explanation I can think of for one bursting into flames after being unplugged is if a dryer had been running for some time prior to it being turned off.

If it was unplugged or switched off instead of cancelling the programme (bypassing its cooling down period) then latent heat from the elements could have continued to build up. This could have set the laundry inside on fire. Ironically this could be done by someone trying to do the right thing by not leaving a dryer running when going out – which in itself is a fire risk. I would expect the chances of this happening are rare but real.

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I can’t say exactly what happened in the reported case because it doesn’t contain those details. However, this article has been inspired by the incident and will hopefully warn others. This explanation is theoretical but definitely a real issue to be wary of. Read my previous article which explains why you should never turn off a dryer mid cycle.

Is this something to worry about?

As far as I am aware at the moment it’s still a rare thing to happen. I would hope that only rare circumstances conspire to cause a fire. However, I am reliably informed by one manufacturer that laundry inside tumble dryers can catch fire, especially if they have a lot of “grease” on them from our bodies or elsewhere.

This might be avoided by ensuring laundry is washed properly, on the proper wash cycle and with the correct amount of detergent – especially on laundry that contacts our skin. Also my own tumble dryer instruction manual specifically warns that stopping the dryer before it has finished can cause the laundry to self-ignite!

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I expect this danger is the same for many brands of this type of tumble dryer. If you have a dryer, try to read the manual carefully for similar warnings. (download most white goods instruction manuals). Ultimately it just makes sense to follow sensible precautions. If you need to cancel a drying load then follow the advice in my article never turn off a dryer mid cycle.

What if the dryer stops due to a power cut or a fault?

A power cut (or the dryer itself fusing) would also cut the cycle. Again it’s hopefully unlikely there would be any consequences but under certain circumstances this fire danger can’t be 100% ruled out. The main thing is that a dryer shouldn’t be running when no one is at home – never leave a dryer running if you’ve gone out or gone to bed. Unfortunately though even if you are present there’s not much you can do if the dryer suddenly cut out due to a fault or power cut – or caught fire – but at least you’d be around to potentially deal with any consequences.

Dealing with a tumble dryer fire

I would also say that I’m no fire expert, but if your dryer started smoking and you suspected it was starting to get on fire inside I would resist the temptation to open the door to retrieve clothes. Opening the door would flood the drum with extra air and that could make it worse or even cause smouldering to turn into flames.

It would need disconnecting from the mains asap (if you couldn’t get to the plug use the main fuse board). Then it would need watching until it cooled down, with hopefully an appropriate fire extinguisher at the ready. Remember these are very rare things but not so rare that we shouldn’t be educated about the issues.

Fire extinguishers & smoke alarms

The best advice I can give is to have a good home fire extinguisher close by to deal with electrical fires. They cost relatively very little. I’ve had them around in my house for 15 years. I’ve never needed one but they are insurance and give some peace of mind. Also try to ensure a working smoke alarm is fitted close to household appliances. This is much easier if they aren’t in a kitchen, though I understand you can get less sensitive alarms for kitchens.

More safety issues related to tumble dryers & other appliances

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2 thoughts on “How can a tumble dryer catch fire when unplugged?”

  1. Living on my own for many years now I have not bothered with a tumble drier just making sure that clothes are well spun and putting on the clothes line in good weather, or left to air dry in the house. (Make sure you have good air circulation in the property.) Both my daughters families do have tumble driers and I have seen some issues with those. The big problem, as you mentioned is loss of power as cancelling should allow the cooling cycle to continue, however I am always surprised at how with so much electronic technology manufacturers make so many bad decisions with regards to safe operation, etc..

    Where I live we get several brief power cuts per month. These appear to be at grid changeover, surge compensation times, and usually last no longer than about 10 seconds. Those that do exceed this are normally less than a minute. This does mean that each month there are several opportunities for driers to overheat. This is likely to get even worse with power usage probably going to outstrip supply. I would have thought that to overcome the loss of power and enable some form of cooling to continue, though maybe at a reduce rate, with the use built in rechargeable lithium ion batteries that cut in on loss of power. It should also possible to remember where you were at power loss and return to that phase in the cycle unless cancelled.

  2. Hello Geoff. I’ve today researched this subject a little more and modified my article in places. It seems that some of these dryers are at risk of laundry catching fire if the dryer is stopped mid cycle by a power cut or fault. My own tumble dryer has the following warning in the instruction manual – “If the drying programme is interrupted before the end of the cooling down phase, this could cause the laundry to self-ignite. ”

    Unfortunately battery power wouldn’t provide enough electricity to operate a fan, but I agree that this is potentially a very serious flaw in their design. The manufacturer’s don’t seem to view this as a flaw, but more of just an undesirable side effect.

    It’s one thing warning people to never stop one mid cycle but if there’s a power cut people can’t do anything about that. As to what they could do though.. I expect it’s a problem that is solvable but probably only at great expense and elaboration. If so, manufacturer’s should not think it’s good enough to only mention this fire risk in a small section deep within a large instruction manual that they know most people won’t read. Warnings should surely be printed on the front of the appliance. Fires are exceptionally serious – and can kill!

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