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Considering having your air ducts cleaned? Think again.
If you or someone in your family suffers from allergies or asthma, you might be considering getting your home’s heating and cooling ducts cleaned. But even if you’ve got no health issues, cleaning your ducts may appeal to you. After all, if your ducts are clean that air should come out clean, too, right?
Well, actually, no.
Although duct-cleaning operations may insist duct cleaning is essential for your health, the evidence doesn’t support their claims. Companies that perform duct cleaning advertise health benefits or indicate duct cleaning will decrease your power bills by improving the efficiency of your system. Some ads even use language like,”Studies have shown. . .” However, no data to back up these claims. Cleaning them probably won’t offer any measurable benefits if your ducts are filthy. In fact, the tiny independent research performed on cleaning indicates that the process stirs up so much dust that it creates a problem that is bigger than it solves.
Even though it intuitively makes sense to clean ductwork — after all, you dust and wash the rest of your home — the fact is dust that settles on your ventilation system generally stays where it is, unlikely to become airborne unless disturbed. Under most circumstances, the dust is inert and harmless, and stirring up it with cleaning equipment really creates bigger issues.
Little research has been done on the effects of duct cleaning. Government studies from the USA and Canada and health professionals who have researched cleaning stop short of advocating against it, but they also don’t endorse it.
A research done by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers measured dust levels and HVAC system efficiency in test homes during a one-week interval during the cooling season and found duct cleaning failed to significantly improve dust levels or system performance. Based on that report and other independent research, the official advisory on duct cleaning of the EPA concludes:
“Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health issues. Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g. dust) levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts. This is because much of the dirt in air ducts adheres to duct surfaces and doesn’t necessarily enter the living area. . . . Moreover, there’s absolutely not any evidence that a light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts poses any risk to your wellbeing.”
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a government agency, conducted a research in the 1990s to research two claims: Duct cleaning makes indoor air fitter; also it reduces energy costs by improving airflow.
After testing 33 homes in Montreal before and after the analysis found that there was no improvement in air quality and that duct cleaning alone did not improve airflow or energy efficiency. After a cleaning particle levels actually increased immediately in some cases. In other instances, particle levels decreased after cleaning but returned to previous levels.
Like the EPA, the CMHC reasoned that duct cleaning is unnecessary:
“Ideally, the interior surface will be shiny and bright after cleaning. Duct cleaning might be justifiable for you for that very reason: you might not want your home air circulated through a duct passage that is not as clean as the rest of the home. However, duct cleaning will not typically alter the quality of the air you breathe, nor will it significantly impact airflow or heating expenses.”
The EPA and CMHC researchers used different methodologies. The CMHC study called on several duct-cleaning services. The companies weren’t made aware they were part of a study, and the researchers didn’t control for methods used or time. The EPA study prescribed and controlled methods used on a number of homes. No other research has challenged the findings while the industry asserts both studies have flaws. Since these studies have been conducted and even though the equipment and methods used by businesses have changed, the air ducts in homes have not.
Regularly change your filter
Often changing air filters is the perfect way to keep dust, allergens and other particles out of your dwelling. With a newly installed system, or a system in a home you’ve just moved into, check your filter monthly to determine how quickly it gets dirty at times of the year. Most should be replaced every two or three months.
It won’t conserve energy, either.
Although not always part of their basic cleaning services, many duct-cleaning companies frequently also clean the heating and cooling equipment (heat exchangers, cooling coils, condensate drain pans, fan motors, fan blades and fan housings).
Another sketchy claim made by most duct-cleaning operations and their trade association is the fact that dirty ducts and equipment overburden heating and cooling equipment, which waste energy. Again, it intuitively makes sense that a system will run smoother and last longer — after all, that’s why we and manufacturers and repair providers advise that your filters regularly change. However, the page”Advantages of HVAC Cleaning” on the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) website stretches this advantage too far by saying:”According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 25 to 40 percent of the energy used for heating and cooling a home is wasted.”
That is misleading.
Although much of the energy used to power heating and cooling equipment is indeed wasted, that waste is because of inefficient equipment, lousy insulation, leaks around windows and doors, and unsealed ductwork. While there’s some advantage to maintaining and cleaning HVAC equipment, that advantage is relatively small, and energy waste is due to equipment or ducts.
CMHC researchers found that if duct cleaners also cleaned the blower-fan blades, there was a small reduction in airborne particles. The energy efficiency of your system might slightly improve.
The same is true for the evaporator coils inside your home’s cooling system. Evaporator coils cause condensation, before it circulates through your home dehumidifying the air. Moisture can cause dust and other particles to stick to and build up on the coils. Also, cleaning the collector pan (and the drain spout in the pan) underneath the coils ensures dirt does not build up and get drawn into the system. Additionally, it prevents water and beneath the coils, which may lead to mold issues.
Also consider getting your duct system inspected for leaks, because leaky ducts reduced efficacy and introduce air-quality issues.
But we don’t recommend selecting a duct cleaner to perform these tasks; too many don’t actually know what they’re doing, according to the evaluations of duct-cleaning outfits we’ve collected from local consumers. Consider selecting a top-notch heating and air-conditioning to do this type of work, or pay them to do it through their next service visit. Clients can access Checkbook’s HVAC company ratings through Feb. 28 in Checkbook.org/washingtonpost/ducts.
Problems That warrant cleaning
In general, consider duct cleaning only in response to specific identifiable issues. For example, the EPA suggests having air ducts cleaned if there is visible evidence of:
- Substantial mold development.
- Infestation of insects or rodents.
- Substantial deposits of dust or debris (if studies weren’t sealed during a renovation project, by way of example).
- If anyone in your family has specific health issues, like allergies or asthma, consult your physician first.
It’s important to identify the issue so alternatives can be suggested by that your doctor . Start with identifying whether your ducts are part of the problem (they probably aren’t) and whether getting them cleaned will help (it probably won’t).
If you’re worried about mold
If you suspect a mold problem — either because of visible growth or a musty smell consistently coming from supply vents — cleaning ducts won’t do much good if it does not eliminate the mold. Mold begins with a moisture problem, and the ducts themselves are not likely to be the source. The culprits are the evaporator coils, which your heating and air conditioning contractor — and many businesses that are duct-cleaning — can inspect and maintain of the system. Leaky return ducts may introduce moisture. Again, if you suspect a mold problem, consider using a service company inspect the system for leaks.
If you suspect — but are not sure — that what you see is mold, you might be tempted to have it tested. But experts we consulted generally recommend against it, reasoning that:
•Mold is present in all homes; it becomes problematic only if there is a moisture issue.
•It’s usually not worth the cost to test for mold or to identify the different sorts of mold present. Eliminate moisture problems — if and it’s better to track down.
The average cost is someplace between $300 and $600.