Our unit is 16 years old and we've had it checked out recently since it seems to be running excessively. Over all the tech says it is putting out well; it's the correct size, we have no shade and we've been having extreme heat with high humidity. The info you provided is very helpful and will help us make an informed decision when the time comes. Thank you so much.
I have worked cleaning HVAC in my area for almost 5 years. I always do a thorough inspection and cleaning, providing before and after photos. I have completed some jobs where I felt that it was not entirely necessary, but ultimately what the customer wanted. With that being said, I have endless photos of unspeakable horrors. Hotels are usually nasty, post construction mess is certain, pets and kids create lots off debris, bugs congregate and die, then spiders set up and die, I have even had one supply that was nearly plugged with sand!
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.....
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.
Asbestos removal tip.  Don’t trust any HVAC installation company that says that they will remove asbestos for you. They will do either one of two things: remove it and do a horrible job because they don’t know how (an illegal act in California, finable by up to $250,000), or they will say they did and never actually do it, which is dangerous to your health. Any HVAC contractor worth their weight will know not to touch it. Call an asbestos abatement company – it should cost around $500-$1,000, and your HVAC installation company will come in right after them and do the installation to decrease cost and inconvenience.
Air duct cleaning service providers may tell you that they need to apply a chemical biocide to the inside of your ducts to kill bacteria (germs) and fungi (mold), and prevent future biological growth. Some duct cleaning service providers may propose to introduce ozone to kill biological contaminants. Ozone is a highly reactive gas that is regulated in the outside air as a lung irritant. However, there remains considerable controversy over the necessity and wisdom of introducing chemical biocides or ozone into the duct work.
Be careful of dishonest HVAC contractors. There’s no magical formula to see if an HVAC contractor is scamming you, unfortunately, but remember that they typically do this in one of two ways: first, they are charging grossly low prices (far below everyone else), or second, they aren’t including what everyone else is. In the first situation, they will charge you change fees, other hidden fees, or they stole the equipment and are passing themselves off as legitimate contractors (very common in California these days). In the second situation, they are charging you a very fair price, but aren’t including what the other contractors are (i.e. charging $10,500 for the installation which is fair, but not including the ductwork which is a scam unless there is some other, complex stuff going on there).
I agree, if you replace (or wash depending on type) your air filters regularly AND vaccum, then you probably don't need the ducts or air coils cleaned. However, if you purchase a pre-owned home, and the previous owners did not regularly change the air filter or vaccum the home, then duct cleaning is worth the expense especially if you are sensitive to allergens. Especially if the previous owners had pets.
Although HVAC is executed in individual buildings or other enclosed spaces (like NORAD's underground headquarters), the equipment involved is in some cases an extension of a larger district heating (DH) or district cooling (DC) network, or a combined DHC network. In such cases, the operating and maintenance aspects are simplified and metering becomes necessary to bill for the energy that is consumed, and in some cases energy that is returned to the larger system. For example, at a given time one building may be utilizing chilled water for air conditioning and the warm water it returns may be used in another building for heating, or for the overall heating-portion of the DHC network (likely with energy added to boost the temperature).[4][5][6]
Natural ventilation is a key factor in reducing the spread of airborne illnesses such as tuberculosis, the common cold, influenza and meningitis. Opening doors, windows, and using ceiling fans are all ways to maximize natural ventilation and reduce the risk of airborne contagion. Natural ventilation requires little maintenance and is inexpensive.[19]
Clean air delivery rate is the amount of clean air an air cleaner provides to a room or space. When determining CADR, the amount of airflow in a space is taken into account. For example, an air cleaner with a flow rate of 100 cfm (cubic feet per minute) and an efficiency of 50% has a CADR of 50 cfm. Along with CADR, filtration performance is very important when it comes to the air in our indoor environment. Filter performance depends on the size of the particle or fiber, the filter packing density and depth and also the air flow rate.[30]
The EPA is so far behind on useful knowledge because of the lack of funding so don't be mislead. The Hvac old timers were left at the dock so to speak and missed out on the IAQ movement. The ones that are savvy and up to date on the information do Air Duct Cleaning, even tho that will lead to a few less service calls its the right thing to do for their customer. Please take a look into a return duct that has never been cleaned, I dare anyone to say it does not need to be cleaned.
I am a service technician [since '92].....and as to double filtering.....I have never recommended it. Granted.....it would be noticeably helpful if the fiberglass filters are the main ones used [which I also never recommend.....as long as system can deliver appropriate air flow with a pleated cotton filter...and any decent service tech can check the air flow for proper cfm]. Any particles small enough to pass through a pleated cotton filter are going to pass through a second filter as well....unless the second filters are so tight that the system is starving for air flow. Has anybody ever accidentally put two filters in their automatic drip coffee maker? What if cars used two fuel filters or air filters? I have told some homeowners to try using second filters at each register [the black thin filter material cut-to-fit....same type used in many window air conditioners].....but I only suggest this when I know they will still get at least 400 cfm per ton of air flow [350 absolute minimum]......as some homeowners know others who say it has helped and it gives them a peace of mind knowing they are doing something to help contribute to a solution, so it HAS to help [even though I think it falls in the "one-born-every-minute" category.....similar to duct cleaning].
The original furnace was a coal fired “octopus” design which had no blower to circulate the air but relied upon warm air rising to distribute the heat. That also means that the system breathed air in from the basement and most of this type did not have a cold air return system. At some point (probably in the 1940’s) the system was upgraded to a forced air gas furnace. The upgrade included replacing the 12″ diameter air ducts exposed in the basement with 6″ ducts and a cold air return system of ducts from the two (only two) air returns on the first floor.

Ground source, or geothermal, heat pumps are similar to ordinary heat pumps, but instead of transferring heat to or from outside air, they rely on the stable, even temperature of the earth to provide heating and air conditioning. Many regions experience seasonal temperature extremes, which would require large-capacity heating and cooling equipment to heat or cool buildings. For example, a conventional heat pump system used to heat a building in Montana's −70 °F (−57 °C) low temperature or cool a building in the highest temperature ever recorded in the US—134 °F (57 °C) in Death Valley, California, in 1913 would require a large amount of energy due to the extreme difference between inside and outside air temperatures. A few feet below the earth's surface, however, the ground remains at a relatively constant temperature. Utilizing this large source of relatively moderate temperature earth, a heating or cooling system's capacity can often be significantly reduced. Although ground temperatures vary according to latitude, at 6 feet (1.8 m) underground, temperatures generally only range from 45 to 75 °F (7 to 24 °C).

Our heater went out last Saturday, which was a cold day.  Called a few different places and they were the only ones that called back.  The technician Tony came out and after a little testing said the main control board needed to be replaced.  He quoted us a total of $489 which seemed on the high side but it was cold and we were somewhat desperate, so we agreed and paid a parts deposit.

The cost to replace a central air conditioner is about $5,000. However, this price varies depending on the size of your home and the difficulty of the project. It can cost as much as $12,500 to replace an AC unit. The labor required to remove and dispose of the old system adds to the price. The size of your home, brand of AC unit and ductwork complexity can all raise the cost as well.
R-22 Freon is being phased out & isn't readily available. So the service company may only purchase as needed and the lack of availability would make their cost high. But, as long as they can get it, whatever the cost, unfortunately, is less expensive than replacing the A/C. Which will be the case eventually since it's no longer manufactured or sooner as in my case with a not so old a/c that sprang a leak, that would have been just a repair, but since it uses R-22 the whole unit has to be upgraded(replaced).  
Once on the scene, trained Sears professionals utilize powerful, truck-mounted equipment to clear your air ducts of dust, debris, pet dander, allergens, and grime. Our powerful air duct cleaning suction equipment vacuums out years of accumulated dust from your air ducts, leaving them clean and clear. Once finished, our technicians remove all equipment and make sure that your ducts and HVAC unit are restored to their best condition. For continued protection against dirty air ducts, your service technician may suggest a variety of air purification products.
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.
I was told that 15 out vents would be cleaned and one main vent. the guy came over and gave me an estimate of $500. I had acquired a groupon for $49. the guy said just doing the out vents and one main vent would accomplish nothing. Now I am in dispute with the groupon people for a refund which they won’t give and have to go ahead and waste the money and let them do it. Is their doing the 15 outvents and one main one going to accomplish anything?
DIY: We don’t recommend a DIY approach. Depending on the system, working with gas, electricity and refrigerant create dangers. Beyond that, it is essential that split system components be selected for compatibility. DIY installation of an HVAC system will void the warranty of most brands. The manufacturers won’t stand behind the warranty when anyone other than a certified installer does the work. This is true since improper installation is the main cause of poor system performance and mechanical breakdowns.
These factors are included in a "Manual J" calculation. Contractors who make these calculations before recommending a size can take a couple of hours collecting the information and making the calculation. If your contractor doesn't do it, there are services that will do it for around $99. If you're feeling particularly on the ball, there are also free online calculators.
Pay particular attention to cooling coils, which are designed to remove water from the air and can be a major source of moisture contamination of the system that can lead to mold growth. Make sure the condensate pan drains properly. The presence of substantial standing water and/or debris indicates a problem requiring immediate attention. Check any insulation near cooling coils for wet spots.
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