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Is Air Duct Cleaning a Scam?

air duct cleaning

We’ve all seen the ads shouting “$99 Air Duct Cleaning”, and they may have gotten you thinking about the level of cleanliness of your home’s air ducts. Is this something that gets dirty and should be regularly cleaned? Are there health risk to dirty air ducts?

These are good questions that you should be asking as a homeowner since that’s the air you and your family are breathing everyday. Does Indow Air Quality (IAQ) count as one of the 5 Dangers in Your Old House? I’ve dug into all the research on the topic and gathered the answers here in one post to help you navigate the topic.

The Facts on Air Duct Cleaning

According to the EPA, “Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems.” OK, I guess we’re done. That’s the shortest post I’ve ever written!

That’s not the whole story though because even though the EPA is pretty certain on that statement, it comes with some nuance that you need to know because there are indeed a few times when air duct cleaning can be helpful or even necessary, so don’t go anywhere just yet.

The facts are pretty clear that regular air duct cleaning, especially the $99 specials, is pretty useless. If it makes you feel good that’s fine, but it’s just as effective at keeping you healthy as that teddy bear is at keeping your kids safe at night.

Most of the companies offering those cleanings are scams looking for a quick buck. They blow some air through the ducts and get some dust to come out, but most of the dust in those ducts poses no health danger because your ducts only receive air after it has passed through your furnace filter. So the air in these ducts is legitimately the cleanest air in your house as long as you keep an air filter in place.

When Duct Cleaning Makes Sense

There are a few situations when cleaning air ducts does make sense and is recommended. If you happen to fall into one of these categories, then getting your air ducts cleaned by a reputable company is well worth your time.

Keep in mind that even if you clean your air ducts, if you don’t resolve the underlying issue that is causing the contamination then you’ll be right back in this situation again. Before cleaning be sure to get to the root of the problem and resolve that first.

  • Visible Mold – Take off your air register and look inside. Can you see visible mold growth inside the duct? If so then a professional cleaning is recommended.
  • Post Renovation – If you’ve recently completed a renovation then it’s possible that the duct work has gathered a lot of dust, and even debris, that wouldn’t normally be an issue. This should be a one time cleaning to get you back to normal.
  • Critters – If you have a critters in your attic or crawlspace they like to burrow into the comfy insulation around duct work. You may end up with animal droppings, hair, or even (yuck!) carcasses in your duct work. Usually, this means replacement of portions, but sometimes the issue is small enough that a cleaning will be a better fit.
  • Chronic Sickness – If you and your family are suffering from constant allergies or chronic sickness that is made worse at home then it is possible (though unlikely) that there is something in your HVAC system that needs resolution. Air duct cleaning in this case is a good way to at least rule this out as an issue.

If you do fall into one of these categories and you have to get a cleaning avoid these practices which may actually make things worse.

  • Pros Only – You can expect to pay around $500 for a reputable company to clean your air ducts. Instead of hiring the “$99 whole-house special” guys, find a company that is a member of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA).
  • No Chemicals – Don’t swap out dust in your ducts for chemicals in your ducts. No chemicals are currently registered with the EPA for use inside ductwork. So keep it chemical free.
  • No Steam – Steam cleaning ducts is also a big no, no. Most ductwork does not respond well to moisture and it can also encourage future mold growth, so using a dry cleaning method is recommended.
  • Get Proof – Once the cleaning is done, don’t take their word for it. Request visual evidence of the ducts being cleaned. Some companies will only clean the ends of ducts that are visible and leave the far recessed places dirty. You want visual evidence that the whole duct system was throughly cleaned before you write that check.

Keeping Ducts Clean

So, we now know that duct cleaning is not necessary in most cases. Now it’s time to talk about how to keep your HVAC system and ducts in tip top shape. It’s one of the easiest things you can do honestly.

Use Filters

Choose the right furnace filter and change it on a regular basis. I’ve written a comprehensive post to help you determine the right filter for you and your home called Choosing the Right Furnace Filter. Make sure that filter is changed every 3-6 months for the most effectiveness and you’ll keep those ducts clean.

Clean HVAC Coils

While your ducts don’t need cleaning your HVAC coils do need regular cleaning. Cleaning the coils has nothing to do with air quality, rather it extends the life of your HVAC system and helps it operate more efficiently. Hire a pro to have the coils cleaned and inspected once a year.

Hopefully, we’ve saved you some money and time since most of you can skip air duct cleaning for the foreseeable future. Duct cleaning is often an emotional sell with powerful before and after pictures that can even turn my head, but don’t fall for it. You’re now too smart for that.

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3 thoughts on “Is Air Duct Cleaning a Scam?

  1. I’m an hvac tech in savannah Ga.
    I really don’t recommend any duct cleanings unless the home has sat with no ventilation/airflow for a while. Typically atleast over a month or more. Going from having cool air(moisture) passing through it, then abruptly none what so ever for a while is a recipe for mold/mildew growth.
    Just my opinion.

  2. A friend of mine who is in the medical profession related a story of an elderly woman patient of his who had her ducts “cleaned” and thereafter developed “asthma.” She did not respond to treatment and subsequently died, and on autopsy her pathology report showed aspergillosis in the lungs ( a fungus.) The question in my friend’s mind was if it was related to the cleaning having stirred up the mold or an unrelated issue. Your article reinforces my opinion that it is not a recommendable practice to have one’s ducts “cleaned.”

  3. I say that the ductwork needs to be cleaned at least once after a house is built. If a family with kids the ducts should be inspected periodically.
    If you don’t build a house yourself you can be the trades all offer their little bit of debris into a duct. Namely, beer cans, cigarette packs, cigarette butts, drywall parts and dust, nails, and wood cutoffs. I cleaned three houses and each had a lot of debris as named above.
    Kids throw just about anything that fits into a duct from toys, to food, you name it.
    The advent of flexible ducts makes it difficult or impossible to clean the ductwork. The cleaning operation is pretty aggressive using high volumes of compressed air and whips on the end of an air hose to knock off stubborn debris. The duct cleaner I used connected a 5000 cfm blower to the bottom of the updraft furnace and worked from registers back to the furnace to suck out debris. Cleaned the plenum and everything.
    My recommendation is to use a borescope to inspect ductwork to determine the condition and go from there. I don’t recall the cost that was hundreds of dollars. The guy I hired knew what he was doing.

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