If I were asked to find a good neurosurgeon, I’d be in trouble.

First of all, I know little about the subject. I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to know whether a doctor was talking sense or nonsense.

Secondly, I’d be confused about what to look for. A fancy office? Diplomas? Classy hospital affiliations? How do you make a judgment?

Fortunately, duct cleaning is nowhere near as complex as neurosurgery. But It’s as unusual. It’s an uncommon service homeowners and building managers use rarely, from once a year to once in a building’s lifetime.

It’s not like plumbing or painting, where the client knows generally what to look for in a good company. Most people don’t have a clue how to judge a good duct cleaning company.

Here are a few pointers from my two decades of experience in the business.

What About the Price?

I’m a money manager. I like a bargain as much as the next guy, maybe more. But I’ve been burnt on enough cheap equipment and low-priced services to know that the best price is not always the best deal.

In fact, the night before this writing I plunked down a pretty penny for a name-brand computer to replace a discount clunker that was giving me endless trouble.

Duct cleaning companies sometimes have a WIDE difference in their prices. One can cost more than twice as much as the other, sometimes triple. HOW CAN THIS BE?

Well, here’s a shocker: Some companies simply don’t do the work. Sad but true. This is tough on the good guys, the companies who do good work. We know the old adage: “Don’t badmouth the competition.” That’s common courtesy. So we try to keep our comments to ourselves. But we know what goes on in the industry.

Ducts are hidden in the walls and ceiling. It’s quite easy to get away with not cleaning them. What building manager or homeowner has the time to crawl the attic spaces or pull off every register to ensure the ducts are clean?

Duct cleaners know their work will likely go uninspected. An old joke in the business is: “Go in the attic and bang on few pipes for a while, then get the invoice signed.”

This bad workmanship not only happens on small residential jobs, but on huge buildings as well. Our job estimators routinely run into building managers who have been stung by disreputable duct cleaning contractors who didn’t do the work. It can get pretty ugly when the truth comes out.

So how do you know if you are going to get a good job? How do know what to look for? Here are some ideas.

1. Be sensible about the price you are quoted. If you are given three bids of $400, $300, and $125, you need to be alert. It’s highly unlikely you will get the same job at $125 that you will at $300 or $400.
2. Listen to the contractor giving you the price. Does he sound like he knows what he’s doing? How long has he been in business? Does he seem straightforward or evasive?
3. On larger jobs you should have a written estimate. It should tell you the details of the work. Compare estimates. See if each company is providing the same service. Don’t be baffled or fooled by technical words. Ask what they mean so you can understand the service being offered. We have one well-intentioned competitor who includes in their estimate a fancy-sounding aluminum-foil-coated “insulation” for the inside of air conditioners. We’ve lost clients who were impressed by this. But one sharp fellow from the Department of Water and Power called us to ask what this stuff was. We told him. It’s an insulation meant for the outside of air handlers and it actually causes energy waste and losses to put it on the inside. The fellow did some research and called back to tell us “you guys are right.”
4. Ask for references. This is an old tried and true method. Not a complete guarantee you’ll get a good company, but almost. Even a
young company should have satisfied customers to refer you to. If a duct cleaning business has a broad list of well-known clients, you probably have a winner. Our company has serviced a boatload of major corporations, numerous municipalities like the City of Los Angeles, celebrities such as Steven Spielberg and Arnold Schwarzeneggar, top-flight hotels, etc. Obviously, we are an established, reputable firm. The only question in this case is do you want to go with that or do you want to shop for a better price?
5. Is the company a Natl. Air Duct Cleaners Assn. (NADCA) member? That helps. That means they have a desire to keep up with the industry and take a professional attitude about their work.
6. When you do get the work done, take notice of what they do. You don’t have to crawl the attic with them, but keep an eye out. Use common sense. If a worker spends 3 minutes on the roof with the air conditioning unit and declares it “clean”…I don’t think so. In large buildings, if you see a 40-foot stretch of 10”-wide duct with no access holes cut in it, yet the “cleaner” says he hand-vacuumed it, that’s not realistic. On the other hand, you can usually tell when people are working hard to do a decent job. Workmen moving about diligently, popping off registers or crawling ducts and getting things done – that’s a good sign.

Using these guidelines, a duct cleaning consumer has a decent chance at finding a quality company at a fair price and avoiding the grim discovery of finding he paid for nothing. As a professional penny-pincher myself, I hope this can help buyers get more clean duct for their buck.