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!
If you are using existing ducting, it will have to be inspected. Proper ducting loses around 2% to 5% of your energy. Old, leaking ducts can lose 50% or more. A contractor will need to have the ducts inspected and replace any parts ahead of time. If you are changing the size of your HVAC system because of significant changes to your home, you might need to replace the ductwork regardless.
It seems all the average costs for a complete heating and cooling system replacement I've found on websites are usually at least 1/4 less, mostly half lower, then quotes I've gotten from companies. The worst quote I got was from One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning (the company with the Mike Rowe commercials), for over $15,000! I finally settled on a Carrier dealer, for $10,700 & I'll get $950 of that back in energy co rebates eventually. The company I went with's basic system would have been around $8800 (the only one that sorta matched up with web avg cost). They did all the correct planning as far as I could see, not like One Hour, who just showed me a price guide for the same size units already in place. And they do all the rebate paperwork and submit it to the energy co, One Hour never even mentioned possible rebates! Plus Carrier gets above avg reviews. I would have greatly liked a price under 9 grand, but this company got me 0% APR financing, so at least nothing out of pocket. My advice is stay away from national chains, and shop around with local area companies. Of course, One Hour says local companies will fold before you need warranty service lol. For their cost, there should be a technician living in his work van outside my house hahaha.
Demonstrate visible evidence of microbial growth in your duct work. Some service providers may attempt to convince you that your air ducts are contaminated by demonstrating that the microorganisms found in your home grow on a settling plate (i.e., petri dish). This is inappropriate. Some microorganisms are always present in the air, and some growth on a settling plate is normal. As noted earlier, only an expert can positively identify a substance as biological growth and lab analysis may be required for final confirmation. Other testing methods are not reliable.
Yes, ducts can look terribly dusty. However, that dust will not become aerosolized during the normal operation of your furnace. There is an easy way to test this. Rent a particle counter and test the air flowing out of your registers before and after cleaning. You will not see any improvement in the air quality or any reduction in the airborne dust level. Think of it this way. Duct cleaning companies tell you that you need to clean your ducts when you can see a layer of dust in your ducts. Yet that very layer of dust is proof that duct cleaning is unnecessary, because that dust proves that the air movement in your furnace is not fast enough to re-aerosolize the dust.