When servicing air conditioners, we are sometimes asked, how often should you clean your air ducts? Those of you who have read our articles, know that we are a small, U.S. Veteran-Owned HVAC company and pride ourselves on giving people honest, straight answers. Cleaning air ducts is a hot topic in recent times because people are concerned for their health, and indoor air quality is an important part of that. To be perfectly honest though, the real question you need to be asking is, should I have my air ducts cleaned at all? The answer to this depends on who you ask and there is an entire industry that has popped-up (almost overnight) that is based on air duct cleaning and indoor air quality. I will tell you that All Systems Mechanical HVAC does not offer residential air duct cleaning for a couple of very important reasons: the most noteworthy of which is that, in our experience, if your air ducts actually need a cleaning, then something bigger has already gone wrong with your system; secondly, cleaning your air ducts isn’t all that effective and can damage them. So, is AC duct cleaning necessary? The short answer is no, but to answer this question more in-depth, this article will discuss what air duct cleaning is, the pros and cons of having your air ducts cleaned, whether or not you should spend the money, and if not, what you should be doing instead.
Indoor air pollution is a hot topic these days and like every new industry, everyone is trying to get their piece of the pie. Air duct cleaning is just one part of a broader industry aimed at increasing indoor air quality and promoting good health. Duct cleaning is a service provided by some companies who utilize vacuums, brushes and chemical cleaning compounds to scrub the inside of your air conditioning ducts and HVAC coils, including supply and return air ducts, heat exchangers and evaporator coils. The claim is that this will increase the health of you and your family by decreasing the number of contaminants in your air. If we are being completely objective, however, I think it is important to point out at this point that according to the CDC, there is no evidence that duct cleaning increases your health. More from the CDC can be found under: CDC – Air Duct Cleaning.
Air Duct Cleaning Cost
The cost of an air duct cleaning can vary, but it ranges anywhere from around $300 to over $1000 for a full cleaning of your ductwork. Be wary of anyone who claims that they will do it for the “bargain price of $75!” If you are going to get your air ducts cleaned, do it right. Anyone claiming that they will do it for less than $300 is either going to do a poor job, or has hidden fees. Remember the old adage: if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is. Be careful.
The Pros of Air Duct Cleaning
Gratuitous Rant: First, I’ll be honest with you…I think this is all a bunch of voodoo. If you properly replace your air conditioning filters, on the proper interval of every three months, then having your air ducts cleaned wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Second, having replaced a lot of ductwork in my day, let me tell you that if you have flex-duct, which you probably do, having your air ducts “cleaned” is going to tear them all up on the inside. On the inside, they are plastic about as thick as a disposable tupperware container. They are meant to maintain proper air flow over a 10-20 year lifespan, NOT to be scraped with a brush and vacuum. We’ve had to replace a lot of ductwork in our day from people having their ducts cleaned. That being said, you are here because you are interested in having your air ducts cleaned, so I’ll be nice from here on out…but now you know my thoughts.
“But Tim, just because there is no evidence to support the claim that cleaning your air ducts improves the health of you and your family does not mean that it doesn’t!”
The most appealing argument that can be made is that cleaning your central air conditioning ductwork gives you peace of mind. Think about it, you have no idea what is hidden in the depths of your AC ducts so it can be comforting to know that a professional has inspected them and taken a good look inside. If you do decide to take this route, take some time to research your local contractors and only choose a reputable duct cleaner. For more tips on how to choose an HVAC contractor, take a look at: How to Choose a Contractor: 5 HVAC Tips You Must Know. Here are some possible advantages to having your AC ducts cleaned:
- Possible increased respiratory health due to less contaminants in your AC system.
- Increased air conditioner efficiency due to increased air flow through your AC ducting.
- Cleaning your ducts may fight mold growth.
- Cleaning your ductwork may decrease offensive odors.
According to NADCA, the National Air Duct Cleaners Association, strong consideration should be given to having your air ducts cleaned if you fall into one of the following categories:
- You have a high volume of pets that shed frequently.
- Prior to occupancy of a new home.
- After damage to your HVAC system due to fire or flooding.
- If you have someone who smokes indoors.
- There is evidence of rodents and animal infestation of your ductwork.
- If someone in your family suffers from asthma or allergies.
I have a problem with most of these statements which I will discuss in more detail in the next section, but of the above reasons to clean your ducts I would have to say that there is only one that I would take seriously: Prior to occupancy of a new home. Everything else will be addressed in our next section.
The Disadvantages of Having Your Air Ducts Cleaned
Even though there is no evidence to support the claim that duct cleaning benefits your health, there is also no evidence that it harms your health if done properly. So if you have just had your ducts cleaned, don’t fret about it. It wasn’t a bad investment in your health and overall it definitely helped more than it hurt.
- Cleaning your ductwork isn’t necessary if you use AC filters. In fact, my problem with professional duct cleaning that it is kind of a made-up industry, and I would instead argue that if you maintain proper air conditioning maintenance and sanitation, then it is completely unnecessary. If your ducts have mold in them or so much dust that they need to be cleaned, then there is likely a larger problem that needs to addressed.
- Cleaning your ductwork can damage it. Secondly, the air duct cleaning procedure consists of sticking vacuum tubes down your ductwork, which can damage and crack the sensitive plastic interior of your ductwork. It is also important to know that, despite what they might say, most duct cleaning companies are not HVAC contractors! They actually know very little about the proper operation of your system.
- It doesn’t clean all of your ductwork. It isn’t rocket science – they are literally vacuuming the inside of your accessible ductwork. Would you pay your neighbor $1,000 to come over with his vacuum cleaner and stick it into your AC vents?
In my opinion, you should never get to the point where a duct cleaning is necessary, and it is completely preventable. Instead, you should rely on preventative maintenance to ensure the health and welfare of you and your family. In other words, treat the causes, not the symptoms! Here are some tips to keep your air conditioning system running cleanly and efficiently:
- The most important part of keeping dust and mold out of your AC ducts is to use a high quality air filter. I’m not talking about the cheap, see-through filters that are used in most apartments and homes, I mean the more expensive 3M filters available at Lowes and other hardware stores. They aren’t that expensive, usually run around $15 each and will keep dust, allergens and debris out of your HVAC system all together. For more on how to choose the right air conditioning filter, look at: Air Conditioning Filter – How Dust and Debris can Affect Your Air Conditioner.
- Upon installation of your new air conditioner, ensure that it is done by a reputable contractor. Some contractors avoid properly sealing duct work because it can be costly and time consuming to do. If you are going to spend the money, make sure that it is done right the first time.
- Every time you replace your air conditioner, I would also consider replacing your ductwork as well. Ductwork has insulation and other components that deteriorate over time and should be replaced regularly just like your HVAC system. Furthermore, the joint seals between duct segments will also deteriorate over time so keep this in mind.
- Vacuum frequently (weekly). A lot of people think that their HVAC system is the only key to indoor air quality, but your air conditioner is just a part of an overall lifestyle that is required to be healthy. Take a look at: How to Use a Vacuum Cleaner and Why.
If you follow the above four steps, then you will never need to clean your AC ducting. But what about the conditions recommended by the NADCA for the use of a duct cleaning company? I’ll spare you my typical, cynical rant about the role that lobbyists play in swaying such organizations, and get to the list. Let’s take a look at each:
- If you have a high volume of pets that shed frequently, using a high-quality filter will remove this dander from your air column. Also ensure to agitate your carpets with regular vacuuming.
- After damage to your HVAC system due to fire or flooding, you shouldn’t really be relying on a duct cleaning company to handle this. Instead, do some research for your area and hire a reputable HVAC contractor. It should be an experienced air conditioning technician that evaluates your ductwork after fire or flood who can then replace duct segments if necessary.
- If you have someone who smokes indoors, cleaning your ductwork is not the answer. Your ductwork itself is non-porous and will not retain odors. It is actually the dust in your ductwork that is retaining the odor, so using a quality air filter will again solve this problem before it begins.
- If there is evidence of rodents or animal infestation in your duct work, then again you will need to contact a licensed HVAC contractor. I would recommend you replace your entire duct system. Cleaning won’t do the trick because the problem is that rodents are in your ductwork, NOT the “evidence” they have left behind. Your ductwork needs to be replaced and properly sealed so rodents can’t enter. If you must get your ductwork cleaned, then still have an air conditioning repairman inspect every inch of your ductwork for leaks.
- If someone in your family suffers from asthma or allergies, then again it is important to use a high-quality air filter and replace your ducting with a new, clean system. My wife suffers from asthma, so I want to emphasize that I am honestly not trying to push unnecessary work on you. Besides, what are the chances that you are even in our service area of Santa Clarita or Southern California? If someone in your family suffers from Asthma or severe allergies, I’d replace your air conditioner and your ductwork, use a high quality air filter, and follow the additional advice in this article: How to Reduce Asthma Symptoms and How Your Air Conditioner Can Help.
- What about cleaning your AC ducts to eliminate odors? Just like with smoking, it is the dust in your ducts that holds the odors so prevention is the key. However, there are some problems with your air conditioner that can create odors. Ensure that you keep your evaporator coil and drain pan clean to prevent odor problems, then read: Dirty Sock Syndrome – What is it, is it dangerous, and how to I fix it?
What if you just moved into a new house but the air conditioner is not due for a replacement? This is the only circumstance in which I would consider having your ducts cleaned. I would also recommend that the cleaner you choose be an HVAC contractor as well so they can check your ductwork for leaks.
If you are absolutely set on getting your air ducts cleaned, here’s our advice:
If you have your heart set on the peace of mind in having your air conditioning ducts cleaned, then that is fine. I’d start though by taking the preventative measures listed above in order to ensure that your problem doesn’t return after they’ve been cleaned. Then, I’d make the following recommendations:
- Don’t trust any duct cleaning companies that make grand claims of health benefits, who promise drastically increased efficiency or who charge low rates that are too good to be true.
- Check online reviews to make sure that the duct cleaning company has a good reputation.
- Do not allow the duct cleaning company to use chemicals such as insecticides, biocides or chemical cleaners. Remember that this stuff is later going to be circulating through your air!
- Do not allow them to use steam because this introduces unneeded moisture into your air conditioning system, and although the moisture on the airflow side of your ducts will soon evaporate, steamers will also blow moisture into areas that do not receive air circulation (joints, etc.) which is a recipe for mold growth. Don’t allow unnatural moisture into your HVAC system. Take a look at: How Do You Prevent Mold?
- Ask them for their contractor’s license – do not hire an unlicensed duct cleaning company because there will be no insurance that the job will be done correctly, and it will be impossible to take recourse against them if it isn’t. We are talking about a $1000 investment here, so do some research.
- As with any contractor, ask for a price quote (also known as a “bid”) prior to hiring them. They should not be charging you by the hour and should give you a price upfront.
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Final Thoughts on Having Your Air Ducts Cleaned
Cleaning your air conditioning ducts sounds like a good idea, but to be perfectly honest it is mostly marketing and hype, in my not-so-humble opinion. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a scam, per se, but I would tell you to be careful with your money when you start asking yourself, “should I have my air ducts cleaned?” If you follow proper preventative HVAC maintenance practices, then you really shouldn’t have to have your AC ducts cleaned, and if you do decide to do it, then it should only be a one-time thing. If you do decide to go through with it, thats okay, but I’d recommend you follow the tips above and try not to buy into the hype too much. For more information on other related air conditioning topics, visit the ASM Air Conditioning Blog. If you live in Santa Clarita and the Southern California area, give us a call and we’d be happy to help you: Contact All Systems Mechanical.