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Industry experts recommend that air ducts be cleaned every 3-5 years; the EPA suggests that the frequency of air duct cleaning should be determined by each homeowner's specific circumstances; and, all agree that there is value in air duct cleaning.
Start by considering the people in your home. If someone is sensitive to dust or pollen, or if young children are present, it might be wise to have your air ducts cleaned more frequently – perhaps every 2-3 years.
Also consider the rate of dust buildup in your home – which is affected by environmental factors like: the proximity and density of trees and other vegetation near your house, presence of mold in the area, above-average wind levels near your home, the presence of wood floors (which allow more dust to enter the duct system), and, the presence of pets – especially long-haired animals and breeds that shed a lot.
Additionally, the EPA suggests that your ducts be cleaned right away if: there is visible mold in or around your system (or you suspect mold), you suspect the presence of rodents or insects in your air ducts, or, you see visible puffs of dust or other particles escaping when you turn on your heating or cooling system – a definitive sign that your system is spreading unwanted contaminants into your home.
And finally, if you recently moved or finished a renovation project, that's another good time to schedule a cleaning, since there will be loads of dust and pollutants inside your system.
It's difficult to clean air ducts yourself, the best option is to hire a duct cleaning professional.
"Who should clean air ducts?"
DIY’ers can clean room vents, and those air duct surfaces that are visible (i.e., near vents). It's also possible to reach a little further into the system with a vacuum hose to remove dust and debris found near the vents.
However, it's not possible to effectively clean the majority of the duct system yourself: much of the duct work is unreachable without professional tools and knowledge.
The only way to reliably and thoroughly clean your central air ducts is by calling a professional duct cleaner.
"How does professional air duct cleaning work?"
Professional air duct cleaning generally involves duct inspection, vacuuming and a compressed air flush of all the ducts. More specifically, the process includes: sealing off vents and air returns, identifying and repairing any cracks or air leaks, cutting holes throughout the system to better access areas, and repairing the holes when done, installing a vacuum device into a vent, usually near the air blower, forcing air through the system, and, rotating between each vent to agitate or move any remaining dust or particles for capture.
It's also wise to change your system's filters regularly, and after a duct cleaning.
"Does air duct cleaning remove mold?"
Conventional air duct cleaning (moving dust and vacuuming) will not remove mold, which requires wiping or scraping, plus some kind of cleaning agent.
Mold can grow on the exterior of the ducts, or inside the ducts:
If mold is visible and reachable: wipe the mold away with a cloth and cleaning agent.
If you suspect mold inside the ducts: consult a professional to evaluate the extent of the problem before proceeding.
Air ducts should be thoroughly cleaned before removing mold from within the ducts, because the presence of dust and dirt can inhibit the effectiveness of chemical mold removers.
Unfortunately, there's not much reliable research data on the topic. However, many allergists consider duct cleaning a matter of common sense for patients with allergies, since cleaning the ducts in your home can help minimize exposure to air pollutants.
Homeowners should visually inspect the inside of the vents for dust, mold, and debris…
If large accumulations of dust or mold are present, it is time to consult a professional for further inspection.
If minimal amounts of dust or mold are present, annual or bi-annual duct cleaning can help reduce exposure to in-home allergens.
It's also wise to consider duct cleaning every few years if: moisture-related mold problems persist on a continuing basis, your home is susceptible to above-average dust build-up, you live in an area with large amounts of pollen in the air, you live in an area with high winds, or, you have pets.