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Most homeowners have a few maintenance and upkeep routines that they make sure to attend to year after year. The tradition of “spring cleaning” is a good example; cleaning out the gutters in the spring is another example. Unfortunately, even among dutiful homeowners, furnace and duct cleaning (and HVAC maintenance in general) sometimes go overlooked. Because most furnaces are tucked away in the basement, they are easy to forget. As for your ducts, they’re either above your head in the ceiling or below your feet in the floor. An “out of sight, out of mind” situation applies to both.

How Furnaces and Ducts Get Dirty

Technician inspecting gas furnace Why are furnace and duct cleaning such vital processes? On a broad level, the importance of cleaning and maintaining these elements of your HVAC system is all about keeping the system up and running in an efficient and effective fashion. Cleaning is an essential part of upkeep and maintenance. Any deferred maintenance, cleaning included, can heighten the risk for equipment breakdowns and make your HVAC system less reliable. When you’re heading into the winter months, the one thing you don’t want is an unreliable furnace and heating system. Keeping diligent with your furnace cleaning and duct cleaning can help you ensure consistent heating in your home when you need it most.

To run properly, your furnace needs to pull in air from throughout your home, heat it up, and then send it back through the ductwork and out through your vents. Unfortunately, this process ends up pulling in more than air. Every home, no matter how clean, has debris and contaminants in the air. Dust and dirt are almost always a problem, at least in small quantities. Houses with dogs or cats have quite a lot of hair and dander. If you are a smoker and smoke cigarettes or cigars in the house, elements of the smoke are going to end up in your ducts as well. Other contaminants, from mold spores to dead skin cells to dust mites—get pulled in, too.

The good news is that not all this stuff gets thrown headlong into your furnace. Have you ever wondered why every furnace comes equipped with a filter? The filter serves a vital role of collecting as much debris out of your air before it gets pulled into the furnace. Debris can damage your furnace and impede its performance—problems that your filter is there to prevent. 

The bad news is that the filter can’t simply neutralize and eliminate all the particulate matter that’s being pulled in through your ducts. Some of it might make its way into the furnace, and despite all protective measures a lot of it will end up building up in your ducts. Some of it will stay stuck in the filter, gradually clogging it up.

Why Furnace and Duct Cleaning Are Important

Therein lies the importance of regular furnace and duct cleaning. Failing to clean and maintain your HVAC system properly runs two primary risks. 

The first major risk is that the debris will impede the proper operation and functionality of these systems. Over time, dust and debris can clog up your ducts and vents, blocking airflow and forcing your furnace to work a lot harder to deliver heated air throughout your home. If the debris has made its way into the furnace, it can even damage the equipment, leading to breakdowns and costly repairs.

The second risk is to the air quality in your home. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that the concentration of pollutants in indoor environments are typically 2-5 times higher than they are outdoors. Since most Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, that air quality problem is an issue. It’s a much bigger issue in homes or buildings where HVAC cleaning and maintenance don’t happen regularly. All those pollutants that get pulled into your ducts are just circulating around and around with your home’s heating and air conditioning cycles. Over time, as the problem worsens, it can cause health concerns, ranging from the minor (irritation to eyes, nose, and throat) to the moderate (headaches and fatigue), all the way to the severe (respiratory diseases, heart disease, and even cancer).

Dust Mites in your HVAC Ducts

Preventing the Risks of Contaminated Ducts or Furnaces

How can you prevent the risks and dangers discussed above? 

To start, there are a few things you can do regularly to protect your ducts and furnace from contamination. Frequent dusting and vacuuming can go a long way, while replacing your furnace filter every three months or so is a must.

The other step is to work with an HVAC contractor to conduct regular and thorough furnace and duct cleaning. Most HVAC experts recommend annual furnace inspections and maintenance calls, which should include furnace cleaning. Duct cleaning should be on your schedule every year or two, depending on factors such as how many people live in your home and whether you have pets. Your HVAC technician will be able to advise you on the regularity of these services.