How Do I Know if My Air Ducts Need to be Cleaned?

An HVAC unit may act as the heart of your system, but without ductwork, the air produced would just be wasted on spaces like attics and basements. Considering how frequently homeowners take advantage of these systems throughout the year, ductwork can get dirty quicker than you think. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell when those ducts are dusty because of their design.

How Air Ducts Get Dirty

Central heating and air systems circulate air throughout a home are a creature comfort that allows you to stay comfortable indoors. In the summer, you can turn on the air conditioning to cool down or turn to heat in the winter when the weather changes. In other words, the typical HVAC system gets a lot of use throughout the year.

The easiest way for dust and dirt to creep into ductwork is through leaky vents. Any punctures or poorly sealed sections can pull in dirt, and they are not always easy to notice. If moisture or water gets into the air ducts, that will cause dirt to accumulate on the inside of the ducts. Depending on the severity of the leak, the entire run of ductwork in a home can become dusty rather quickly.

How do I know if my air ducts are dirty?

Because of the way ductwork is designed, checking to see if your air ducts are dirty can be difficult. The simplest way for most homeowners is to remove the vent cover and peer into the duct itself. You’ll need a flashlight and possibly a ladder depending on the location of the vents throughout your home.

You can also look inside return plenums and supply plenums that have an air filter once the filter has been removed. If you see a lot of dust in the visible sections of air ducts, you know that a professional cleaning may be in order.

The Effects of Dirty Air Ducts

Now that you know how dust can get inside your air ducts, it’s time to talk about what happens when they become dirty or dusty inside. Every time the central system turns on in a home, anything loose and light in the vents gets picked up. Contaminants that are “stuck” to the walls of the ductwork may stay put, but nothing else will.

While dust moving through ducts sound terrible and is not good, vent filters can help keep them out of the air, while the best HVAC filters keep them out of the ductwork. Unfortunately, dust and dirt act as fuel for mold, which will find a foothold on any surface. That includes the inside of ductwork, the insulation around the exterior, and any surface in the area where the air ducts are installed.

Mold can be a bit more difficult to detect, but if you smell a musty odor in your home when using the air conditioner or furnace, you could have a mold issue. That can cause a variety of symptoms from aggravated allergies to serious respiratory problems. If you believe you have mold in your ductwork, you’ll want to check out this guide

DIY Air Duct Cleaning

Whether you get a funky smell when using your HVAC system or want to ensure top-tier air quality indoors, air duct cleaning is something millions of homeowners opt for each year. It can be an intensive and time-consuming process if you want to clean the ductwork yourself.

There is also a limit to what you can accomplish, as most homeowners won’t have the tools or experience to clean every nook and cranny. The easiest parts to clean on any HVAC system are the most obvious ones – the registers and the unit itself.

With the wall or floor registers removed, you can use a vacuum cleaner or shop vac with a hose to vacuum dust from stretches of ductwork. That’s limited, however, and even covering those registers and using common duct cleaning tricks will only do so much.

Professional Air Duct Cleaning

Homeowners that want their ductwork thoroughly cleaned will want to hire a professional. There are several ways to go about this from search engines to services like Home Advisors, but the NADCA is a great place to start as well.  The National Air Duct Cleaning Association has a wealth of information on its site and can help you avoid being scammed.

It’s also important to point out that the EPA says to steer clear of any “professionals” that want to use chemicals or biocides in your air ducts. None have been shown to have benefits that improve indoor air quality, and untested products can do more harm than good. Make sure their standards and procedures are in line with the NADCA.

Duct Cleaning FAQ

Q: Should a duct cleaning company use chemicals to clean air ducts?

A: If mold or other forms of bacteria are found, antimicrobial chemicals can be used to treat the ductwork, but it should be certified by the EPA for use in HVAC systems.

Q: Is professional duct cleaning worth it?

A: That depends on how dirty your ducts are, your budget, and a variety of other factors that are dependent on each homeowner's specific needs.

Q: Will cleaning my air ducts improve the energy costs of operating an HVAC system?

A: No, but it could improve the air quality in your home. Cleaning dirty coils and the unit itself can improve performance and save money, however.

Q: How do I know if my air ducts have been thoroughly cleaned by a technician?

A: The best thing to do is to inspect any visible parts of your ducts for dust and dirt before the cleaning process begins.

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