Energy efficient, safer dryer struggles to come to market

Local 6 tests product in two demonstrations

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Marcos Rivera and his two young children barely escaped the flames that engulfed their home.

It was just before Thanksgiving when the Riveras lost everything.  The father clung to his youngest daughter outside as he explained how he tried to rush inside to turn off the dryer because he could see the flames starting.  His efforts were too little, too late.

Thousands of homeowners lose property every year as the result of lint fires that happen in the clothes dryer.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that as many as 7,000 homes catch fire annually, and FEMA claims this results in $35 billion worth of damage.

Fires can occur when homeowners fail to clean out the lint that builds up around the exhaust system of the dryer.  The electric system that heats the dryer looks like the inside of a hair dryer and it easily ignites lint.

Not only is the heating element a fire hazard, it's also not energy efficient.  In fact, there is no energy efficient dryer on the market.  Nothing has met the standards to receive the Energy Star seal.

But since 2005, a Central Florida inventor has been trying to garner attention and adoption of a system he claims solves all of these problems.  

"One hundred percent of electric dryers on the market will ignite lint.  One hundred percent of Safemate dryers will not ignite lint," said Mike Brown, the owner of Hydromatic technologies who invented what the Safemate dryer.

Brown said he first got approval from the Department of Energy to create a heating element that uses liquid in 2005.  He provided an email from the DOE in which they classify his system as a "market ready-prototype".

Safemate dryers are identical to a conventional electric dryer in their motors and mechanisms.  But the electric heating element on the back is replaced with a heating element that looks more like a radiator from a car.

The part, which was once known as the dyer miser, is retrofitted on the back of the dryer and uses a thermo-dynamic fluid inside a sea of metal coils to heat the air that is pumped into the dryer.

Eight specific Whirlpool made dryer models have been tested and approved to be retrofitted with the heating element.

Brown said the mechanism actually uses less heat but still dries the clothes in the same amount of time.  He also claims because it uses less heat, clothing lasts longer because it produces less lint.  The lower temperature and lower amount of lint, in turn, makes it impossible for a lint fire to occur, according to Brown.

For the past 8 years he's toiled with testing and developing the product and said he has had closed-door meetings with major appliance manufacturers from around the world to try to get them to use it in their clothes dryers.

Underwriters Laboratories, the leading Consumer Product Safety testing agency, even validated the device for a safety seal in 2008.  

However, not one single appliance company will adopt the product ans none of them are currently producing or developing an energy efficient safer alternative dryer, according to Brown.

Requests for information and comment from Whirlpool, General Electric and Sears have not been returned.  Whirlpool said it was researching the matter but has not provided anything further.

"I was told face to face that it would be market disruptive to use my product," said Brown.

He said that he has also been caught in a cat and mouse game with the Department of Energy, which apparently will not test and validate his device until it is commercially available.

In 2011, he started a beta testing program to try to get at least 1,000 consumers actively using the dryer with the hope that it may attract someone to begin massively producing a dryer with the hydronic element.

At the Academy of Career Training, a beauty school in Kissimmee, Liz Petrusa has been using the dryer along with a high-end newer model frontloading dryer for the past 19 months.

"We do a lot more laundry that an average homeowner would do in a typical week," said Petrusa.

With classes and clients in and out of the school all the time, they have to wash and dry a lot of towels.  She said since she started using the Safemate dryer she's seen a drop in her electric bill.

She demonstrated how well it works by running two identical towel loads through the Safemate dryer and the electric dryer for 40 minutes.

The towels in the Safemate dryer were completely dry while the others were damp.

Brown has purchased an old furniture warehouse in Kissimmee with plenty of open space to begin putting together assembly line production of his dryer.  He said he can retrofit dryers in a matter of minutes for a little over $300.  

For $650 consumers can purchase a brand new dryer directly from Safemate once production begins.   Brown said he is buying dryers at cost from Home Depot and then retrofitting the elements.

At the mostly empty warehouse, he demonstrated the energy efficiency of the Safemate dryer in comparison to an electric Whirpool dryer.

A wattage meter showed a 2000 kilowatt hour difference between the two, and a thermometer showed the exhaust coming from the Safemate dryer about 20 degrees lower as well.

A 50-minute cycle completely dried the equal loads in both dryers, but the Safemate dryer produced less lint.

Brown now hopes the Environmental Protection Agency can help force the hand of appliance manufacturers.  He is applying for the EPA's emergent technology award for clothes dryers, which challenged someone to come up with an energy efficient dryer since it is the last major household appliance that does not meet the Energy Star criteria.

Brown said he believes he will win the award, which would cause dryer manufacturer's to purchase his technology.

Requests for information from both the EPA and Department of Energy were never fulfilled.

In the meantime, consumers can contact Hydromatic Technologies via their website to either retrofit their current dryer or purchase a new one. A list of models that can be retrofit is available in the upgrade guide.

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