John Santos of Los Angeles wants his home to be a healthy gathering place for family and friends, some of whom are recovering from major illness. As part of his effort, he recently had his home's ductwork professionally cleaned.
"I wanted to make certain the air that they were breathing was as clean as it possibly could be," says Santos, 54, a high school technology teacher. "Especially living in a city like Los Angeles, where the air quality can really be poor and cleaning the air systems can provide value."
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Although many homeowners consider duct cleaning a way to make their indoor air cleaner, research on whether it can really create a healthier home is in the early stages.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends looking into duct cleaning after fires, floods, pest infestations and in hazardous waste situations, or if you can see particles coming out of your ducts. Otherwise, the agency says it's not necessary for the average household.
Tom Keys, president of Atlantic Duct Cleaning in Sterling, Va., says his company has done more than 80,000 duct-cleaning jobs, and many customers report back that they have better air quality, a cleaner home and lower energy costs. Customers often are surprised at how much debris collected in their ductwork over the years, he says.
"Most of the people who do it, do it for peace of mind," Keys says. His company has found all sorts of items in ductwork beyond dirt and grime, including class rings, rare baseball cards and construction debris from when the home was built.
Keys encourages homeowners to ask duct-cleaning technicians for evidence that there is dirt in the ducts that should be removed.
Jodi Araujo, executive director of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association, says homeowners can tell when ducts are dirty by simply removing a register cover, inserting a camera and clicking a photo.
On the other hand, John DeSilvia, a contractor and host of DIY Network's "Rescue My Renovation," doesn't generally recommend duct cleaning to homeowners. It's normal for dirt to accumulate and stick to the sides of air ducts, he says. The exception, he says, is if there's visible mold growth.
If you do have ductwork cleaned, he advises getting a few estimates and ensuring that the service you hire uses high-powered equipment to capture what they dislodge. Otherwise, the effort could backfire.
"Any dust and dirt not collected will be distributed throughout your home, causing a bigger problem," DeSilvia says.
If you decide to get your home's ductwork cleaned, expect to pay between $400 and $800 if there's one HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system. If you have more than one zone, you could pay more. That's because duct cleaners don't just clean the ducts; they also clean the furnace and air handler for each unit, which could extend the life of your appliances.
In addition, they can identify any places where a duct has become unsealed, torn or flattened, preventing good airflow. Many professional duct cleaners recommend having a system cleaned every five to eight years.
Keys says homeowners should ask about any hidden charges, such as extra fees per register, and check consumer sites such as Angieslist.com for reviews of duct-cleaning companies.
He also notes that for cleaners to gain access, the ductwork must be cut, and trained technicians need to know how to reseal the point of entry correctly so you don't lose energy. His company uses a product that seals any leaks throughout the system. Duct cleaning has become "a much more comprehensive, technologically driven process -- not two guys and a vacuum cleaner," he says.
DeSilvia says homeowners can do a lot on their own to improve their HVAC efficiency by cleaning dirty coils, fans and registers, ensuring drain pans are emptying properly, and changing air filters at least three times a year. He also recommends a yearly professional tuneup.
"Think about your heating and cooling system like you do your car," he says. "You maintain your car at least once a year."
Ductwork is usually in the basement or attic, so homeowners who decide to call in the cleaners need to move any furniture or other obstacles to create access, Keys said. You don't have to leave home during cleaning because the dust and debris should be going directly into containment systems. Sterilization chemicals generally aren't needed unless you have an unusual situation such as mold or sewage backup.
To complement duct cleaning, Keys recommends having carpets and draperies cleaned, too.
Santos, the homeowner from California, says that after his home's ductwork was cleaned, he has to dust less and his home smells fresher. His family and friends feel "a whole lot better" knowing the air system is clean.