Contact/Relay -- Relays are electronically controlled switches that activate the various components of your HVAC system. They manage everything from the power going to the motor to automatic dampers, humidifiers, etc. Most of them are controlled by the thermostat. The most common failure for a relay is being stuck in the "open" position. Separated from its assigned contact point, it fails to complete the connection and send the message to whatever it was supposed to operate. This failure usually occurs from use over time. Each time a relay connects and sends its signal, the electrical arcing from point to point eventually causes wear and tear.
In most modern homes with up-to-date heating and air conditioning systems, filters are changed regularly through the year, so you may not even need to hire a professional. However, keep your eyes open for the accumulation of dust, dirt, dander and mold. If you see it despite regularly changing your filters it could be an indication you need a high-pressure cleaning.
If there is stuff in the ducts, the fact that it’s laying there and not being blown into the rooms is proof positive that it is hurting no-one. The 5-6 exceptions you cite in this article I’ll buy, but only with the caveat that at least some of those could have been avoided by proper protection (during remodeling for example) – and if asbestos/lead/whatever winds up in your ducts- the remodeling contractor should be the one paying to remove it.
HVAC System Quality Installation Contractor Checklist -- This checklist identifies all of the steps the contractor has taken for the Energy Star Certification and identifies what work the contractor has done. If the system is later modified, this checklist can help identify what was done to proper Energy Star specifications and what was added later that may not meet the requirements.
SEER is useful for comparing one model to another much in the same way that a car's calculate MPG is useful. It's not an accurate prediction of exactly how efficient the system is, but it can tell you which one is more efficient. Also, since SEER is based on a "cooling season", what region you live in will determine how long or short your cooling season is.
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.