The Fundamentals of Residential Air Duct Cleaning

Residential air duct cleaning is sometimes a confusing subject for homeowners. What is it? Is it really necessary? How much does it cost? Can I do it myself? Let’s try to clear up some of that confusion.

A residential air duct in Blaine, MN, before cleaning
BEFORE: a residential air duct in Blaine, MN, before air duct cleaning. The homeowner had just moved in and was unaware when they were last cleaned.
A residential air duct in a home in Blaine, MN, after cleaning.
AFTER: the same air duct has been thoroughly cleaned with a combination of tentacled whips, skipper balls, and an industrial vacuum.

What is air duct cleaning?

The air ducts in your home are responsible for distributing warm or cool air from the furnace or air handler throughout your home, and then back to your furnace again. Of course, with all that air movement, all manner of debris is deposited inside the ducts over time. Lighter dust and particles then exit the vents and enter the living space, decreasing indoor air quality and sometimes leaving a fine dust on furnishings.

The process of air duct cleaning uses specialized tools and experienced technicians to remove dust and debris from the air ducts. The tools used are typically an industrial strength vacuum—either truck-mounted or portable—and an assortment of air whips and other agitation tools, attached to a length of air hose. The vacuum is set up near the furnace and an access hole (if none is already present) is cut into the main trunk line, where the vacuum hose is inserted. The tools are then used to push or pull the debris toward the vacuum, moving systematically through the home, to each of the vents.

A residential air duct in a home in Plymouth, MN, before cleaning.
BEFORE: A wooden air duct in a home in Plymouth, MN, before cleaning. Notice debris clings to all sides of the duct, not just the bottom.
A residential air duct in a home in Plymouth, MN, after cleaning.
AFTER: the same air duct, having been cleaned with a tentacled whip and other tools to thrash debris loose from all sides of the duct.

Is air duct cleaning really necessary?

The question is, as a homeowner, how much debris are you willing to tolerate in your ventilation system? For some, it’s quite a lot, and for others, just the thought of dirty air ducts makes them breathe a little less easy.

There are a few cases when air duct cleaning might be non-negotiable, such as when first moving into a home. Because you really have no idea what the condition is of the air ducts and what may be lurking inside (really, you’d be surprised), it’s probably best to start fresh and get them cleaned on move-in.

The other non-negotiable might be after construction or remodeling. Activities that kick up a lot of dust are virtually guaranteed to contribute to dirtying the air ducts, and, by extension, the furnace. Drywall in particular is notorious for finding its way into the HVAC system, and, because of its extremely fine consistency and light weight, it will find its way from your HVAC system to the rest of your home, regardless of what room it originated in.

Aside from these two scenarios, conscientious homeowners may want to consider air duct cleaning at least every 5 years or so, depending on your comfort level, of course, and taking into consideration that the presence of pets or of family members with allergies will increase how frequently it’s needed.

How much does air duct cleaning cost?

The cost for an air duct cleaning service in Minnesota will vary quite a bit, depending on several factors. The price range for the service in the Twin Cities metro runs from as low as $99 to as high as $999 and more depending on the company. In most cases you should expect to pay at minimum $400 for a good quality duct cleaning on an average sized home (2000-2500 sq ft) in the metro.

Generally speaking, you do get what you pay for. Because skilled technicians and effective equipment are not cheap, companies that utilize them will generally come with a higher price tag for their service. There are an unfortunate number of air duct cleaning companies that practice some type of bait and switch. For this reason you’ll want to consider getting a guaranteed quote beforehand, or choosing a company that clearly posts pricing for the service.

When doing your research, keep in mind some things that will increase pricing:

  • Your home has more than one furnace. This will increase the price significantly, as one more furnace will almost double the amount of labor involved.
  • Your home is bigger than average. Most companies have a threshold above which a surcharge kicks in, due to increased labor and time.
  • Your home has transite (in-slab) ducts. This kind of ductwork is notoriously difficult to clean and involves an expertise that comes only from an experienced technician.
Residential air duct cleaning in Fridley, MN
A technician inserts a tentacled air whip into a trunk line during the process of air duct cleaning at a home in Fridley, MN.

Can I DIY my air ducts?

There are definitely some things a homeowner can do to help maintain the cleanliness of the HVAC system in general, including the air ducts. First and foremost, you’ll want to change the air filter on your furnace regularly, and make sure it’s the right size. Any gaps around the filter in its housing could allow for filter bypass, which would allow dirt to go right around the filter, enter the furnace, and by extension, the air ducts.

Additionally, it’s a good practice to vacuum the registers to remove the dust bunnies that get caught up in the register fins. If you can remove the register, insert the vacuum hose well inside and vacuum up whatever debris you can. This will go a long way toward keeping that debris from blowing into your living space.

Motivated homeowners can even take a vacuum to their furnace, after shutting off the gas and electrical power to the unit. You’ll want to use vacuum attachments, and a lot of care, to suction up any loose dust and debris. This will prevent that dirt from entering your air ducts in the first place.

With that said, however, these measures will not capture the amount of debris that an industrial vacuum and long-reaching air tools wielded by experienced technicians would have the capacity to remove. But they will decrease the amount of dust entering your home and perhaps delay the need for a professional cleaning.

When you think your home’s time has come for a duct cleaning and you’ve learned the basics, look for a company that has a long history of duct cleaning experience, robust customer reviews, and skilled technicians.

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