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.
An air conditioning system's SEER is especially important if you live in a climate that changes temperature dramatically. The SEER is determined by the cooling output during the winter divided by its electric input during the winter. The higher the rating, the more efficient it will be. In January of 2006, the U.S. put standards in place for cooling units which are still in effect today. They must have a minimum SEER of 13. So, if you live in a home with a system installed before the new standards went into effect, consider having it replaced. SEER 13 units increase home efficiency by 30 percent.
As I type this, I am having my ducts cleaned. About 30 including returns and the furnace. $543.00. I am watching the team do it and can see the clear vacuuming tubing and how dirty it has become. I like the gentleman’s comment on “stick your head in your vacuum and breath”….I get it. The team showed me the machine and it’s filtration system…and they will show me it again after the cleaning. However, like I said before, I am actively seeing the tubing that is clear before they start and how dirty it is once they begin and continue cleaning. Reputable company and not a “fly by night” coupon service. People don’t be so cheap, that is your problem.
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’m really not convinced that duct cleaning is of any value. My roommate wanted the ducts cleaned so he called some company. My scam senses is already tingling. They came in with a big negative pressure fan. Did some blowing and sucking in different vents. Then they tried to upsell a full system cleaning. They wanted to pull the blower and clean the heat transfer box at $700 per heater unit. I have a big house so we have two units. They also tried to sell us some “custom” $250.00 Air Lifetime air filters. At that point I pulled the BS get the hell out bell. After paying $520.00 for just the cleaning, I paid the bill and sent them on their way. I replaced the existing filter with the good old and cheap paper filters at $10.00 each. Duct cleaning… I’m not Impressed.
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.