Pro HVAC company Southern Comfort Mechanical says on its blog, “If there’s mold growth inside the handler due to excess moisture, algae in the condenser drain line or a dirty evaporator coil, it can negatively impact your AC unit’s efficiency. The filters inside may also build up excess dirt and become clogged, which will also make your AC [or heat pump] waste energy trying to sustain the cool climate inside your home.” These issues are easy to solve. They don’t require replacing the air handler.
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.
I just had my blower module replaced because my AC coil was frozen over. The underside of my coils had a thick mat of dust because I had never had it cleaned. I cleaned it myself by using a soft brush attachement on a shop vac. The inside of the blower appears to have a white/green growth, and I am sure the ductwork of my 30 year old house can’t be in good condition.
He proceeded to clean each heat register by removing the grille and blasting it with an air pressure hose toward the duct opening thinking that the dust would magically be sucked inside. In one room this caused a ceiling smoke detector to go off because the excess dust fooled it into thinking there was smoke. I put my hand in front of a register he wasn’t working on and could hardly feel a suction. Although we discussed how I open and close damper doors, I realized later that he never checked, opened or adjusted them during the cleaning. He could have closed all but the one he was working on in order to increase suction results. His next step was to blast air into the duct and then attach a “squid-like” device that slapped around inside the duct as far as he could reach. This is important! In a newer house, ducts have long straight runs from the furnace. In older houses like mine they can turn and twist. In fact, the duct we have a problem with runs straight up from the basement inside a wall and turns 90 degrees into a soffit for three feet then into two 90 degree turns to get into the floor joist area for another two feet and finally a 90 degree turn up to the second floor register. When he cleaned this one he could only get three feet into the register with the hose or squid because of the turns. That was the case with most. Hardly what could be described as a decent cleaning.
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.
The AC contactor (relay) and start/run capacitor(s) (see illustration below) fail most often and are inexpensive. So it's a safe bet to buy and install those parts right away, especially if your air conditioning service unit is older than five years. The condenser fan motor can also fail, but it runs about $150 — hold off buying that unless you're sure that's the culprit.