Woman wearing gloves and holding out a dirty air filter.

How To Clean Air Ducts In Your Home: A Guide

Michelle Giorlando7 minute read
April 15, 2022

One of the least exciting but most necessary aspects of homeownership comes in the form of maintenance and upkeep on the appliances and systems that make your house operate. This includes the glamorous world of air ducts. Your air ducts are a part of the least visible, but most important, system of keeping your air clean, and it’s essential to keep the ducts themselves clean for maximum impact.

Let’s look at what air duct cleaning involves, when you should do it, and whether you should clean your air ducts yourself or call in a professional.

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What Is Air Duct Cleaning?

Air duct cleaning generally refers to the cleaning of various components of your home’s heating and cooling systems. These components include the supply and return air ductwork (where the air is pulled in, processed through your forced air system, and pushed back out), fan motors and housing, grills, condensate drip pans, and heating and cooling coils. These components can become clogged with dust and debris, and they can develop mold growth if moisture is left unchecked.

Typically, cleaning these components involves dislodging any dirt or debris from inside the ducts and vacuuming the debris out. You may check insulation to make sure it’s not gathering moisture and make sure any drip pans are emptying properly so mold isn’t encouraged to grow. You’ll also want to make sure your filters are properly fitted and unclogged to discourage more dust from entering the ducts. Finally, a good old-fashioned vacuuming of the registers can finish it off.

Is Air Duct Cleaning Necessary?

The short answer: yes! Your air ducts affect the quality of your air. They also affect the circulation and energy usage in your home. While there isn’t scientific evidence that clean air ducts can fully prevent health problems, cleaning them can certainly help avoid potential health issues.

Let’s look at some benefits of cleaning your air ducts:

  • Reduced allergens: Your air ducts can trap allergens such as dust mites, pollen, smoke and dander and circulate these allergens as they push air into your home. Regular duct cleaning can prevent these allergens from building up in your ducts and blowing out into the air you breathe.
  • Improved air quality: You probably wouldn’t choose to drink out of a dirty straw, so it stands to reason that you wouldn’t want to breathe air from dirty ducts! Your home’s air gets recirculated through the ducts about 5 – 7 times daily. Cleaning your ducts leads to cleaner air; you won’t be breathing in as many contaminants.
  • Improved ventilation: Cleaning your ducts eliminates debris and other pollutants that can clog your ventilation filters. You don’t want pollutants from the outdoors pulled in, and you don’t want the pollutants that are generated through daily living circulated either!
  • Mold mitigation: Leaks and moisture in your ducts can encourage mold growth, which can lead to many respiratory issues and other health problems.
  • Removal of animal and insect debris: This is especially helpful if you have pets who shed! Pet hair and dander can clog your ducts and circulate with the air, which can trigger allergies. Unfortunately, air ducts can also be home to insects, mice and other rodents whose waste can affect your air quality as well.
  • Reduced energy costs: Put simply, the dirtier your HVAC system’s components are, the harder they have to work to rid your air of pollutants. Cleaning your ducts means your system won’t have to work as hard and will use less energy to maintain your home’s temperature.

How Often Should Air Ducts be Cleaned?

The best practices for how often your air ducts need cleaning vary. The National Air Duct Cleaners Association recommends cleaning your ducts about every 3 – 5 years. However, you may want to consider more frequent cleanings.

Here are a few factors to think about if you’re considering more frequent cleanings:

  • When was the last time your ducts were cleaned?
  • Is your house generally tightly sealed, or are there air leaks from old windows?
  • Do you have shedding pets?
  • Is anyone in your home a smoker?
  • Have you completed any home renovation or remodeling projects recently?
  • Do any household members have allergies?
  • Do you have young children or elderly household members whose airways might be more sensitive?

Any of these circumstances could mean an increased need for more frequent cleanings. For example, you may want to consider cleaning your ducts when you move into a new home, when allergy season starts, before you bring a new baby home, or after your dogs decide they simply don’t need their winter coats anymore.

Signs That Your Air Ducts Need To Be Cleaned

Your home can give you clues to show you if your ducts need to be cleaned. Here are some things to pay attention to:

  • Mold: If you notice mold or moisture near your ducts (or anywhere in your home, frankly) that’s a glaring sign you should consider cleaning them.
  • Allergies: Pay attention to your allergies and those of any other household members. Worsening allergies could mean dirty ducts are blowing allergens into your home.
  • Other respiratory problems: If you’re having trouble breathing or have a perpetual cough, dirty ducts may be part of the problem.
  • Dusty ducts or grills: Dust gathering on your air vent grills often means it’s being pushed there through your air ducts. Merely wiping the dust off the grills doesn’t solve the problem of the dust and debris inside the ducts.
  • Musty smells: Stale, musty smells coming from your vents can indicate mold or other pollutants.
  • Higher energy bills: If you can’t pinpoint a high energy bill to factors like your energy provider raising costs or extreme hot or cold weather affecting how often your HVAC system runs, it may be that your systems are working harder to overcome clogs and dirt.

How Much Does It Cost To Have Your Air Ducts Cleaned Professionally?

If you’re not up for a DIY job, you may want to have your ducts cleaned by a professional. The average cost of having your ducts professionally cleaned is $450 – $1,000, according to the National Air Duct Cleaners Association. The total cost will ultimately depend on the size of your home, the number of ducts, the type of ducts, how many people the job will require, the estimated length of time the job will take, and any special factors.

It's always a good idea to get a few quotes so you know what the prices are in your area. It’s also a good idea to watch out for deals that seem too good to be true – you may pay a low price initially, but you might end up paying extra fees and upcharges.

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Supplies You Need For Air Duct Cleaning

If you’re up for the challenge, you can clean your air ducts yourself, with equipment you likely already own or can borrow or rent.

Before you begin, here’s a list of supplies to gather:

  • Vacuum with a long hose, though your average household vacuum may not be powerful enough
  • Screwdriver or power drill to take off vent covers
  • Brush such as a toilet brush or paint brush
  • Cleaning cloth such as a microfiber cloth
  • Paper towels for cleanup
  • Air filter to replace on your furnace
  • Work gloves, dust mask and goggles to protect yourself

How To Clean Air Ducts Yourself

You’ve got your supplies, your eyes and lungs are protected, and you’re ready to DIY. Here’s a step-by-step list of how to clean your air ducts.

1. Turn Off The System

Your first step is to turn off the HVAC system. Note that just shutting off the thermostat won’t cut the power to your furnace.

You can shut off power by locating a switch on the system itself. If it’s not on the furnace system, look for a switch on a wall nearby. If you can’t find the switch, you can always shut off the system via its circuit breaker.

2. Remove The Vent Cover

Next, unscrew the vent covers and wipe off any dust and debris. Set them aside and make sure you don’t lose the screws! Make sure you clean both supply and return vent covers, since dust can gather and circulate from both types.

Once your vent covers are off, loosen any dust and debris within the ducts. You can do this internally by moving your brush around the interior of the ducts as far as you can reach to knock off any buildup. Do it externally in your basement or attic (or wherever any ducts may be accessible) by gently tapping on the ducts to loosen dirt and other buildup.

3. Vacuum The Dust

Once the dirt and debris are loose, your next step is to remove it all. Use your vacuum hose to reach in as far as you can to suck up all the contaminants. Repeat the loosening and vacuuming on each register, both supply and return.

You should also vacuum out your furnace by removing the front panel and vacuuming any dust out of the blower compartment. Make sure you also vacuum the fan.

4. Replace The Air Filter

An essential step once your ducts are cleaned out is to replace the air filter on your HVAC system. You don’t want to undo your hard work by circulating dirty air! First, remove the old filter. If you’re unsure of what size filter to buy, check the old one. It should have a size printed on it. If you can’t find that, measure the depth, width and height of the return air duct to determine what size filter you need.

This is also a great opportunity to consider what kind of filter you’d like. Standard ones trap dust and pollen, but higher-rated ones trap many more kinds of particles. These ratings are called the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV). These ratings are on a scale of 1 – 20. The lower the number, the fewer percentage of particles filtered, and vice versa.

To install your new filter, look at the arrows that are normally printed on the frame. These tell you what direction the air should flow, and the arrows should always point in the direction if the blower.

5. Restore The Vent Cover

Once your system is all cleaned out, you can put the vent covers back on and secure them. Clean up any additional dirt or debris leftover, and enjoy the clean, fresh air your newly cleaned air ducts provide!

The Bottom Line

Clean air is essential to good health, and in addition to improving the quality of your air, cleaning your air ducts can lower energy bills and keep your household members breathing well. Care for your air ducts as part of your overall home maintenance plan.

Check out the home maintenance checklist to learn about other maintenance tasks you should be keeping up with!

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Michelle Giorlando

The Rocket Homes blog is here to bring you all you need to know about buying, selling and making the most of your home. Whether you’re thinking about becoming a homeowner, selling your current home or looking to keep your place in tip-top shape, our writers and freelancers bring their experience and expertise to meet you right where you are.