There are many interesting comments from several informed individuals. The question that has not been answered is how do duct systems get dusty and dirty? As a RESNET Home Energy Rater, I perform pressure tests on homes and duct systems, and the one common thread is . . . most air delivery sytems have large amounts of air leakage. The solution is to seal the duct system, and pay particular attention to the return duct system and ductwork near the air handler (the 'blower'). As others have said, a captive (sealed) duct system with proper filter maintenance should be more then adequate for most occupants. For those who have allergy, asthma, or other breathing problems, a filter with a higher MERV rating (number should be listed on the package) or a HEPA filter are good choices. These filters will capture smaller particulates and should improve the indoor air quality. Again, make certain that the entire duct system is sealed, preferably with mastic, second choice UL-181 foil tape - never use cloth duct (also known as duck) tape.
In reading through all this about duct cleaning, THE ONE preventative measure people need to realize is that a poorly installed HVAC system that is not sealed and air tight to ensure that ALL indoor air passes through a GOOD air filtration system IS THE best means of ensuring your ducts remain clean. Duct cleaning does not now and will NEVER improve an HVAC systems efficiency. Proper maintenance and installation are the key just as improper installation practices allow for dust infiltration into the duct system. I am a state licensed contractor in Texas, and unless people have their hvac system sealed and/or properly installed, duct cleaning is an absolute waste of money. My duct system is 12 years old as is as clean today as the day I installed the system with ductwork. SO before ANYONE jumps on the bandwagon of duct cleaning, get with your hvac professional FIRST.
I paid $49 for a groupon. When the guy came today, he did an inspection first and said the ductwork first needed to be treated for mold; $348 for a spray that would last 8 months or $680 for an UV light purifier that would last 2 years. Also, the furnace needed to be cleaned for another $260. When I told him to just clean the ductwork, he said I would owe an additional $305 because the groupon was only good for 1 return and I had 2. I sent him packing with no services performed. Thankfully I am only out of $49! I will complain to groupon.
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 bottom line is: no one knows. There are examples of ducts that have become badly contaminated with a variety of materials that may pose risks to your health. The duct system can serve as a means to distribute these contaminants throughout a home. In these cases, duct cleaning may make sense. However, a light amount of household dust in your air ducts is normal. Duct cleaning is not considered to be a necessary part of yearly maintenance of your heating and cooling system, which consists of regular cleaning of drain pans and heating and cooling coils, regular filter changes and yearly inspections of heating equipment. Research continues in an effort to evaluate the potential benefits of air duct cleaning.
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.
I am very interested by your post. We recently had a lead inspection on our property and one thing the lead inspector suggested was to get the air ducts cleaned out. We had our ducts cleaned last year after we under went a large renovation project (since we have a toddler in the house). This year we decided to go for lead compliance and had all our lead removed (we moved out for the work). Recently, my son had a false positive lead test, which prompted us to get a lead dust inspection around the house (including having the vents dust-wiped on the inside). The levels inside the ducts weren't crazy high (but more than would be acceptable for a floor). As it turned out my son's lead levels are very low (but not zero). Is it possible however that lead dust from the inside of a vent can come out? Would this be a scenario where you think air duct cleaning would be beneficial?
You and your family spend hours sitting on your favorite chairs, couches and sectionals. Over time, dander and body oil become trapped in the upholstery, but with regular cleanings you can keep these delicate fabrics looking, feeling and smelling great. We examine your furniture and select the best process to safely clean and protect any kind of upholstery, including leather. 
No one has addressed mfg homes and doesn't seem any of the comments are from people in So CA which of course does make a difference as my dust comes from the outside not from the vents. My windows are open pretty much 365 days a year. Secondly mfg homes don't have basements or attics I keep mine clean with my vacuum as they are only about 2 ft deep. I purchased my home 10 yrs ago and it is a high end home but have never had a problem. I clean my furnace filter about twice a month as I have cats and most everything in there is cat fur. I am not saying they don't ever need to be cleaned but I am questioning mfg homes, I also clean my own filters in my AC unit outside as the HVAC guy told me too he QUATITY they would sell. I use this same company every year now for my tune up and inspection which takes them about 10 minutes. Not a bad return for them and I don't mind the $79 fee. If anyone has more info than this on mfg homes please let me know!
Hi guys if your not convinced yet that duct cleaning is a waste of time. I’m a HVAC business owner install heaters and air conditioners. Simple facts if you have an old system get a new return air fitted with a filter it will catch all the dirt and dust. If you still have as many do black flecks and stuff coming through it is the lining inside your ducting that has perished. So somewhere you have a hole or very old ducting. If you had rats etc its a hole somewhere. To clean, stick your vacuum in the outlet and push the hose as far as it will go this gets 99% of toys and coins fur and alike. Think about it if the object is not heavy it will come out the duct when unit is on. Service the heaters or air con units but not the ducting. I would go further to say that duct cleaning actually damages the ducting in my opinion.
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.
Good article, but it fails to point out that leaky return-side ducts could be drawing dust and allergens into the duct system from the enclosed spaces in which they run, e.g. between walls, below floors, attic. So duct cleaning may only be a temporary solution. The homeowner can get a home energy audit -- free in many states -- to determine if they have significant duct leakage. An Aeroseal dealer may be able to effectively seal up the duct system without needing to tear into walls etc to get to the ducts.
If you don't agree with duct cleaning, fine. If there are some things that HVAC people can do to make the system need cleaning less often fine, but to suggest that I need to GO TO JAIL????? If you need to knock others to make yourself look better....... If duct cleaning is such a scam, why are their governing bodies like NADCA (which I do NOT belong to),several manufacturers of equipment, and national restoration franchises (I'm not a franchise either) who provide this service? I guess the whole world is stupid and only HVAC people are smart. I suppose I am scamming them when I clean puff backs, water damage, fire damage, and clean their carpets too? Or did I wake up one morning and say "ya know, it is great to be a hard working, honest owner operator, but I would love to provide a service that unlike everything else I do is a con and rips off the 90% referral business I busted my butt to earn"
I can't believe the number of people saying a good properly installed central heating system never needs to be cleaned. Maybe they live in hermetically sealed cells? One look into a cold air return and you can see that it definitely needs periodic cleaning. The air in the house "always" has some dust in it and that's where it ends up. We just had ours cleaned and I saw what came out of it, disgusting. But always ask if they use the "air whip" to sweep/beat the inside of the metal duct. If not, don't bother. These folks used a little whip on the end of a pressure hose and swept the entire length of all the ducts. I have lighted bore scope that allowed me to see into the duct after he was done and it was spic and span. But do change your filters often, 2 or 3 times a year.
Duct cleaning is a band aid, like washing you hands is. Under your description, why wash your hands more than once? If it gets cleaned once, it shouldn't get dirty again. Well that is, unless they touch something dirty. Keeping your hands completely clean is virtually impossible. Same as keeping dust out of your home. You clean your ducts and over a 3-5 year span they get dirty again. Also, duct cleaners are not licensed but should be certified by NADCA(National Air Duct Cleaning Association).
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?).
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