Electric versus gas dryers: Will one leave you all wet?

A friend recently told me she’s considering buying a new dryer, since hers is making a thunking sound. When I asked if she has a gas or electric dryer, she scrunched up her face and finally shrugged. If you’re not poking around behind your appliance, you might not know what’s going on inside it.

But if you are going to purchase a new dryer, you need to know what you’re looking for. Just because you have a gas hookup, it doesn’t mean you have to use it. On the other hand, if you’re not set up for gas and don’t want to go through a whole installation process, electric is your only option. Given the choice, though, is one really better than the other?

How can you tell?

An electric and gas dryer outlet, on the left and right, respectively.

An electric and gas dryer outlet, on the left and right, respectively.

If you just moved into a new place with a washer and dryer hookup but no appliance, you can tell by the outlet. Gas dryers run on electricity — to do things like power the lights and turn the drum — but heat with gas. The outlet should look pretty typical, and there will be a capped off gas line in the vicinity. If the outlet is larger — it may have three or four holes for prongs — and you don’t see a gas line, chances are you’ve got an electric setup, which runs on 240 volts. You can snap a picture of the outlet and bring it with you to the appliance store, and they should be able to confirm for you. For those of you who have an existing dryer, you can always check out the model number. Gas dryers usually have a “G” somewhere in the jumble of letters, while electric ones have an “E.”

How they heat

Both types use heat, air, and tumbling to get your clothes dry. The airflow and tumbling go hand-in-hand. While electric dryers use a heating element, gas dryers have a gas burner. In the former, an electric current travels through the heating coil, building up electrons and heating up the metal and in turn, the air. The heated air is then sent into the drum via a blower or fan. Using natural gas or propane, gas dryers use an ignitor to burn the gas. As with the electric version, a blower or fan draws the hot air into the drum.

How about a vent?

Both electric and gas dryers get vented to the outside, thanks to the moist, lint-filled air they expel. Otherwise, you could find yourself with a mildewy basement, not to mention lots of particulates in the air. In addition, the vent on a gas dryer exhausts out the products of combustion, which you also don’t’ want to breathe. Ventless electric models are often found in apartments, because they don’t need to exhaust the air outside. First, the air is heated by a condenser then travels to the drum and starts evaporating the water from the wet clothes. It returns to the condenser for a cool down, and while the the moisture condenses and travels down the drain or into a chamber that later needs to be emptied by the user, the air gets reheated and returns to the drum to start the cycle over again. It’s more efficient energy-wise but takes longer than the vented process. Still, if your condo doesn’t have the conventional laundry hookups, it’s the only way to go.

How much does it cost?

Up front, you’re going to pay around $50 to $100 more for a gas dryer, not to mention the installation cost, which could run you around $150 to $200, says Steve Sheinkopf, CEO of Yale Appliances and writer of the Yale Appliance Blog. Gas dryers are more energy efficient in the long run, according to Energy Star, though that may depend on rates in your area. However, front-load washers spin three times as fast as they did in the early ’80s, meaning clothes aren’t as wet going into the dryer, Sheinkopf points out.

There are now Energy Star-certified dryers, in both electric and gas versions, and the agency says these are up to 20 percent more efficient than standard models. Using a combination of moisture sensors, which stop the dryer when clothes are dry instead of running the entire cycle, and lower heat settings that increase dry times but use less power, these dryers can reduce the cost.

So, which way should you go, gas or electric?

“If you have gas or electricity, stay with what you have,” says Sheinkopf. “Looking way ahead, the heat pump drying is the most efficient.” The trade-off is that these tend to have slightly longer dry times than we’re used to.