Here's a quick question: when was the last time you took a good, hard look at your ductwork? If you're like most people, it's probably been quite awhile, if you've ever done it at all. It's hard to reach, out of sight, and easy to forget about. So you keep running your A/C day after day, season after season, without giving a second thought to your ducts. But all the while, they could be leaking or damaged, or they might not be installed properly, which wastes a lot of energy. Or they could have mold or rodents, or some other serious problem, which poses a risk to your health.
The fact is, you never know what issues there might be until you have your ductwork inspected. And you can't keep those issues at bay without regular maintenance. Here are some basic maintenance procedures you can perform or have performed, to keep your ducts healthy.
Airflow is Key for Ductwork
First of all, the main reason why ductwork maintenance is so important is airflow. Your A/C unit pumps out air, which is then conveyed through your ducts to the registers, to cool your house. Healthy ducts will distribute the air evenly across your entire home. But if your ducts are leaking, damaged or poorly installed, then some of that conditioned air will leak out before it reaches your registers. The less air reaches your home, the longer it will take to cool, and the more energy your A/C will use in the process. And just as good air can leak out through holes in your ductwork, bad air can also leak in, contaminating your filtered air with dust and other impurities.
Even the healthiest, most well-sealed ducts experience some energy losses, so it's vital to keep your ductwork in shape, to minimize those losses. To make sure your airflow is optimal, the first thing you need to do is to make sure that none of your vents, registers, grilles, etc., are being blocked by furniture or otherwise obstructed, restricting the flow of air to your home. Vents and registers should also be cleaned and dusted regularly, to prevent a buildup of debris which can also restrict airflow.
Next, you need to check for leaks. Go along the entire length of your ducts and check for pinhole leaks, larger holes or places where the ductwork is torn or otherwise damaged. Also look for places where one section of a duct may have come loose from the adjoining section.
Ductwork Sealing and Insulation
Some people attempt to fix smaller holes themselves using metal tape or mastic sealant. However, in spite of the name, don't ever use duct tape to repair ductwork. Though it has many other great uses around the home, it loses its adhesiveness after a few years, particularly if there's dirt or dust in the area (which there tends to be, when working with ducts). When this happens, it may look like the tape is still stuck in place, but air could be leaking out from under it, wasting energy.
Just as important as making sure that your ducts are well-sealed is making sure that they're well-insulated. As soon as the air leaves your HVAC unit, it begins to lose energy, growing quickly closer and closer to room temperature. The longer the air's journey to your living spaces, the more energy it will lose. That's why ducts are insulated: to prevent energy loss and keep the cold air cold and the warm air warm for as long as possible.
Most ducts are insulated upon their installation, but it's important to make sure that the insulation is installed properly. It should be wrapped snugly around the duct, but with a little bit of room to breathe. If it's too tight or too loose, it won't be able to do its job properly.
You can seal minor leaks, and even install new insulation yourself if you're feeling ambitious, but if you have more extensive duct damage, it's usually best to call in an HVAC professional to fix it for you. He or she can also perform a more thorough inspection of your ductwork and, in particular, see if it's installed properly, or if it needs to be redone, as well as checking for other problems.
Annual Inspection by a Professional is a Good Idea
You should have a professional perform an inspection of your ductwork at least once a year, as a trained eye and proper tools can spot and fix things that you might otherwise miss. If your HVAC system is particularly old and hasn't been upgraded or looked at in a long time, you may even have asbestos in the duct insulation, which is highly dangerous and needs to be removed at once. Or they may find that your ducts are in need of cleaning.
Duct cleaning is something that should be done often, but sometimes it's necessary. If you're trying to decide whether or not you should have your ducts cleaned, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The EPA has found no concrete evidence that regular duct cleaning does anything to improve your health or your HVAC system's efficiency. There is some anecdotal evidence that it improves HVAC performance, but even so, most experts agree that the procedure doesn't need to be done any more frequently than every five to 10 years.
- According to the EPA, though you may choose to have your ducts cleaned regularly for your own peace of mind, there are only a few circumstances under which it's necessary for your health and safety. If there's mold or mildew growing inside your ducts, then it needs to be removed to prevent spores from contaminating your home's air. If there are rodents, insects or other creatures living in your ductwork, then a cleaning is in order to get them out. Or if your ducts are so clogged with dust that it impedes the airflow, or blows dust out of the vents and into your home, then that needs to be taken care of to safeguard your health and your system's performance.
- Mold and other biological contaminants are difficult to spot at a glance, even for an expert. Often a lab test may be required to know for sure.
- There are no EPA-approved chemical biocides and no evidence has been found for their effectiveness in getting rid of mold and bacteria. In fact, some biocides, such as ozone, can be harmful to your health, and many merely push the offending materials out of the ducts and into your home. If the cleaning service does use chemical biocides, make sure that they're registered with the EPA as being safe for the purpose of duct cleaning.
If you do feel that having your ductwork cleaned is important to your system's health and efficiency, you can do a very basic job yourself and see if that helps. Make sure you turn your heating and air conditioning equipment off first, then remove all of your vents with a screwdriver and wash them with soap and water, to eliminate dust buildup. Clean the inside of the parts of each duct you can reach easily with a crevice tool, cobweb duster or other tool with a long-reaching handle. You can also use a hand-held vacuum to eliminate the dust. Be careful if you attempt this process, because some flexible duct materials can be easily damaged and it can be a messy job. Finally, put the vents back over each opening and screw them in tightly.
If you think a more thorough cleaning is in order, call your HVAC contractor and let the professionals handle it. The technicians will have the proper tools for getting the job done right without damaging your ductwork and without letting the dirt get into your home.
Healthy ductwork is vital to your home's comfort and efficiency. Your HVAC system produces conditioned air, but it's just as important that that air be distributed properly and evenly across your home. Since you don't see your ducts very often, though, it's easy to forget about them. Problems with your ductwork can go on for ages, wasting money and energy without your even realizing it.
Therefore, just as it's important to have your HVAC unit inspected annually, it's also important to have your ducts inspected annually to make sure everything's in good working order. It will save energy, improve your health and generally help your system perform better, allowing your home to reach its optimal comfort level more quickly, while saving you money at the same time. It's a win-win situation.
For more tips on maintaining healthy ductwork, as well as general heating and cooling advice, contact our experts at Comfort24-7. Our HVAC technicians take pride in being the best of the best, providing top quality service to Northwest Indiana, Southwest Michigan and the Chicagoland area.