I believe a $3 [sic] pleated cotton filter is all that is ever needed to keep a system running top notch. A cleaning of the blower squirrel cage and of the evaporator [indoor] coil may be needed one time if fiberglass or no filters have been previously used. The return air grille [or grilles] need vacuumed off occasionally, as they are upstream from the filter. The $3 filter should be changed every 3 months [rule of thumb]....and most of them have a little white square on the cardboard frame to write install date.....and the arrow should point into the duct [if at filter grille]....or towards the furnace [if in ductwork slot]...or towards the blower [if in blower compartment]. My two cents.....
I’m a heating and air conditioning contractor. I’ve been in the trade for over 15 years. I’ve witnessed numerous duct cleaning projects and talked with many duct cleaners. Duct cleaning as it’s usually promoted is a fraud. Most duct cleaners claim to deliver cleaner air. They deliver exactly the opposite. The studies on duct cleaning prove it, including a May 1998 study sponsored by NADCA and the EPA! The stories are compelling, but they can come up with stories that “prove” anything they want. Internet searches are dominated by results from those who are paid to tell you that duct cleaning is worthwhile. Search a little more and you’ll find the truth.
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.
I to had an odd layer of white'ish dust building up especially during seasonal periods when the HVAC ran a a lot. I carefully swept up the fine dust into a small pile and had it analyzed. Turns out it was very fine fiberglass powder dust. It turns out it is the insulation form the attic! (My attic has blown in insulation). Turns out if you (I) had small gaps around my HVAC registers in the ceiling whee the airs blows into the room. What occurred in my case was that the exiting air at that seam creates a vacuum effect at the grate vent cover and draws and then blows fine insulation dust from the attic into the house. Removing each register grate and sealing each tin outlet gap with calking between the dry wall ceiling and tin fixed the issue. A couple were so bad with bowed gaps I had to screw down the bowed tin to the attaching stud better. Checking the very same glass top desk that catches and shows any dust accumulation now shows only very small amounts of normal house dust build up over several weeks. A big, big improvement. You might have a look by simply removing a couple vent covers yourself.
You should be aware that although a substance may look like mold, a positive determination of whether it is mold or not can be made only by an expert and may require laboratory analysis for final confirmation. For about $50, some microbiology laboratories can tell you whether a sample sent to them on a clear strip of sticky household tape is mold or simply a substance that resembles it.