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.
The key to the continued and efficient operation of your heating and cooling system is periodic maintenance. Cleaning the air duct vent system, and servicing you heating and cooling equipment will keep the system operating at its peak performance. Air ducts are cleaned for two reasons. One: to prevent debris from entering furnace and air conditioning components. Two: to prevent debris from cycling through the home. The air duct cleaning contractor needs to employ cleaning methods which successfully removes debris, and ensures that debris does not enter the occupied space. Most contractors can verify the results of the cleaning through video or pictures.
To find companies that provide duct cleaning services, check your Yellow Pages under "duct cleaning" or contact the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) at the address and phone number in the information section located at the end of this guidance. Do not assume that all duct cleaning service providers are equally knowledgeable and responsible. Talk to at least three different service providers and get written estimates before deciding whether to have your ducts cleaned. When the service providers come to your home, ask them to show you the contamination that would justify having your ducts cleaned.
The most effective way to clean air ducts and ventilation systems is to employ Source Removal methods of cleaning. This requires a contractor to place the system under negative pressure, through the use of a specialized, powerful vacuum. While the vacuum draws air through the system, devices are inserted into the ducts to dislodge any debris that might be stuck to interior surfaces. The debris can then travel down the ducts to the vacuum, which removes it from the system and the home.
This article was very good. It should be noted that the EPA building in Washington, DC, was cited years ago as one of the worst "sick building syndrome" buildings. Wish you had mentioned about having people's dryer vents cleaned since they can cause so many fires in homes. Most homeowners forget to check the air flow on the dryer vent. Our company, which cleans by NADCA standards, does both air ducts and dryer vents. Thanks again for keeping the public informed, especially regarding the cost of air duct cleaning...you get what you pay for...don't be fooled by the lowest cost out there. Frequently these are bait and switch companies or will keep adding on features they say a customer needs until the price is so high it's ridiculous.
If you want to get some of the dust and debris out of your ventilation system, you can mix household cleaners like bleach with water, dip a cloth in the mix and then the wipe out the system. This will remove a layer of the spores, which could increase the quality of air a bit and help with the flow of air throughout the house until a pro can come out.
The short answer is yes, duct cleaning, done right by a reputable company will help with the smell. It is likely though the smell is coming from another source, ie the crawl space. It could also be that another rodent is dead in the duct work. A visual inspection would be in order to check for any breach in the duct system. A duct pressure test would be able to tell you how much air is leaking from the system over all. A hole large enough for an animal to enter would loses a great deal of air, over 300 CFM. It would be worth looking into having this test done and it should cost around $200. Cleaning the air handler and evaporator coil will greatly improve the performance of the air conditioner. Dirt and dust on the evaporator acts as insulation and reduces the amount of cooling done be the coil. Any quality duct cleaning should include cleaning the air handler and coil, and the tech should allow you to watch him perform the work as it is done.
I turned on the AC when he was finished and immediately saw black fuzz balls the size of marbles come out of several of the registers. He said that was expected since everything was shaken up. So much for describing the service as cleaning. I paid him and sent him on his way. I cannot imagine that this type of service is worthwhile in anything but a new house. Apparently in old houses such as mine I can expect that using a whole house humidifier in the winter followed by a great AC can loosen the soot. Maybe this is to be expected for the first few weeks of summer each year. I now have lined the inside of the registers with cheesecloth to catch the fuzz. I’ll see if it stops after a couple of weeks.
Do not hire duct cleaners who make sweeping claims about the health benefits of duct cleaning — such claims are unsubstantiated. Do not hire duct cleaners who recommend duct cleaning as a routine part of your heating and cooling system maintenance. You should also be wary of duct cleaners who claim to be certified by EPA. Note: EPA neither establishes duct cleaning standards nor certifies, endorses, or approves duct cleaning companies.
Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g., dust) levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts. This is because much of the dirt in air ducts adheres to duct surfaces and does not necessarily enter the living space. It is important to keep in mind that dirty air ducts are only one of many possible sources of particles that are present in homes. Pollutants that enter the home both from outdoors and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning, smoking, or just moving around can cause greater exposure to contaminants than dirty air ducts. Moreover, there is no evidence that a light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts poses any risk to your health.