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—— When What You Can't See, Can Hurt You: ——
Dirty HVAC Systems and Your Indoor Air Quality

by Steve Timpany, ASCS, CRMI

If your home was built after 1980, chances are you have a central heating and air conditioning system, also known as an HVAC system. HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and was developed to control the indoor air climate for comfort. HVAC systems are based on the principles of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and heat transfer. Large hollow, metal, pipes called ducts, move air in and out of the various rooms in your home. These ducts occupy a substantial amount of unseen space in your home. This is space that is moving large amounts of air containing all sorts of microscopic pollutants: dust mites, pollens, mold spores, pet dander, dead skin, insect parts, building materials, natural and synthetic fibers. Even small rodents and birds can become trapped inside of your home’s duct work!

Changing or cleaning your HVAC system’s air filters regularly certainly helps keep these pollutants to a minimum, however; it can’t eliminate them. Some dirt and debris will naturally stick to the surface of the ducts and over time can reduce airflow, thus shortening the effectiveness and life of your HVAC system. Plus, think of the poor quality of indoor air your family is breathing in! All those microscopic pollutants are being forced back into your home. To make matters worse, if any moisture is introduced into the ducts, mold, mildew, and other organic substances are likely to flourish. This means that the health of anyone with allergies, asthma, or respiratory problems is going to be seriously affected.

The best way to eliminate any air quality problems caused by your HAVC system is to have the ducts cleaned. “Excellent,” you say. “I’ll just look for a special offer and get someone out here to clean the duct work.”

Not so fast. This is a DETAILED process for certified, experienced professionals ONLY! Do not be fooled into thinking everyone offering this service is QUALIFIED and knows how to correctly clean and service your HVAC system. Unfortunately for homeowners, not everyone in this business is a professional.

This service requires opening a hole in your HVAC system’s duct work in order to hook up a powerful vacuum to suck out all the lose dirt plus the particles that have adhered to the walls of the ducts. It further requires the use of special tools, such as brushes, air whips, and compressed air nozzles or “skipper balls” to scrub the air duct walls clean, so that the debris can be completely removed. Anyone using improper equipment or lacking the necessary training and skill level to use the proper equipment can cause irreparable damage to your HVAC system and release toxins trapped in the system into the air you and your family are breathing. You also run the risk that the openings will not be sealed correctly, causing toxins to accumulate behind the walls of your home. If one of those toxins happens to be mold spores — and the chances of this are quite good — you could be in for costly remediation of mold growth throughout your home!

The NADCA (National Air Duct Cleaners Association) offers the appropriate training and certification for HVAC Cleaning (ASCS), Inspection (CVI), and Mold Remediation (VSMR). Only an NADCA certified, experienced professional should be overseeing this type of home maintenance work. Only a NADCA member organization is qualified to clean your HVAC system.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) offers a few suggestions for those who are concerned about the cleanliness of their HVAC system air ducts and the quality of air these ducts are circulating throughout the home. First, if there is noticeable dust coming from any of the registers, you should have the ducts cleaned. This includes layers of dust on your furniture. Next, if you see any dirt, debris, organic growth, signs of insect or other pest infestation, you should have your ducts cleaned. If you do see or smell organic growth such as mold or mildew, have a professional inspection conducted immediately to determine the exact nature of the substance and the extent of the cleaning work needing to be done. If it does turn out to be mold, then only removal of the affected materials will eliminate the problem.

If your HVAC system has never been cleaned, then you should have it inspected. This is especially true if anyone living in the home has allergies, asthma, or respiratory illnesses. It is further recommended that you have your HVAC system inspected prior to placing your home on the market. This is one area you can’t afford to overlook. Homes with mold issues must be properly decontaminated and the work certified before they are sold in order to avoid costly legal fees on top of the cost of the work.

SMS Indoor Environmental Cleaning is a member of the NADCA and offers HVAC systems inspections, cleaning, and mold remediation. In addition to Air Duct Cleaning, SMS also provides Coil Cleaning, Remote Video Inspection, Exhaust System Cleaning (Laundry), and Air Filter Management.

What Is Involved In A NADCA Professional HVAC Cleaning?

Air duct cleaning is a misnomer. In actuality, the entire HVAC system should be cleaned. Failure to clean all components of the system can result in re-contamination of the entire system, thus minimizing the benefits of cleaning. Just as you wouldn’t only clean half of your living room floor, you also would not want to clean only part of your heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. NADCA recommends cleaning the entire HVAC system, including the following components:

• Air Ducts
• Coils
• Drain Pan
• Registers
• Grills
• Air Plenum
• Blower Motor & Assembly
• Heat Exchanger
• Air Filter
• Air Cleaner

A company must meet stringent requirements in order to be a member of NADCA. The company must have at least one NADCA certified Air Systems Cleaning Specialist (ASCS) on staff, maintain at least $500,000 in general liability insurance, agree to clean according to NADCA’s standards and comply with NADCA’s Code of Ethics.

© 2009 SMS Indoor Environmental Cleaning. Published June 2009. All Rights Reserved.

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