About 80% of American homes are equipped with clothes dryers. Most of these are traditional hot boxes, the kind that use heat to dry clothes and pump exhaust outside through a vent.
But what about homes that lack space for a laundry room, or where a landlord or condo association forbids punching a hole in the wall for a dryer vent?
Never fear: Alternatives exist to save you from a life of hoarding quarters and waiting for a free dryer at the laundromat. While ventless dryers have their limitations, they also have real benefits for some consumers. And so, we present a brief tutorial—let's call it Ventless Drying 101.
UPDATE: LG and Whirlpool will both be introducing new ventless dryers in 2017, so look for lab-tested reviews soon.
In Europe, They're Just Called "Dryers."
While ventless dryers might seem unusual to most Americans, they've been popular in Europe for generations.
That's because the U.S. is an anomaly in the world of appliances. American consumers prefer large, vented dryers. In Europe, however, small homes in centuries-old buildings mean that large, vented dryers just aren't feasible, and 24-inch machines—sold as "compact" dryers in the U.S.—are the only available option. The benefits are obvious: You don't need a dedicated laundry room, and you can stick one anywhere there's an electrical outlet. (Keep in mind, most ventless dryers still require 220V power.)
Not only are vented dryers unpopular in Europe, but in some places they're actually illegal. Switzerland has outlawed them since 2012—so don't even think about smuggling your old Maytag into Zürich.
How Do Condenser Dryers Work?
Vented dryers are basically hot air vacuums. They pull room-temperature air in from your laundry room, heat it up, tumble your clothes in it, and then blow the exhaust—full of evaporated moisture—outside. It’s a process that consumes and wastes a lot of energy, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Unless you live in a temperate climate, your vented dryer is likely taking in climate-controlled air from your home and pumping it outdoors. In winter, that means your furnace has to work harder to make up for that air. The waste is even worse in summer, where your dryer has to heat up air that's been artificially cooled by your air conditioner, and then just blows it outside.
The majority of ventless dryers sold in the U.S., however, are condenser dryers, which don't exhaust air. Instead, they use a dual loop airflow system that’s much more efficient.
To learn more, we spoke with Mike Peebles, who has served as the Technical Services Manager in Laundry for Bosch parent company BSH Home Appliance Corporation in North America and Canada for the past 13 years. Peebles knows his stuff: Although Bosch's 24-inch ventless dryers are niche models in the U.S., Bosch is the laundry market leader in the rest of the world.
As he explained it to us, the first airflow loop draws a small amount of ambient air into the dryer—much less than is needed in a conventional unit. The air passes through the condenser for initial heating. The heated air is then pushed into the drum, where it heats up the wet laundry and causes water to evaporate.
Instead of venting that hot, wet air outside, the air is looped back into the condenser where it's cooled down—that's the second airflow loop.
From there, the air that’s already inside the condenser is reheated and sent back into the drum to repeat the process until the clothes are dry. The evaporated water either goes down the drain, or collects in a tray that the user must empty after a cycle.
The Condenser Difference
Aside from not needing a vent, the most direct advantage to this system is that your furnace or air conditioner doesn't have to make up for any air that's vented outside.
Since condenser dryers don't get as hot as vented models, they can also be more gentle on clothes. In our tests, we’ve found that condenser dryers typically ran 30-50°F cooler than vented counterparts, depending on the cycle—that makes a really big difference.
Though consumers often complain that clothes coming out of ventless dryers lack the warm, toasty feel they're used to, that's actually good news for your fabrics.
"Vented dryers have a history of overdrying, which is where the majority of fabric damage occurs," Peebles said. "On the other hand, fabric tends to be cooler coming out of a ventless dryer, so consumers think it's still wet even though the clothes are close to zero percent excess moisture."
Ventless dryers also require less maintenance than their vented counterparts. While the dryers themselves may need to have their secondary lint traps emptied out every month or so, it's far less cumbersome than cleaning a long dryer vent.
"Condensers rarely have to be cleaned," Peebles explained. "It's recommended that you do it once a month, but I've spoken to consumers who do it every three. I usually clean mine about once a year."
What About Heat Pumps?
Condenser dryers aren't the only option. Since 2014, three manufacturers have begun selling heat pump dryers in the U.S. These ventless machines replace the condenser with a heat pump, which works like an air conditioner running in reverse: As they recirculate hot air in the drum, they also remove moisture from laundry.
Another benefit: Both Whirlpool and LG make full-size heat pump dryers, so you don't have to sacrifice load size to get better efficiency. However, the tradeoff is longer cycle times and higher price tags, plus a more sophisticated design that could require additional maintenance.
In the U.S., ventless dryers only make up 2 percent of the overall market, and most are sold to people who have space or venting limitations.
That's because they lack the size, speed, and savings that most Americans crave. While the average vented dryer can hold more than 7 cu. ft. of laundry, compact condenser dryers are usually about half as big. The Whirlpool WED99HEDW is the only full-size ventless dryer sold in the U.S.
Ventless dryers also take longer to get your clothes dry. A vented dryer might finish a Normal load in about 45-50 minutes, but a condenser or heat pump dryer could run for an hour and a half. Want to dry a bulky blanket or comforter? You could be waiting more than three hours.
To top it off, ventless dryers are at least as expensive (if not more so) as conventional ones. The least expensive condenser dryers start at just under $900, which is about twice as much as an entry-level, full-size vented dryer. While a heat pump dryer offers significant energy savings—and may be eligible for rebates from local utility providers—it might be hard to stomach an initial purchase price of $1,699.
Right For You?
So, now that you know the pros and cons, is a ventless dryer right for you? It depends.
At the end of the day, it's hard to imagine condenser dryers gaining mainstream popularity in the U.S. They're just too small and slow for the majority of consumers. Still, their compact size means they could be the best (and only) choice for those who live in smaller homes, where space is at a premium. Even the worst condenser dryer is better than a pricey remodel—or frequent trips to the laundromat.
Heat pump dryers, however, offer significant energy savings, and are gentler on clothes. They're even sold in sizes that wouldn't look out of place in most American laundry rooms. If environmental concerns or clothes care are of particular concern for you, it might be time to check out a heat pump dryer. Just be prepared to pay a lot more for the new technology.