Duct cleaning generally refers to the cleaning of various heating and cooling system components of forced air systems, including the supply and return air ducts and registers, grilles and diffusers, heat exchangers heating and cooling coils, condensate drain pans (drip pans), fan motor and fan housing, and the air handling unit housing (See diagram).
Preventing against air leakage is great, but the only way to keep dust and debris out of a duct system would be to completely seal off the return-air side of the system, which would render the system useless. Cold-air returns will always pull dust and other particles into the system. A high-MERV rated filter is definitely a good idea, but it does nothing to keep the return side of the system clean. Definitely agree though to use foil tape to seal seams, etc. Duct tape dries out over time and as it does can actually add more particles to the air.
If the system is sealed air-tight and a really good filtering system is in place then you should NEVER have to clean your ductwork. Most dust people see in their homes (on beds furniture etc....) is broken down insulation that is being blown into the home from the attic (venturi effect) where the duct bucket (box etc...) is not sealed at the sheetrock ceiling. On the return side, ANY leaks in the ductwork will pull hot attic air and dust into the system, clogging up everything.
I've been in business in Florida for 25 years and purchased a $12,000 duct cleaning system 4 years ago. In the last four years I've cleaned 5 duct systems charging around $400 each. Not a very good return on investment. What I have been doing most the time is I get a call by someone panicked because they called some low priced company to inspect their system and were told they have dangerous black mold. Then they call me to have a look. Most the time they don't have mold, ducts look very clean. However the coils are dirty and the inside of the air handler cabinet needs cleaning. Keep in mind not every system can handle supper high efficiency filters! These filters can block air flow quite a bit right out of the package. Many older systems can't handle pleated filters due to increased static pressure. "Back rooms with low air flow". I have taken many hours of classroom study on indoor air quality. Never got any certification because I don't want to pay another organization dues yearly. I think the problem with duct / system cleaning is most people are suckers for low priced scams that are rip- offs . People call me all the time and ask how much? When I tell them average $400 they hang up. I know I do the job correctly and honestly, and they are going to get racked over the coals by the scam artists by calling $79 whole house duct cleaning guys. People need to check internet, angies list and BBB reviews. But keep in mind even reviews need to be sifted through your rational person filter.
In most modern homes with up-to-date heating and air conditioning systems, filters are changed regularly through the year, so you may not even need to hire a professional. However, keep your eyes open for the accumulation of dust, dirt, dander and mold. If you see it despite regularly changing your filters it could be an indication you need a high-pressure cleaning.
Since most states and municipalities don’t license air duct cleaners, you need to check their professional credentials instead, such as NADCA membership. EPA recommends all duct cleaners follow NADCA standards. Member companies must keep at least one technician on staff who has passed a NADCA test. “They have to pass rigorous testing to earn the certificate, and our code of ethics is very important,” Vinick says.
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have been shown to act as a collection source for a variety of contaminants that have the potential to affect health, such as mold, fungi, bacteria, and very small particles of dust. The removal of such contaminants from the HVAC system and home should be considered as one component in an overall plan to improve indoor air quality.
The jury is out on whether or not cleaning your air ducts and vents has a significant enough impact to be necessary. A proven connection between immaculate duct systems and air quality in the home has not been made. However, if your vents display any of the signs listed above, cleaning would certainly be in your best interest. Allowing mold, debris and bacteria to fester could create bigger problems down the line. If having your system disinfected is within your budget, you may prefer to take care of these issues rather than ignore them.
As one of the duct cleaners that do it right it disgusts me to hear the horror stories some of my past customers have had with the companies using scare tactics, bait and switch schemes, and just plain intimidation to make a fast buck. The Ductz franchise as a whole has gone behind other "duct cleaners" in the last year to the tune of almost three-quarters of a million dollars. All of this expense could have been avoided had the customers been able to do some background research before hiring. NADCA is a great organization and should be a minimum requirement for finding a duct cleaner. Other great questions include "How long does the service take?" (2 techs, 4-5 hours for a small house, 7-9+ hours for a two system house), "Do you clean the entire system including all trunk lines and the air handler (blower motor and evaporator coil)?", "How do you validate the job you have done?" (before and after picture reports work great). Beware of duct cleaners that say their process will solve all your air quality concerns. Duct cleaning is one of several steps to take to rid your home of unwanted dust, dirt, mold, and other allergens.
Air duct cleaning service providers may tell you that they need to apply chemical biocide to the inside of your ducts as a means to kill bacteria (germs) and fungi (mold) and prevent future biological growth. They may also propose the application of a "sealant" to prevent dust and dirt particles from being released into the air or to seal air leaks. You should fully understand the pros and cons of permitting application of chemical biocides or sealants. While the targeted use of chemical biocides and sealants may be appropriate under specific circumstances, research has not demonstrated their effectiveness in duct cleaning or their potential adverse health effects. No chemical biocides are currently registered by EPA for use in internally-insulated air duct systems (see Should chemical biocides be applied to the inside of air ducts?).