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How to Clean Your Air Vents

No one should have to spend their days breathing in polluted air when your air vents can be easily cleaned by either you or a professional. Having cleaner air ducts means having cleaner air to breathe. It can help reduce the number of allergens in the air, provide a more effective heating and cooling system and increasing the longevity of the HVAC system.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to effectively clean your HVAC system on your own without the need for professional help. Although using an expert is highly recommended for more serious or first-time cleanings, maintaining your air vent cleanliness will keep you and your home healthy.

HVAC Cleaning

HVAC systems have two different types of ventilation systems. You will have supply vents, which push the purified air into your home, and return vents, which pull the air in your home back to the HVAC machine. You should spend time identifying which vents are supply and return. The easiest method is the tissue test. Simply take a tissue or other light material and place it over the vent. If the material becomes slightly suctioned or conformed to the vent, it's a return vent. If not, it's supply.

On the outside of most homes, you will notice vents on the roof. These are not part of the HVAC system and can be ignored. Instead, you will focus primarily on the vents inside the home.

What You Need

Here's a quick list of the tools and equipment that you will need:

  • Heavy-duty vacuum cleaner (or household vacuum cleaner)
  • Screwdriver
  • Scrub brush
  • Soap or chemical cleaner
  • Furnace filter
  • Broom
  • Towels
  • Mask and gloves
  • Ladder

Heavy-Duty Vacuum Cleaner

You will want a heavy-duty vacuum to take in as much dirt and dust as possible. You will want one that has a long hose that you can easily attach to the end and reach further into the vents. Heavy-duty vacuums also have a more powerful suction to get the hard-to-reach spots and crevices. Most of you will not have one on hand, but you can easily rent one from your local hardware store or a quick internet search.

While a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner will be better at getting the dirt and debris, you may choose your own household vacuum cleaner instead. Unfortunately, household vacuums do not have the same suction power that a heavy-duty one would, so you will be unable to get as much dirt and dust out of your vents.

If you keep up with your air vent cleaning, you can get away with using a household vacuum more often as the buildup will be less on subsequent cleanings.

Screwdriver

Most of you may already have a screwdriver on hand to remove the vent cover in your home. In case you do not, you should check to see which style of head you will need. In most homes, you will only need a screwdriver to unscrew the cover to the furnace filter and other covers on the system itself. Most of the other air vents are likely the type you rest in the holes on your floors.

Scrub Brush

A scrub brush or cleaning brush will be your most used tool to scrape the air vent walls of the gunk buildup. You will likely want one that has a long handle to clean as far back as you can. You will also want a smaller one to clean your air ducts.

Soap or Chemical Cleaner

You will use soap or chemical cleaner to clean the vent covers. These are coated in debris that does not make it into your home. These covers can clog or push more dust and dander into your home.

Furnace Filter

When the HVAC system draws in air, it pulls it through a furnace filter to clean the air of any pathogens, contaminants and allergens. This filter is what cleans the majority of the air in your home. If this filter becomes dirty, damaged or moldy, you should absolutely replace it. In doing so, you will immediately have cleaner air.

The location of your furnace filter will vary depending on the system that you use. Some will have an access panel built into the wall for easy access. Other systems will have the filter in the main mechanisms of the HVAC system.

Always be sure to measure the length, width and thickness of the old air filter before going out to buy a new one. You can also bring the old filter with you when you buy a new one. This option may be the better choice for first-time purchases. 

Broom

Brooms will help you sweep up any loose dust that may have found its way onto your floors. If you have ceiling vents, they can also help give you more reach into those.

Towels

Towels have two purposes when it comes to cleaning your air vents. The first is the obvious use of whipping down the vents with a damp towel to get any remaining residue. The second reason is that they will help keep your other vents closed as you clean each one. The seal on the floor vents is not overly great and can easily send dust into your home as you clean.

Mask and Gloves

These items are optional and not detrimental to the cleaning process, but they will keep you safe as you clean. The mask will make sure that you don't inhale any of the dust that may come out of the vents as you clean. The gloves will prevent your hands from getting scratched or injured from any metal that may be protruding or any mold and bacteria that there might be.

Ladder

Most of you will not need a ladder, but it is handy to have if you have ceiling vents that need to be cleaned, too. You will be able to better reach inside and do the same cleaning there.

Cleaning Steps

Now that you have all the supplies you need, it's time to actually begin the cleaning process. The number of steps listed below may appear daunting at first, but the benefits are well worth the effort that is needed. Your lungs will thank you for the hard work.

Step 1

Decide which return vent you want to clean. Once you do, remove the covers from the other vents and place a towel over the opening and place the cover back on. The towel should create a barrier over the hole, and the cover will hold it in place. The towel will catch any dust that might get blown through the vents while cleaning the others.

Step 2

If your HVAC system has a fan-only setting, turn that on. If not, you can turn on the heat to active the fan. The fan will draw in the dirt and debris that you clean off the walls and force it through the furnace filter and into the towels on the supply vents. Only do this step when you are cleaning out the return vents. Leaving it on with the supply vents will blow dust into your face.

Step 3

Now you can begin cleaning the vent. Take the brush and break us as much of the dust buildup that there might be as possible. The fan should pull in the debris and force it into the towels that you've placed. Use longer brushes to get as far in the vent as possible.

Step 4

Use the heavy-duty vacuum to remove any excess dirt that the fan has not pulled in. Reach as far as you can and try to get all the crevices that you see.

Step 5

Take a damp towel and wipe it around the walls of the vents. Be sure not to use a wet towel or chemicals. These will only smear the dirt and dust, making it more of a mess to clean than necessary. If possible, attach the damp towel to a broom or stick to get the dust gathered further in.

Step 6

Use the brush to clean the vent covers. If the covers have an excess amount of dust on them, wash them with soap and warm water. If you don't have soap on hand, mix a chemical cleaner with the water instead. Let the covers soak for several minutes and rinse with cold water. Let dry completely before placing the cover back on.

If you notice rust on any of the vent covers, use a rust remover and repaint the surface with rust-resistant paint. Alternatively, it may be better to replace the cover altogether.

Step 7

Repeat Steps 1-6 for the other return vents that you found.

Step 8

Now you will switch to the supply vents. At this point, turn off the fan or heating.

Step 9

Clean the supply vents in the same manner as Steps 3-6. 

Step 10

If you have any vents in the ceiling, use the ladder and broom to clean inside those.

Step 11

Once all the vents have been cleaned, you will need to turn off the HVAC system completely, not just the thermostat.

Step 12

Unscrew the vent keeping the furnace filter in place and clean that opening similarly to Steps 3-6.

Step 13

Clean out the blower compartment, air boot and furnace fan. You will find a large bulk of dust and debris inside these.

Step 14

The last step, and one that you might find easier to do as you go, is to clean the area around the vents. Some dust inevitably makes its way out of the vent, so give the area a quick wipe with the damp towel.

Frequency of Cleaning

Naturally, once you've taken the time to clean your air vents, you will want to keep them clean. Depending on the severity of the initial clean, you will spend much less time cleaning than before.

Every month, you should replace your furnace filter, allowing fewer particles in your home. You will want to do a quick wipe-down of the interior of your vents with a damp towel and, if you feel the need, use your household vacuum to get any loose debris in the vents.

HVAC systems are designed to handle both heating and cooling. Therefore, you should do a deeper clean two times a year, during early spring and late fall. Since the seasons and temperatures will be changing, it is the perfect time to make your airflow as efficient as possible, allowing for better heating or cooling as necessary. 

If at any point you notice that despite the amount of cleaning that you've been doing, the dust continues to build up, you may need to consider getting an in-home evaluation from professionals. They will be able to effectively diagnose the problem and fix it as necessary. They will also be able to achieve a much deeper cleaning of your air vents. Sometimes, we can't reach the parts that need the cleaning the most. 

Future Preventative Measures

To limit the severity of the cleaning you will have to do each time, there are some extra precautions you can take to maintain air vent cleanliness.

  • When using a furnace filter, you should always strive to use the highest efficiency ones that the manufacture or the HVAC system suggests. You will find that the more efficient filters will purify the air more.
  • Change your filters routinely, as mentioned above.
  • Vacuum your home regularly, daily if possible. You will prevent debris and dust from entering the ventilation system.
  • Check that the seals in the non-air-conditioned rooms (attic and crawl spaces) are properly sealed and insulated. Broken seals will allow moisture to enter the home and can create mold spores that travel through your home.
  • When cleaning, always make sure that the towels are damp and not wet. You don't want excess moisture to build up inside the vents. Similarly, refrain from using any variation of steam or water-based cleaning.
  • When you decide to get a professional HVAC cleaning, ask if they can clean the cooling coils and the drain pans.

Bear in mind that these tips are not to be used as a justification for fewer cleanings. Following these tips will ensure that you have less to clean when the time comes. You should still clean regularly.

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