Some homeowners may be breathing air that’s as contaminated as the air inside an automotive workshop and not even know it. Maintaining indoor air pollution requires vigilance, good housekeeping, and occasionally, the help of an HVAC professional. In some instances, the air quality in the home can be drastically improved by duct cleaning. Duct cleaning involves cleaning the components of a forced-air system that’s part of your home’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system. Air ducts are one of the critical systems in your home because they circulate the air you and your family breathe.
The heating and cooling systems may differ from home to home, but the most common is a forced-air system. It typically includes the supply and return registers/ducts, heat exchangers and cooling coils, grills, condensate drip pans, fan motors and housing, and the air handler’s enclosure. Without proper maintenance, or exposure to moisture that shouldn’t be there, any of these components can become contaminated. Airborne contaminants in your home can build up in these components and affect air quality and eventually, your family’s health.
When most people consider their air quality, they might first think about their children or those in the family with allergies or asthma. Regardless of age or health, everyone can benefit from good air quality. If your home’s air ducts are contributing to poor air quality, even the healthiest person’s immune system can be worn down over time by exposure to contaminants. Respiratory health issues, environmental allergies, and asthma can all be aggravated by what’s in your HVAC system.
It should be noted that air ducts themselves aren’t usually the leading cause of poor air quality. Most ducts simply conduct the air through the home, and there’s not much to be concerned with.
However, over time, the dirt and particles passing through them can adhere to the surfaces of the ducts. This build-up can eventually lead to more significant problems. Over time, ducts can become clogged with excessive build-up of dust, pet hair, cooking grease particles, smoke from fireplaces or cigarettes and other pollutants. Once they’ve built up, these contaminants will then be recirculated and released into your home through the vents. If you suspect there was rodent or insect problem in the home, these can also end up in the ducts.
You may think that changing your furnace filter more frequently will completely solve the problem of poor air quality, but high-efficiency furnace filters are not intended to protect you. They are designed to protect your furnace and HVAC system. Removing visible airborne particles is essential. Throwing away a used filter covered with dirt and dust is satisfying and terrifying all at once. Changing your filters frequently is vital to prevent duct contamination. But there are still airborne contaminants furnace filters may not necessarily catch.
You can reduce the amount of dust and contaminants circulating in your home’s HVAC by cleaning regularly. Vacuuming can stir up a tremendous amount of dust, so choose a vacuum cleaner with a true HEPA filter or high-efficiency filtering vacuum bags. Have your home’s heating and cooling systems checked by an HVAC professional yearly, especially before winter.
WHEN YOU SHOULD CONSIDER HAVING THE DUCTS CLEANED:
If you are noticing bad, musty or earthy odors in the air coming from the air registers, excessive dust or restricted airflow, you should consider having your ducts inspected and cleaned. If your home has sustained any type of water damage or leaks, you’ll want to be sure there isn’t moisture and mold growing in the HVAC system.
PURCHASE OF A HOME, NEW OR OLD:
If you have recently purchased or moved into a home, it might be a good idea to have a visual inspection and cleaning of the ducts.
We’ve seen brand new homes with ducts full of construction debris that was never cleared out. While the construction materials themselves are probably not hazardous, they could attract other dust particles, and build-up will start.
Surprisingly, this also occurs in older homes if the ducts were never cleaned. Many older homes were built with materials we now know to be hazardous. If there is debris in the ducts from insulation, lead paint, asbestos materials, or other dangerous substances, you’ll want to get all of that cleared out of your ducts. We cannot emphasize enough that if asbestos or lead paint contamination is suspected that you utilize a service provider who is trained and equipped for handling these materials. You do not want the problem made worse if these materials recirculated through the home if they are disturbed and not properly removed.
SUSPECTED PRESENCE OF MOLD
Many homeowners have concerns about mold in their HVAC systems, and if you are experiencing a musty, damp smell, you may be correct. It’s important to know that while the build-up of dust and dirt may appear to be mold, a test should be conducted if this is suspected. This is important for several reasons.
First of all, confirmation of the presence of mold should be done by an expert. Some strains of mold require a laboratory test of the sample. Most HVAC systems have sections that cannot be inspected visually. If your service provider indicates there is mold present, you’ll want them to show you an image taken with a camera that can be sent into the ducts and a sample to be tested. Mold in air ducts can cause serious health problems if left unaddressed. Some providers will want to apply an antimicrobial, ozone, or biocide treatment to the interior of your ducting as part of cleaning mold. It’s critical to understand exactly what they would be using and how. If the problem could be mitigated with physical cleaning, maintenance or repairs of the problem areas, this may be a better approach as you don’t want these substances introduced into the living spaces of your home if you can avoid it.
If ducting is not properly sealed and insulated correctly in areas of the home, this could allow condensation moisture (and then mold) into the ducting. If there are issues elsewhere in the home causing the mold problem such as cooling coils, a leaking pipe or cracked duct allowing moisture inside, these issues must be corrected. Otherwise, the mold will keep coming back.
If your ducts are insulated and you suspect the insulation has gotten wet or dirty, they should be inspected visually. When the insulation has been exposed to water or has mold on it, it cannot be cleaned and should instead be removed and replaced. If your ducting passes over or past fiberglass that has mold or contamination it, this should also be replaced.
WOOD-BURNING STOVE OR FIREPLACE IN THE HOME
Homes with a fuel or wood-burning stove, fireplace, or furnace should have the HVAC system (including ducting) inspected and cleaned before winter. Build-up and soot can be dangerous from these systems and contribute to carbon monoxide poisoning.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD DUCT CLEANING SERVICE
When you decide to have your ducts cleaned, choose your service provider wisely. Some states require licensing for duct cleaners. Get a written agreement that spells out the total cost and scope, and how long it will take. Ask providers to show you or explain what contamination needs to be cleaned. Some duct cleaners insist you should get ducts cleaned just for the sake of cleaning them.
Understand what kind of ducting you have- is it sheet metal, fiberglass, or flex-duct? Ensure your service provider is equipped for all of these, as many homes have a combination of these kinds of HVAC components.
Be sure to ask what procedures they will use. Are their processes and equipment compliant with NADCA (National Air Duct Cleaners Association) standards? If your ducting is insulated, are they able to comply with NAIMA (North American Insulation Manufacturer’s Association) standards to ensure your HVAC system is not damaged or compromised? The EPA does not certify service providers, so avoid providers who claim to have this certification.
Avoid cleaners that use any techniques that would involve introducing any additional moisture into your ducts, i.e., steamers or high-pressure water cleaning.
Your service provider should answer all of your questions knowledgeably.
When your ducts are cleaned, there may be as much as 10 pounds of dust and debris removed. Shocking? Not really.
Proper maintenance and preventative measures of your home’s systems will keep you and your family safer and ensure you don’t get catastrophic surprises down the road. When you know the air you’re breathing in your home is not passing through a portal of potentially harmful contaminants, you can literally breathe easier.