Home & Design May 06, 2009
Air Duct Cleaning
How to ensure the air you breathe inside your home is clean.

In and out, day in, day out. We do it about 2,300 times a day. And we’ll die in minutes if we don’t. At the same time, doing it is so invisible and so basic that we usually take it for granted.

What I’m talking about, of course, is breathing air and, more specifically, the oxygen in it. Oxygen makes up close to 21% of air, nitrogen about 78% and trace amounts of argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, neon, methane, helium and krypton account for the rest.

Or so the theory goes. The truth, especially in this day and age, is far more complicated than that. Minute amounts of dozens of different chemicals—often measured in parts-per-billion—can and do float around in the gaseous soup that sustains us. A variety of more and less insidious particles emitted by automobiles, fireplaces, industrial smokestacks, waste incinerators, mold, flame retardants, pesticides and manufacturing processes mingle in the air with molecules that outgas from many popular products we live with and use in our homes. Resulting in air, both outdoors and in, that is an exotic blend of chemicals. So much so that in some places, from Beijing to Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, the air is literally visible.

Escaping the murk, and the negative impact it can have on the health of sensitive or sensitized people, is what has driven some to move to the Wood River Valley. But escaping isn’t always that easy. Although the outdoor air may be cleaner, indoor air quality (also known as IAQ) may not be much better than anywhere else. All the products and habits, such as smoking, that pollute our indoor environments come with us when we move.

"Air quality in the home can be a huge factor in one’s health," says Wood River Valley’s Quantum Healing Arts physician Maria Maricich, who is a chiropractor working with people who have multiple sensitivities, both food and environmental.

Poor indoor air quality hits some people much harder than others—even in the same home.

"If you are an individual prone to allergy or asthma, it can be detrimental. Also, if you are an individual predisposed to such conditions, but not yet manifesting them, it can send you quickly into a downward health cycle," she says

"There are 120,000 different synthetic chemicals in the environment," Dr. Stephan Siele with Ascension Holisitic Health in Ketchum points out. Along with molds, parasites and even electromagnetic frequencies are part of the biochemical component linked with structural, mental and emotional conditions that can lead to physical problems. The biggest complaint he hears is "I have no energy," and he notes "all of a sudden, they’re sensitive and allergic."

What is discovered he says are “people with a build up of toxins.” In our homes, we are surrounded by furnishings, mattresses, carpets, paints and other products that are constantly outgassing.

"The load is huge when you start looking at the big picture," he says. That’s why he thinks "anything you can do to keep your environment as clean as possible is good."

Luckily, there are some mitigating steps we can take to improve indoor air—and, for anyone with a forced air heating and cooling system, air duct cleaning, along with furnace servicing and filter replacement, is one of them.

As Dr. Siele says, "What is in the duct system is going to blow through the home."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Some sources, such as building materials, furnishings, and household products like air fresheners, release pollutants more or less continuously.

Other sources, related to activities carried out in the home, release pollutants intermittently. These include smoking, the use of unvented or malfunctioning stoves, furnaces, or space heaters, the use of solvents in cleaning or hobby activities, the use of paint strippers in redecorating activities, and the use of cleaning products and pesticides in house-keeping. High pollutant concentrations can remain in the air for long periods after some of these activities."

The EPA’s website says you should consider having your air ducts cleaned if you notice "substantial visible mold growth inside hard surface (e.g., sheet metal) ducts or on other components of your heating and cooling system." Or, as has happened in the Wood River Valley, "Ducts are infested with vermin, (e.g. rodents or insects) or ducts are clogged with excessive amounts of dust and debris and/or particles are actually released into the home from your supply registers." Most cleaners these days have remotely operated cameras that make checking for dirt and dust easier.

Matt Keefe of Wood River Air Duct Cleaning explains, "Since conditions in every home or business are different, it is impossible to generalize about whether or not air duct cleaning in your home or business would be beneficial. After a visual inspection of your ducts, if you see no indication that the air ducts are contaminated with large deposits of dust and debris, having air duct cleaning is probably unnecessary . . . It all depends on your personal preferences and needs. For instance, whether you have pets, allergies, smokers in the home, or you live in a dusty outdoor environment."

Everyone we spoke with recommended that air ducts be cleaned after new construction.

Keefe explains, "Most contractors do not clean air ducts and most construction sites are not clean. Unless you specifically request your ducts be cleaned, then chances are they are dirty."

The National Air Duct Cleaners Association note in their materials that "Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have been known to act as a collection source for a variety of contaminants that have the potential to affect health such as mold, fungi, bacteria and very small particles of dust."

Although molds and airborne mold spores are naturally occurring both indoors and out they can have negative impacts on people in certain conditions. According to a position paper presented by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and published in NEXUS Magazine, indoor airborne mold exposure causes damage to respiratory, nervous, immune, and blood systems as well as the skin. The article also noted it is "a common cause of life-threatening systemic infections in immuno-compromised patients." >>>

 

 

"We have much less of a problem here because of the drier climate,” notes Maricich. “Some people actually move here to recover from these conditions.” But don’t be fooled, there are mold problems here. A couple common situations that occur are a wet basement or a leak. In Elkhorn, for example, water runoff is a problem because of the claylike soil. “I’ve seen a home there with severe mold problems in the crawl space. As far as leaks go, you may have a washing machine or pipe that has leaked a little bit for years. That can cause mold in the subfloor without you ever knowing it.”

Maricich recommends air duct cleaning "Especially for anyone with allergies or lung conditions, and anyone whose immune system seems compromised." But there are no hard and fast rules since, as Siele puts it, "Everything is based on the individual." Has there been a leak or mold problem, do you have pets, allergies, sensitivities or other health issues? And where do you live?

As J.R. McMurdo of Boulder Mountain Heating and Sheet Metal points out, if you live on an unpaved road or in a rural area, you’ll usually have more dust.

"There’s less dust in town." And you don’t have to actually have a "vermin infestation" to find yourself with a problem in that area either. As McMurdo notes, "We’ve had people call us because their kid’s gerbil escaped and died in the duct work system."

But—exactly what does a duct cleaning involve? According to the EPA it should include:

* Opening access ports and doors to allow the entire system to be inspected and cleaned.
* A pre-cleaning check for asbestos-containing materials (in register boots, insulation, etc.) in the system.
* Use of an externally exhausting vacuum system or a HEPA-equipped vacuum.
* Protecting carpet and furnishings during the cleaning.
* Well-controlled brushing of duct surfaces along with vacuuming to dislodge dust and debris.
* Using only soft brushes for fiberglass duct board and sheet metal ducts internally lined with fiberglass.
* Care protecting the integrity of the ducts and an airtight sealing and re-insulating of any holes that may have been made or found.

Keefe describes his method: "The process involves a Hepa filtrated power vacuum that is connected to the duct system near the furnace. Long lengths of air hoses with special 360 degree high velocity nozzles are connected to a compressor and snaked through the entire duct system, dislodging debris that has accumulated in the system. The vacuum creates a negative pressure in the system, pulling dislodged contaminants into its filtration system." (Keefe also says not to forget about your dryer vents.)

After cleaning, McMurdo will occasionally use a fogger in the system depending on circumstances but Siele is leery of them, cautioning, "Don’t use toxic chemicals in the air ducts. Don’t trade one problem for another." Although the EPA says never to use biocides with fiberglass or flexiduct, it does have several products it recommends for use with sheetmetal ducts, but only if necessary to control mold or bacteria.

As far as preparations, McMurdo says all the client has to do is let him in the house and point out where the systems are while Keefe says all he needs is to know "where is the furnace or furnaces and where are your crawl spaces?"

Although "It does sound like a dirty job, the process is very clean," Keefe says. The EPA does recommend protecting furnishings and carpeting as a precaution.

The amount of time a cleaning requires varies depending in the size of the home, the complexity of the system and any problems or special conditions that may exist. But, McMurdo says a simple home with about 1,200 or 1,400 square feet can take as little as two hours at $105 an hour. It goes up from there. Prices vary and can go up to $1,000. Always get an estimate first.

How do you know the job is a good job? The EPA stresses that sources of problems, especially water leaks and condensation leading to moisture and mold issues, must be eliminated otherwise problems will simply reoccur. Water damage, and the mold that can proliferate with it, is the most serious and should be traced and repaired as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

On his website, home repair guru Bob Vila recommends that, "All portions on the system should be visibly clean; you should not be able to detect any debris with the naked eye." He says you check that all ductwork and system components (coils, drain pans, blowers, blades, fans, fins, humidifiers, registers and grills) are visibly clean and in good condition. Make sure all filters have been replaced with the recommended products and fit properly. Also, check that access doors are attached with more than just duct tape and that all registers, grills and defusers have been firmly reattached.

Although the jury is still out on exactly how much good an air duct cleaning does, Siele points out, "Everyone should have clean ducts in their homes—everyone needs clean air. To me, it’s not an option." Duct cleaning isn’t a cure-all, but especially for some people in some circumstances, it can make a big difference in health and comfort.

Lee Bellavance’s career in communications ranges from print and TV journalism to marketing and PR for the University of Utah. More recently she was an editor at The Cafe Review and a telecourse technician at the University of Southern Maine, both in Portland. Currently, she’s been vagabonding from Holland to Hawaii from her base in Connecticut. She spent ten years in the WRV where she helped produce the books Hemingway in Idaho and Hemingway in Key West for her twin sister Marsha’s Famous Footsteps series.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.