House Cleaning Tips > Living Area > Cleaning your Home's Air Ducts and Grate Covers

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How to Clean Your Home Air Ducts and Grate/Vent Covers

Out of sight, out of mind is how many people treat their air ducts and and grates covering the vents - and I used to be guilty of that, too.

I was in the habit of forgetting (or ignoring) my air ducts, until I noticed my two little darling girls hovering over the vent enjoying a game of "let's drop things in the air duct".

As I checked to inspect what they were dropping down the vent, I was unpleasantly surprised to see a gross little collection of dirt, dust, scraps or paper, bobby pins, barrettes and who knows what else that had been quietly growing inside the vent since the house was originally built.

Now that I knew about it, I couldn't ignore the dirt, dust and grime any longer. I have always liked taking things apart anyway, so I pulled out my cleaning supplies and trusty tools.

Cleaning inside the air duct isn't hard, and "dust bunnies" are less likely to build up on the outside of the intake vents because even a small amount of grime makes it more likely that dust will catch on the edges of the vents.

If you begin to see the tell-tale signs of a dirty air ducts or vents, simply follow my tips and clean it up fast.

You'll breathe easier knowing that your air ducts are clean. I know I did!

Watch Out For Scams

You've probably seen advertisements for professional air duct cleaning services. I know I've received a ton of flyers advertising cleaning for a very low price and often promoting significant discounts for senior citizens.

Before you schedule an appointment for your air ducts to be professionally cleaned, you should be aware that the air-duct cleaning industry has had problems with a decade-long "bait and switch" scam, often targeting senior citizens.

It is important to keep vital parts of your heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system clean. The vital components are the cooling coils, fans, filters and heat exchangers that can be damaged due to reduced air flow located inside your furnace or air conditioner.

But do your research first and don't be tempted by the ridiculously low price. Know when and why air ducts need to be cleaned and avoid getting talked into expensive cleaning that is not only unneeded, but if done improperly, can be harmful to those with breathing problems.

When To Clean Your Air Ducts

Air ducts are part of a home's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC). The duct itself does not move and is usually a square or round tube made of sheet metal. Air ducts' only purpose is to carry cooled or heated air from a homes ventilation system into individual areas in the home.

The EPA recommends that you DO NOT clean your home's air ducts regularly, but only as-needed.

Cleaning Air Ducts "As needed" means:

  • If the air ducts have been contaminated with mold and mildew.
  • If the air ducts have been infested with rodents or insects.
  • If the air ducts are clogged with EXCESSIVE amounts of dirt, dust or debris.

Mold and mildew grow in damp conditions, and if the air ducts have excessive amounts of dirt or have been infiltrated by rodents or insects then you have a problem that needs to be repaired before you consider cleaning.

Address any leaks or holes in the air ducts or ventilation system first before attempting to clean the air ducts as the problem will eventually return.

Finding an Ethical Air Duct Cleaning Company

Mold, mildew, insects and rodents can cause very serious health problems. Don't stir up any of that unhealthy dirt and grime trying to clean it yourself! If your ducts meet the EPA's qualifications for needing a deep clean, call a professional.

Check with the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to find a reputable and ethical company to do business with.

These organizations recommend:

  • Interviewing at least three different cleaning service providers and obtaining written estimates before selecting a company.
  • Asking the company to show you the contamination that justifies having your ducts cleaned.
  • Avoiding duct cleaners who make sweeping claims about the health benefits of duct cleaning - these are the scam artists.
  • Not allowing the use of any chemicals unless you fully understand the need for them and the risks of using them inside your ducts.
  • Checking the company references to be sure that other customers were satisfied with the job that was done.

How to Clean The Air Ducts Yourself

If you have surface dust and dirt in your air ducts like I did, and you want to clean it yourself, the good news is that you can easily clean them.

Cleaning your home's air ducts and vent covers only requires a few basic tools. Just follow these quick, easy tips to get your home's air ducts and vent covers looking like new:

Assemble Your Tools

  • Screwdriver for removing vent covers
  • Vacuum (preferably with a HEPA filter)
  • Soft brush vacuum attachment
  • Clean cloths (dry and damp)
  • All purpose grease remover/cleaner

Removing The Grates That Cover The Vents

Grate That Covers an Air Duct VentThe air ducts both supply heated or cooled air and also return air back into the ventilation system. The return grills are usually much larger than the supply grills, and are located on the wall or ceiling rather than the floor. Another way to explain this is that the return vent sucks air out of the home, and the supply ducts blow heated or cooled air into the home. The air flows only one way (in or out) in each individual duct.

They both get grimy, but the intake vent is commonly dusty on the outside, and the supply vents on the floor usually more dirty on the inside and collect the miscellaneous debris.

Some vent covers are held in place with screws (usually the walls or ceiling), others just lift out straight or at an angle (usually on the floor). If you have screws holding the vent in place, carefully remove and store these screws so they are ready to re-use once the ducts and vent covers are clean. I like to place the screws in plastic baggies to make sure they don't get misplaced or scattered.

Once you have removed the vent covers, they can be soaked in in the sink or bath tub with warm water and a little mild soap.

DO NOT soak wood vent covers.

  1. Place vent covers in the sink or bathtub.
  2. Fill the sink or tub with hot water until the vent covers are completely immersed.
  3. Pour a small amount of dish soap or shampoo into the water while it's still running.
  4. Don't go overboard on the soap, it's most likely not necessary.

Let the vent covers soak until you have finished cleaning the air ducts (assuming your going to get right to the cleaning). We'll come back to them when the inside of the ducts have been cleaned.

Remove Large Debris by Hand

Air ducts that are located on the floor can be a treasure trove of all sorts of interesting objects, especially in homes with pets and small children.

Don’t be surprised to find toys, pet food, crackers, pencils, crayons, paper clips, bits of paper, barrettes, and many other long-lost items in your air ducts once the covers are removed.

Pick up the larger items by hand. Be careful when removing the debris so you don't accidentally drop or push it further down the air vent.

Vacuuming Dust, Dirt and Small Debris

A soft brush attachment is really helpful because it will mold to the bends and angles in the duct work. It's a little more awkward to clean the duct if your vacuum doesn't have a brush attachment, but that's okay. You can also use the regular flex hose with or with out the crevasse tool.

  1. Using your vacuum’s brush attachment, reach as far as possible into the vent to vacuum out all the dust and debris that you were not able to remove by hand.
  2. If your attachment falls off easily use duct tape to attach it to the hose so that it doesn't get lost in the vent.
  3. Remove the brush attachment and push the flex hose as far back into the duct system as the hose will reach.
  4. It is important to remove the attachment as it weighs down the hose. You will find that you can push the hose much further into the vent without it.

Wipe The Air Duct Clean With a Damp Cloth

Once a majority of the dust and debris has been vacuumed out, wipe the vent down as far as you can reach by hand, to clean up and remove remaining grime:

  1. Use a slightly damp cloth to clean out any remaining residue.
  2. Use a detergent/degrease spray if the inside has spills or is extra grimy.
  3. Dry the vent to remove moisture and pick up any remaining dirt.

Clean and Replace Vent Covers

Once the air duct vent is thoroughly clean it’s time to revisit the vent covers.

The vents covering an air duct can become filthy, especially the grate covers (most likely return vents) in kitchens and bathrooms. They are especially prone to attracting dirt and grease, etc. and it's helpful to soak them before cleaning them.

  • Use a sponge to remove any dirt or debris that did not come off in the soaking process. If your vents are painted (for example, mine are white) do NOT to scrub them because there is a possibility that paint could chip off.
  • If you there are tough, greasy, sticky stains on the vent covers, you may need to add more dish soap to the sink and let them sit for longer.
  • If the covers are grimy in hard to reach areas, you can use a toothbrush to clean up the slats and crevices.
  • Rinse with warm water.
  • Dry with a clean cloth.

Once the covers are clean and dry, screw them back in or drop them back into place.

Keeping Your Air Ducts Clean

Silver and Blue Replaceable Air FilterThe air filters are the first in line to keep your air ducts clean. Check and replace the air filters in your heating/cooling unit on a schedule. Dirty plugged up air filters make your air conditioning or heating system work much harder to move the air and can cause the system to break down.

Guidelines For Replacing Air Filters*

  • Traditional fiberglass or polyester filters should be checked: monthly.
  • Washable and/or reusable filters should be: washed or cleaned monthly (if reused).
  • Ordinary flat or pleated filters should be checked: every 2 - 3 months.
  • Deep pleated filters should be checked: once or twice per year.
  • Permanently charged electrostatic pleated filters should be checked: every 2 - 3 months.
  • Electronic air cleaner filters should be: cleaned regularly about once a month, depending on use.

Air conditioning and heating systems are much more effective when the air filters are replaced (or cleaned) regularly. Changing the air filter frequently also increases air quality in your home.

*Always rely on the the manufacturer’s instructions to verify how frequently your filters should be replaced.

A Job Well Done!

Great Job! It takes a little bit of time, but the ducts and grates do not need to be cleaned very frequently. Take a deep breath, relax and enjoy your clean air.

Images courtesy of Simon Blackley CC BY-ND and jasleen_kaur CC BY-SA, flickr CC BY.


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Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Mrs Clean (Corina Wilson) is not only the owner of the company, but a very busy mother of 3 children.

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Mrs Clean realized long ago, that a clean home is a necessity, not a luxury when we are struggling to find the time in our day to cover the very basic levels of work and/or family obligations. The battle seems to never end... (but that's why we're here to help!)

When Mrs Clean is not busy managing her house cleaning company or running her kids back and forth to their events, she enjoys experimenting with natural and non-toxic cleaners and learning new techniques to remove stains.

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