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ABC 4 Hidden Camera Investigation: Air Duct Cleaning Services

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - How do you know if a air duct cleaning service will do the job you want and for a fair price? See the results of our hidden camera investigation and read our duct cleaning "red flags."

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - It's allergy season and for many of us, time to do spring cleaning.  A lot of us could breathe a whole lot easier if we could just clean out the dust and gunk in the air ducts of our home heating and cooling system. 

Several companies are advertising specials right now on air duct cleaning.  Their prices range from $99.95 to $79.99.  But beware; you may end up paying many times the advertised price to have your air ducts cleaned.  And even worse, they may not do the job you want.

Aardvacc, a Salt Lake based cleaning service recommended by the Better Business Bureau, agreed to help us with an investigation of companies offering these great deals.   At our invitation, Scott Sedgwick of Aardvacc put a robot camera into the ducts of a house that had been cleaned last year by a discount service.   

What he found horrified the homeowner who has medical problems that require her to keep her home as free of dust and allergens as possible.  The camera clearly showed many years of dust buildup in the main trunk coming off the heater.  We saw bits of construction debris that probably had been in the system since the house was built more than 30 years ago.  In one section that appeared to be cleaner, Sedgwick sent in a quick burst of compressed air and the view of the camera was instantly obscured.  Sedgwick commented as he watched the video feed from the robot camera, "See all that?  That's how much dust (is still in there.)  It just blocked out the entire screen.  If this were cleaned properly, you wouldn’t see any of this dust." 

Not only is the heating system still filthy, but he homeowner paid many times the advertised special of $99.95.  In fact, the first bid came in at roughly $1,700.  When she balked at that, the service representative eventually brought down the price to $999.99.  Still, that was not just double or triple, but 10 times the advertised price.

Is such an inflating of the advertised price typical?  To find out, another homeowner in Sandy loaned us her house for an afternoon.  We set up hidden cameras to record the pitch of a service representative from a cleaning company advertising a special price. 

We found that almost instantly, the special price was thrown out.  That price was based on a house with 10 air vents, 1 main duct and 1 cold air return.  The service representative counted 17 vents, 3 returns and 4 mains.  That, he said, boosted the price to $429.  Then, he said there was a sanitizing spray that would “kill all the germs, all the odor causing bacteria and all the dust mite feces.”  (Dust mite feces?  See “Red Flags” later in this story.)  With that, the price went up to $591.  But that’s not all, there was also something he called “a full restoration.”  Although the rep did not give a full explanation of the full restoration, it pushed up the price to $845.65.  And then he recommended a UV light that he said would purify the air circulating through the system.  Adding that in, the final price was $1,194.

And what about just doing the special?  The rep said, “You don't want to do that.  Don't do it.  I mean ... you are throwing away a hundred dollars if that's what you're going to do in your case.  And your allergies could be worse.” 

“Holy!” – That was the reaction of Jane Driggs of the Salt Lake Better Business Bureau when she got a look at the written estimate.  She then added, “They advertise a low price and then all of a sudden it's bumped up and it’s an exorbitant fee.  And that's just not right.  Consumers need to trust an advertisement ... that that's the price they're going to get."

And yet while some of the added items and services might be questionable, the final price is not too far off.  Aardvacc quoted a price of $810 to clean the same Sandy home.  The National Air Duct Cleaners Association estimates "duct cleaning an average 2,000 square foot house typically costs between $400 and $1000."   But the quote was far off the special price that was used to hook the potential customer into calling for an appointment in the first place.  Because of that, Driggs defined the practice as “bait and switch.” 

But the problems with the discount cleaning service don’t’ end there.   Included in the final estimate was a “maintenance agreement”.   About that the rep said, “We come back in 18 months and do all this stuff again – clean the blower motor and all this other stuff.  But it would only be 149-dollars.”

Marilyn, a former customer of a discount duct cleaning service, had a bad experience with the warranty she was sold.  That warranty promised “No charge air duct cleaning” saying the company would, “at any time… return to the customer’s residence and clean warranted components, if requested by the customer, at no charge…” 

Marilyn called and set up an appointment for a warranty cleaning.  She took a day off work.  And what happened?  Marilyn said, “I waited … and waited … and waited.” They never showed up.  And when she called to find out why, she was given a runaround that ended with the manager refusing to reschedule the cleaning – ever.  Marilyn remembers, “He indicated to me, ‘Good luck getting your ducts cleaned, lady.”  The warranty she’d paid extra for was apparently worthless.

Bottom line:  Cleaning can remove a lot of years of dust, pollen, and just plain garbage that's been collecting, unseen, in your ducts.  In some cases, it is recommended for people with medical problems such as acute allergies or asthma.  But in the air duct cleaning business, there are the good guys, such as Aardvacc, and then there are some … not so good guys.  How can you tell the difference before paying out hundreds of dollars?  Here are a few red flags: 

Red Flag #1:  Bait and Switch.  The advertised "special" price is immediately thrown out in favor of a much higher bid.   Most specials cover a limited number of vents, mains and returns.  Most homes will have more than what’s included in the special, so some “up charge” is to be expected.  But watch out if the price jumps 10 times or more!

Red Flag #2:   The equipment looks like it could have been rented.  As powerful as portable vacuums may be, they cannot generate enough suction to pull the dirt out of your ducts.  Just think about the size – the volume – of your system.  Ask yourself:  How could a glorified shop vac possibly do the job?   

Red Flag #3:  No "snake" to reach deep down vents and main ducts.  No matter how powerful the suction, some stuff just won't budge without a little agitation.  Cleaning companies typically use a brush at the end of a snake or an “air whip.”  But be careful; some older homes have insulated ducts.  Agitation brushes can damage the insulation.

Red Flag #4:   The service representative quotes you several hundred dollars to sanitize your system.  EPA approved chemicals should cost only about 10-bucks.  Also, if he says it will kill all the germs and keep killing over time, don’t believe it!  Nothing is that good.  After a system cleaning, a good filter is your best bet to keep it clean. 

Red Flag #5:  Any mention of dust mites.  Mites are usually found in bedding, not air ducts ... and especially not in our dry climate.  If after an inspection, the rep claims you have dust mites or their feces, ask to see his microscope!  They are way too tiny to be seen by the eye.

Red Flag #6:   The rep gives you a grim look and announces you have mold.  All homes have mold somewhere and in some form.  Much of it is relatively harmless.  What’s more, there’s no way of telling if your home has the toxic variety without doing detailed lab work. 

Red Flag #7:   The rep does not show you proof the job was done properly.  An inspection is a must.  Before and after pictures are even better.

If you have questions about any company, call the Better Business Bureau or check out its website before they show up at your door.

Note from Brent:  My thanks to Rodney R. Larson, PhD, MS, CIH, from the University of Utah School of Medicine.  His specializes in industrial and home environmental health.  He provided me with most of the information used in formulating these “red flags.”

The Red Flags of Duct Cleaning 

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