Air Duct Cleaning

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  • IAQ = indoor air quality
  • HVAC = heating, ventilating, and air conditioning

What is "duct cleaning"?

Ductwork sometimes can become both the source and the pathway for dirt, dust, and biological contaminants to spread through your home. In this case, duct cleaning usually means the removal of dirt, slime, mold, debris and other materials found in ductwork and other HVAC components (e.g., cooling coil, drain pan).

When should duct cleaning be performed?

Supplier Schedules HVAC equipment suppliers and manufacturers sometimes provide instructions on when and how cleaning should be performed. Cleaning schedules typically depend on equipment operating schedules, climate, filtration used, air contaminants, costs and home occupant expectations.

New Ductwork When new systems are being installed or when older systems are being updated, suppliers should provide access for cleaning system components that are cleanable or replaceable when they become contaminated. New equipment should be kept sealed until installed. If not, new construction or updating of older equipment should always include duct cleaning. New ductwork often contains oil, tools, construction debris, and dirt sometimes even discarded lunch bags, drink cups, etc. These must be cleaned from the ductwork before connection to the air handling system.

Older Ductwork As time passes, ductwork can become contaminated with dust, dirt, debris, mold, slime, dead rodents, dead bugs as well as other contaminants. The presence of these materials does not necessarily mean IAQ problems or complaints will occur. Most ducts have small amounts of dry dust collected on their surfaces ... a common occurrence that occasionally requires duct cleaning.

You definitely would want to provide cleaning (or possible duct replacement) if:

  • there is permanent water damage
  • there is slime growth
  • there is debris that restricts airflow
  • dust is actually seen emitting from air supply registers
  • offensive odors originate in the ductwork or HVAC system

A duct cleaning professional says we need our ducts cleaned but how can we know this is true?

(Remember ... duct cleaning is a competitive business. You have probably seen their advertisements ... don't be taken in by extreme claims.)

  • Are there observable or known contaminants in the ductwork?
  • Has testing or observation confirmed their type and quantity?
  • Can or do they (or their odors or byproducts) leave the duct and enter the occupied space?
  • Do you have a good idea of the source of these contaminants?
  • Can the source be controlled?
  • Will the proposed duct cleaning effectively remove the contaminants?
  • Is duct cleaning the only (or the most cost-effective) solution?
  • Have you identified a qualified and reputable duct cleaning firm?
  • Have you checked the firm's references?
  • Does the firm offer a sensible, sound approach?
  • Do they have the right kind of equipment?

Will the cleaning process protect your HVAC equipment and the occupants of the space during the cleaning?

Are there standards for duct cleaning and duct cleaners?

Currently, official standards and guideline are not yet available to determine when duct cleaning is necessary. Common sense and the ground rules provided here can help you decide when cleaning is necessary.

Are duct cleaning firms licensed to perform cleaning?

Not at this time. Do your homework. Look for a reputable firm with references. Preferably a firm with a long history of customer satisfaction is desired.

What actually happens during duct cleaning?

Duct cleaning typically consists of contaminant removal (e.g., through brushing/vibration plus extreme negative pressure).

If duct cleaning is performed by contractor personnel, ask them about the following typical good practices:

  • Will they keep the ducts being cleaned under negative pressure during the cleaning operation? (This minimizes the discharge of dirt and dust into the occupied space.)
  • Will they protect the duct system? (Avoiding unnecessarily cutting holes in the duct or duct liner, for example.)
  • Are the vacuum and collection equipment located outside of the building? Where vacuum collection equipment is inside ... is HEPA filtration provided for the discharge?
  • Is the vacuum coupled with brushes to lift the settled materials from the inside of the ducts? (Vacuum cleaning alone is not very effective.)
  • Will they avoid using sealants to cover interior-contaminated ductwork? (Sealants have not been shown to be effective as a barrier to microbiological growth, their long-term health effects are unknown, and they may void fire safety ratings.)
  • Are they removing (rather than cleaning) water-damaged or bio-contaminated porous materials?

A duct cleaning firm says it wants to use sealants, encapsulants, disinfectants, biocides or other chemicals in the ductwork. Is this okay?

Not normally. Remember, you are cleaning the Air Ducts. You do not want to re-introduce other sources of "debris" into your system. Any additives are simply a tool to take more of your money. It is not necessary, once air ducts are completely evacuated, to "disinfect" them in any way. Any thing that you spray into your system will only "coat" it and make it a more adhesive and inviting environment for the very contaminants you just paid to get rid of.

What can we do to avoid the need for duct and system cleaning?

Dirt, debris and microbiological growths can be minimized by:

  • well-maintained filter systems
  • using filters rated at MERV 6 or greater
  • regular HVAC maintenance
  • providing good housekeeping in the occupied space
  • locating air intakes in non-contaminated locations
  • keeping all HVAC system components clean and dry