I believe a $3 [sic] pleated cotton filter is all that is ever needed to keep a system running top notch. A cleaning of the blower squirrel cage and of the evaporator [indoor] coil may be needed one time if fiberglass or no filters have been previously used. The return air grille [or grilles] need vacuumed off occasionally, as they are upstream from the filter. The $3 filter should be changed every 3 months [rule of thumb]....and most of them have a little white square on the cardboard frame to write install date.....and the arrow should point into the duct [if at filter grille]....or towards the furnace [if in ductwork slot]...or towards the blower [if in blower compartment]. My two cents.....
BIG THANK YOU for being honest, and advising us that for some reason the fuse/switch was in the reverse position so the AC unit would not properly turn on. The unit turned back on immediately, and began cooling the house. And then providing advice that the AC/Heating system needed some TLC, and giving us options to save money by purchasing a maintenance plan that included the filters plus cleaning services since we were already being charged for the service today.
The next step was cleaning the cold air returns. He found a good spot to drill an 8” hole for his vacuum hose. The procedure matched the other air ducts except that when he finished at the two cold return registers he drilled several holes in the cold ducts in the basement and blasted air into them. Because of our houses age and the upgraded return system, I noticed that the main sheet metal return duct had no top but was just butted up against the ceiling in the basement. When he blasted air in, dust and crap shot out the edges along the ceiling. Once he finished that he removed the filter and “swept” out anything at the bottom of the return with his hand into the 8” hose.
Important Tip: Don’t just pay attention to the high-end of the price range! – which is what I know you are all looking at, but also look at the low range. If a contractor is cheaper than this, ask “why?” Usually it is because they don’t have liability insurance, workman’s compensation insurance, are unlicensed, all of the above, or worst yet, they don’t use HVAC technicians. You are spending a lot of money. Make sure that they are licensed (In California, check here at CSLB License Checker) and insured.
Preventing against air leakage is great, but the only way to keep dust and debris out of a duct system would be to completely seal off the return-air side of the system, which would render the system useless. Cold-air returns will always pull dust and other particles into the system. A high-MERV rated filter is definitely a good idea, but it does nothing to keep the return side of the system clean. Definitely agree though to use foil tape to seal seams, etc. Duct tape dries out over time and as it does can actually add more particles to the air.
You may consider having your air ducts cleaned simply because it seems logical that air ducts will get dirty over time and should be occasionally cleaned. Provided that the cleaning is done properly, no evidence suggests that such cleaning would be detrimental. EPA does not recommend that the air ducts be cleaned routinely, but only as needed. EPA does, however, recommend that if you have a fuel burning furnace, stove or fireplace, they be inspected for proper functioning and serviced before each heating season to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning.