Central, "all-air" air-conditioning systems (or package systems) with a combined outdoor condenser/evaporator unit are often installed in North American residences, offices, and public buildings, but are difficult to retrofit (install in a building that was not designed to receive it) because of the bulky air ducts required. (Minisplit ductless systems are used in these situations.) Outside of North America, packaged systems are only used in limited applications involving large indoor space such as stadiums, theatres or exhibition halls.
There are many interesting comments from several informed individuals. The question that has not been answered is how do duct systems get dusty and dirty? As a RESNET Home Energy Rater, I perform pressure tests on homes and duct systems, and the one common thread is . . . most air delivery sytems have large amounts of air leakage. The solution is to seal the duct system, and pay particular attention to the return duct system and ductwork near the air handler (the 'blower'). As others have said, a captive (sealed) duct system with proper filter maintenance should be more then adequate for most occupants. For those who have allergy, asthma, or other breathing problems, a filter with a higher MERV rating (number should be listed on the package) or a HEPA filter are good choices. These filters will capture smaller particulates and should improve the indoor air quality. Again, make certain that the entire duct system is sealed, preferably with mastic, second choice UL-181 foil tape - never use cloth duct (also known as duck) tape.
One of the difficulties encountered by many air duct cleaning service companies is that their attention is not really on air duct cleaning. For example, many heating and cooling companies offer duct cleaning as a supplemental service, but of course their primary business is installing and servicing heating and cooling equipment. For these companies, air duct cleaning is not always given the attention it deserves and is often done by less experienced employees whose interest is not in duct cleaning but in repairs and installs. And it is almost always done with inferior air duct cleaning equipment. Still other firms (like carpet cleaners) offer a large variety of services and claim to “do everything.” Because of their lack of focus they may not actually be very good at many, if any, of the services they offer. They cannot simply buy an attachment for their carpet cleaning machine and magically become a great duct cleaner.
The most effective way to clean air ducts and ventilation systems is to employ Source Removal methods of cleaning. This requires a contractor to place the system under negative pressure, through the use of a specialized, powerful vacuum. While the vacuum draws air through the system, devices are inserted into the ducts to dislodge any debris that might be stuck to interior surfaces. The debris can then travel down the ducts to the vacuum, which removes it from the system and the home.
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