Air Duct Cleaning: Scam or Worth It?

Do you need to be worried about having the HVAC ducts in your home cleaned? (DepositPhotos)

Air duct cleaning has become popular in recent years, with commercial cleaning services popping up everywhere. But is the service worth it, or is it a scam?

Here’s some information to help you decide whether or not you need to clean your home’s HVAC ducts.

air ducts
Old and dirty gas furnace with ducts in need of cleaning. (Amy Walters, iStockphoto)

Air Duct Cleaning Services

Professional duct cleaning services use specialized blowers, vacuums, and brushes to clean out the supply, intake, and return ducts throughout your home. Duct cleaning should also involve a thorough cleaning of the air handler, registers, grilles, fans, motors, housings, and coils of the HVAC system.

There’s no research at present proving that routine duct cleaning improves the air quality or reduces dust in your home. There is, however, evidence that dirty heating and cooling coils, motors, and air handling units can make your HVAC unit less efficient.

While duct cleaning alone doesn’t seem necessary, there are cases where cleaning the HVAC unit and ductwork could be useful.

Should I Have Ducts Cleaned?

a dirty bathroom fan filter
Ducts in your home may be dirty and need cleaning after remodeling.

Due to growing concerns about indoor air quality, it’s easy to convince homeowners that their ducts need cleaning. But unless ducts are really dirty, there’s no reason to clean them. The EPA takes a similar stance on the issue and recommends only cleaning only contaminated ducts and HVAC units.

If done properly, duct cleaning doesn’t hurt. But, it’s not something that needs to be on your regular home maintenance list. You probably don’t need to have your ducts and HVAC system cleaned unless:

  • Renovation: If you’ve remodeled your home, you may need to clean your ductwork, especially if there was asbestos abatement, lead paint removal, or significant dust. Dangerous dust and debris can lodge inside unproperly sealed ductwork.
  • Animals: If there’s evidence of animal infestation or nesting in your ducts or HVAC system, remove the animals and clean the ductwork and HVAC unit.
  • Mold: Clean ducts and the HVAC system if there is visible mold growth inside the ductwork.
  • Contaminants: Clean ducts if you smell a strange odor or see noticeable debris, pet hair, or other contaminants in the room. If these are still there after you’ve cleaned and vacuumed the registers, call a professional.
  • Illness: If someone in your family is suffering from an unexplained allergy-related illness, and you’ve taken every other possible step to decontaminate your home, clean your ducts to see if the HVAC system was the culprit.

Dust coming from vent in a home
The entire HVAC heating/cooling system should be inspected and cleaned as well.

How To Avoid Duct Cleaning Scams

While there are reputable, professional HVAC cleaning services out there, there are scams as well. Don’t be frightened into emptying your checkbook when a company claims your home might be “unhealthy,”

Here are some tips for avoiding scams if you decide to look into having the ducts and HVAC system in your home cleaned:

  • Full Service: Don’t settle for just duct cleaning — get a full cleaning of the heating/cooling unit.
  • References: Get and check references in your area to find out what was provided for the money. Also, find out if those customers were happy with the results.
  • Estimates: Ask for written estimates from at least three HVAC cleaning services. A reputable company should provide a free inspection and estimate.
  • Avoid Gimmicks: Ads for “$79 whole-house specials” are scams. At most, a few ducts will get a very cursory vacuum. At worst, you’ll end up talked into a much more expensive package. High-quality duct and HVAC cleaning should cost upwards of $500, take several hours with sophisticated equipment, and involve multiple workers.
  • Certifications: The cleaning company should be certified by the National Air Duct Cleaners Association, which sets standards for HVAC system cleaning. The EPA does not certify duct cleaners, so avoid anyone making that claim. Check for relevant licenses and insurance – some states require a license for duct cleaning while others don’t.
  • Check Standards: The company should follow the guidelines of the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association.
  • Verify Results: A quality company will offer a complete visual inspection of the HVAC system and ductwork, either in person or by remote camera. Before paying, make sure every single duct is clean, and insist on an inspection of the inside of the HVAC unit.
  • Don’t Get Fooled: Intake ducts (room ducts that return air to the heating/cooling unit) are likely to be dirtier than supply ducts (which deliver conditioned air from the HVAC unit), since they often don’t have filters. Make sure any “before-and-after” photos are of the supply ducts, where it’s most important that the air is clean.
  • Avoid Sealants and Sprays: Both the EPA and the NADCA don’t recommend using sprayed sealants or other potentially harmful chemicals inside air ducts. Biocides and anti-microbial treatments are also iffy, since the chemicals may cause more harm than good to your health. No chemicals are currently registered with the EPA for use inside ductwork.
  • Avoid Steam Cleaning: Do not use steam or moisture to clean ducts.

Further Reading