Over time, airborne debris such as dust and mold spores can sneak past your air filter and land in your ducts. These contaminant particles will then continue circulating through your air where they put you at risk for respiratory problems.
With the high humidity in the Sarasota and Bradenton area, ductwork is particularly prone to mold problems and pest infestations, both of which pose health threats.
Could Your Ducts Use a Cleaning?
Many homes can go years without professional duct cleaning, yet the ducts remain clean and the indoor air quality acceptable. Even so, to protect your family’s health, you’ll want to call in a professional for a duct inspection at least once every five years. This is true whether you’ve noticed a problem or not.
In some homes, debris builds up in the ductwork quickly enough that you’ll see the effects around your home or with a quick look inside the ducts. If you have any of the following situations, it’s time to schedule a duct inspection:
Dust everywhere – Dirty ducts blow dust, lint and other debris into every room of your home. If you find you need to dust your furniture every other day or so, it’s a sign your heating and cooling system needs a good cleaning. Your supply registers also offer a clue. If they release an initial puff of dust whenever the heat or A/C turns on, it’s time to clean the registers and possibly the rest of the system, too.
Patches of mold – When moisture is present in your ducts, all it takes is a few mold spores to start off a fungus problem. Take a look inside your sheet metal ducts. Patchy discoloration in brown, white, green or another color is likely to be mold. Any sign of moisture buildup or water stains from previous leaks also suggest mold could be growing somewhere in the ducts.
Creepy crawlies – Ductwork is a tempting source of shelter for mice, caterpillars, wasps, and other rodents and insects. All of these pests leave behind biological contaminants such as droppings, hair, nesting material and dead insects, which pose a threat to your health. Worse yet, allowing pests to hang out in your ducts gives them a chance to spread to other parts of your home.
You’ve just moved in or remodeled – When a home is built or refurbished, it’s common that construction debris ends up in the ductwork. Even brand new ductwork could be harboring sawdust, dust from drywall and plaster, insulation and carpet fibers, and residue from the gaseous pollutants given off by paint, varnish and other substances.
Drywall dust is particularly important to remove because, if ignored, it can circulate for several years, forming a hard-to-remove film inside your ducts. This buildup also provides a source of nutrients for mold, potentially creating two problems in one.
If you’ve moved into a previously owned house, don’t assume the ducts are clean just because the rest of the house and the supply registers look clean. Unless you have documented proof a duct cleaning was performed within the last five years, the condition of the ducts is anyone’s guess.
Calling in a heating and cooling professional for a duct inspection is the only way to find out the true state of your ducts. A professional can also alert you to other duct maintenance issues, such as air leaks or a collapsed flexduct.
Dirty Ducts Degrade Your Indoor Air Quality
A little dust on your tables may not seem like a serious problem, but it could indicate a real threat to your health. This is especially true if someone in your home has allergies, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or another respiratory concern.
More than dust, biological contaminants you can’t see are your greatest concern. These include spores produced by mold growing in the ducts, debris from pests, and bacteria. Exposure to certain types of bacteria and mold can trigger allergic reactions such as sneezing and coughing, watery eyes and headaches.
Cockroaches, not an uncommon problem in the Southeast, produce allergens that can set off both allergy and asthma symptoms. In infants younger than one year, exposure to these allergens can cause coughing and difficulty breathing. In small children, it can cause asthma.
Beyond biological contaminants, there are other pollutants to think about. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the most common indoor air pollutants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These are gaseous pollutants that come from carpeting, upholstery, cooking, tobacco smoke and numerous other sources. A build-up in your ducts can cause long-term, low-level exposure, which may put you at risk for liver, kidney and nervous system damage, as well as cancer.
As much as it can improve your indoor air quality, duct cleaning has never been conclusively proven to prevent or alleviate any health condition. Beware of contractors who push the potential health benefits of cleaner ducts. If relief from a respiratory condition is your goal, look into a higher efficiency air filter or whole-house air cleaner.
The Duct Cleaning Process
Although the exact process for duct cleaning varies from company to company, you can expect the work to be completed in several basic steps.
Cleaning the system components – The air handler will disassembled and the internal components cleaned with a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. This step is essential to prevent lingering debris from recontaminating the system. Parts to be cleaned include the:
- Blower fan assembly
- Fan motor exterior cover
- A/C evaporator coil
- A/C drip pan
Cleaning the registers and vents – The contractor will remove the supply registers and return air vents, and wash them down with detergent and water.
Cleaning the ducts – There are two main ways to remove debris from ductwork. In one, the contractor attaches a negative air machine, similar to a large vacuum, to one of the vents. The rest of the duct system is then closed off to create negative air pressure throughout. Finally, the contractor uses a rotating brush or other tool to break up debris so the negative air machine can pull it directly out of the ducts.
Some contractors use a machine that consists of a rotating brush connected to a long hose. This machine simultaneously breaks up debris and sucks it out of the ducts.
Applying biocides and other treatments – If mold was found in your ducts, your contractor may suggest spraying the interior of the ducts with a chemical to kill remaining mold and prevent its regrowth. While generally considered safe, these products have been known to cause adverse reactions in some people. Before you let your contractor apply a biocide, deodorizer or other treatment, make sure you know the risks.
Work With Trained Professionals Only
A bad duct cleaning job is worse than no duct cleaning at all. An inexpert attempt at cleaning may just release previously stuck-on debris from your ducts into your living space. To thoroughly remove all potentially harmful debris from your ducts and your home, a contractor must have equipment designed for duct cleaning and use that equipment correctly.
To complicate matters, it’s not easy for a homeowner to check the quality of a duct cleaning job. Some dishonest contractors take advantage of that fact by performing a quick, hit-and-miss cleaning job, yet charging full price.
You can avoid these problems by working with a skilled, reliable HVAC contractor. To find one, look for a company that holds membership in the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA). The NADCA is a trade association that requires its member companies to have at least one employee trained in duct care, as well as agreeing to a code of ethics that protects the customers’ best interests.
When you’re ready to choose an HVAC contractor, covering these basic steps will help ensure you find one who’ll do the job right:
- Make sure the company is properly licensed and insured for Florida. Also look into how much ductwork cleaning experience the company has, particularly in homes similar to yours.
- Check that the company is a current member of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association.
- Ask about the cleaning process. Make sure the contractor will inspect and clean all parts of your system using equipment designed for cleaning ducts.
- Avoid unusually cheap “special offers.” Often, rock-bottom prices are possible only because the technician plans on cutting corners or using cheaper, less effective equipment.
To find out if your ducts need a cleaning or for help with any other air quality, heating, cooling or plumbing issue, contact us at Aqua Plumbing & Air. Around the Sarasota and Bradenton area, we help homeowners stay healthy and comfortable.
Written by John Miller
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