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How to Clean Air Ducts Yourself

Last updated December 15, 2022

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Author
Author avatar Danny Ashton

Danny as been writing about air purifiers for 10+ years. He is a major fan of home technology, which makes him the perfect person to test and evaluate products for HouseFresh

Our verdict:

There may be occasions when the only option is to have your air duct cleaned by a professional, but doing it yourself can be satisfying and save you some money. 

The only hurdles you have to conquer are not having the essential tools and possibly a lack of knowledge on how to go about cleaning the ducts. 

Taking the cleaning process step by step, as outlined in this guide, you should benefit from cleaner air ducts and reduce or even eliminate the health hazards of dirt, dust and other contaminants that lurk inside the HVAC ductwork.

Your HVAC system plays an important role in the comfort level you choose in your home. You change the main filter regularly, but what about the ductwork? Have you ever considered the amount of dust, pollen, pet dander, mold and other debris accumulating inside the ductwork? 

You may have thought about having them professionally cleaned, but you can do it yourself. You’ll need a few items, which you can rent from a DIY or home improvement store if you don’t already have them.

Read on to learn everything you need to know to complete the job.

Why Clean My Air Ducts?

You may be surprised to learn that an average family produces approximately 40 pounds of dust yearly. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air quality is up to five times worse than outdoor air and has recommendations regarding duct cleaning.

Indoor air quality is vital for healthy living, but few of us realize what can affect the air quality inside our homes. Here are some interesting statistics regarding indoor air quality—you may be surprised at what you read. 

You may have dirty air ducts if you or any of your family suffers from sneezing, runny noses, or irritated eyes. 

A few of the most common reasons to clean your air ducts include:

👃 Signs of mold or a musty smell. If you are aware of a musty smell or a damp odor coming from your air vents, then there is a good chance there is mold growing somewhere within your air ducts.

🐛 Pests and bugs. Spiders and other bugs love to make themselves home in your ductwork, releasing contaminants in their droppings and permeating throughout the home.

🧹 Dust. If you have an overabundance of dust or other forms of debris in your ducts, you may notice particles of dirt or dust coming out of the ducts. This is a sure sign that the ducts need cleaning.

🤧 Frequent allergy or cold symptoms. The skin cells you shed daily can get sucked up into the air ducts where dust mites may reside. These tiny pests feed on these cells and will contaminate the air, contributing to your allergies or cold-like symptoms.

What Tools Will I Need?

It’s doubtful that you have access to a large, high-powered vacuum with extra-long hoses, but you can still clean your ducts with a domestic vacuum or a shop vac. If you can get an extension hose for either of them, that would be a bonus, but if you can’t, it’s not a problem. 

Unless your ductwork has multiple bends, most of the debris tends to accumulate at or near the registers, so you can reach those areas with the tools you already have.

Here are the items you’ll need:

Checklist
✅ Air filter You should replace the air filter after completing the job.
✅ Vacuum A standard domestic vacuum may not be powerful enough to suck up dust and debris, so consider renting a shop vac or vacuum with a long hose.
✅ Brush If you have something that looks like a toilet brush, that will work. If not, a stiff paintbrush will do. A dryer vent cleaning kit will do the job perfectly since it often extends to 50ft. 
⚠️ Never use a wire brush, as it could damage the ductwork.
✅ Power drill A cordless drill will make removing the register covers easier, but a screwdriver works just as well.
✅ Gloves You may want to wear heavy-duty gloves, a dust mask and safety goggles while cleaning the ducts.
✅ Paper towels or cleaning cloths You can use these to wipe down escaping dust and cover all the other supply registers while cleaning.

But… Which Vents Are Which?

If you are new to air conditioning, haven’t thought about it before and don’t know which vent is which, there’s a simple test you can perform using a paper tissue. 

> Step 1: Put the tissue up to the vent. 
> Step 2: If it sticks, it’s a return vent. 
> Step 3: If it doesn’t stick, it’s a supply vent. 

Some homes have both supply and return vents in every room, particularly bedrooms, to enhance air circulation, with one main return vent usually close to the thermostat. 

Your return vents may have filters installed rather than having a whole house filter installed in the air handler.

How To Clean Your Air Ducts

If you follow these steps, cleaning your air ducts shouldn’t prove too tricky:

  1. If you can access any of the ductwork in your attic, gently tap the outside with a brush. This will loosen any debris or dust in them.
  1. Switch your thermostat to “off”, but turn on the fan only. Let it run for a few minutes, then switch it off. This will help to push any dust, etc., closer to the supply registers, where you can get access to it.
  1. Remove the vent covers and set them aside for cleaning. You can use your dishwasher to clean them or wash them by hand and let them dry.
  1. Using paper towels, cover up the supply vents to prevent dust from blowing out while cleaning other ductwork parts. You can use painter’s tape to secure the paper towels. 
💡 Pro tip: You will remove the paper towels while cleaning, but it’s advisable to replace them when you have finished cleaning the duct.
  1. Using your brush and vacuum, push in as far as possible to loosen the debris and suck everything away. If you feel resistance inside the duct, do not force your brush or vacuum hose further to avoid damaging the ductwork. Repeat this process with every supply vent.
💡 Pro tip: If you see any dust left inside the duct, use a paper towel to wipe it away. 
  1. Replace the air filter(s). You have now removed a lot of the dust from the ductwork, so install a new air filter in the return register(s)
  1. Reinstall the vent covers, removing any paper towels still left in place.

How Often Should Your Air Ducts Be Cleaned?

Leading HVAC experts and other authoritative bodies tend to agree that you should have your ducts cleaned every three to five years. However, there are three reasons why you might have to have them cleaned more often. 

Reason #1: Mold 

If you detect mold in your air ducts, you should get them cleaned, preferably by a professional company. If the mold is not severe or widespread, then there are steps you can take on your own. Various household products like bleach, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda can combat mold. 

⚠️ A dehumidifier in the home will remove the source of food for mold—moisture—but it will not kill it, only stop or prevent growth.

Reason #2: Vermin

Having your ductwork infested by mice, rats, or insects is hazardous to your health. Their droppings can lead to infections or lung irritation.

Reason #3: Dust or debris

A large amount of dust or debris in the ductwork will result in visible signs of dust coming from the supply vents when the HVAC system turns on. A sure sign they need cleaning.

If you have been doing any remodeling or renovation work in your home, there is probably a vast amount of dust, debris and dirt in the ducts. Check the a/c filter. If it is dirty and clogged, think about what state the ducts must be in. It would help if you cleaned them as soon as you could to prevent problems from arising in the future.

Final Thoughts 

Cleaning the air ductwork and vents in the home can be very time-consuming, not to mention the hard work involved. When you add the tool and equipment rental cost, you may be inclined to let a professional handle it. 

However, if you are confident that you can do the job, then HVAC cleaning, as a DIY project, can be something to be proud of.