When workers from Penn Air, a test and balancing engineering firm founded in 1973, discovered a dirty duct that prevented them from getting an air balance reading, their business model changed forever.

“When I started out as an apprentice 30 years ago, we tried to do an air balance test and weren’t able to get it,” said Alex Miranda, Vice President of Sales at Penn Air Control, Inc. “The coils were clogged. There were air flow issues, and somebody had to get in there and clean those coils — and not a lot of people want to do that, but that is one of the reasons why Penn Air started doing duct cleaning.”

Gina Medel, Chief Financial Officer at the Penn Air Group, added that employees in these buildings were getting sick and suffering allergy issues, which made duct cleaning work extremely beneficial.

Fast forward to today, Penn Air’s roster of Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau (TABB/AABC) certified technicians and National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) certified duct cleaners are leading the way for specialty subcontractors in the United States.

Miranda and Medel spoke about their company’s TAB and duct cleaning business model on the second day of the 2024 ICB/TABB Conference in St. Louis in April. Miranda called on the union sheet metal industry to increase their thin slice of market share in the duct cleaning market, where often lower, non-union bids are difficult to compete with. That’s where the testing and balancing specialization comes into play: to add value and emphasize the competencies of Penn Air’s staff.

“We want to take that whole share that belongs to us,” he said.

Equipment, certifications, and employee training

During the talk, Miranda and Medel touched on details related to equipment, certifications and employee training — advising industry members on how to avoid certain pitfalls they’ve experienced. 

When it comes to getting started in duct cleaning, you need the right equipment. 

“You’re going to need individual vacuums for HEPA contact cleaning, gas or electric pressure washers, HEPA water collection vacuums, HEPA air scrubbers, cobras 6 duct cleaner equipment, air compressors, rotary brush cleaning devices,” Medel said. “You're looking at your base pack and basic equipment anywhere from close to $13,000 to up to about $18,000,” Medel said. They usually have two three-men crews, she added. 

Finding the right crew, and ensuring they are properly trained and certified, is essential. 

“It’s not an easy job and it’s not for everyone,” Medel said. 

You want to make sure you’re hiring the right person for the job. “You want to make sure they know how to do the job. They have to work hand-in-hand with upper management and things like that,” she added. 

Workers should be NADCA certified. Certification study guides are free and can be found online. NADCA's certification program pricing differs based on membership status and online versus in-person training, check online for details.

When operating a TAB and duct cleaning business, Medel suggests looking into insurance and general liability. “Our insurance does not cover asbestos, mold, or anything like that, so if we see something like that on the job, we contact our client and tell them to get a mold remediation company. That’s a whole different animal,” she said. 

It’s crucial to ensure your insurance is aware of your scope of work and that your employees know not to handle materials they are not covered for. When conducting a test and balancing, Penn Air provides a final report, which is crucial for getting paid. 

Similarly, for duct cleaning, they take pictures before starting the work. Once the job is finished and everything is submitted, particularly for hospitals where confidentiality is key, this final photo report is what they deliver to the client to get paid, Medel noted. 

As far as union roles and local jurisdictions for HVAC duct work, these roles are specific to each project. Before starting any cleaning, you should contact your local union. 

“For us in California, we work with Local 105 and we have a supplemental agreement, so make sure it's in your CBA, talk to your unions. We've been doing it for a long time, but we've been working with the union and also getting a classification for the state,” Medel concluded. Also, “you want to make sure that if you're doing that work, you're bidding it appropriately, but also knowing and working with the union so that if you were doing that work and audits come up and things like that, you know you're covered.”