God bless competition.

It’s what makes America great, and what has permitted so many companies to rise to the top through hard work and ingenuity.

We have a firm rule in our company offices to not criticize our competitors. It’s simply unprofessional, and frankly, our 20-plus years of experience have shown that if our competitors really do have shortcomings, in the long run they will pay the price in the marketplace.

But recently we’ve come across a new breed of cat in the duct cleaning industry and, in this instance, we felt the need to speak up in the interest of public awareness.

Webster defines “scam” as “to cheat or swindle as in a confidence game.” A confidence game is defined as “a swindle effected by gaining the confidence of the victim.”

A few years ago, we started seeing large newspaper ads promoting $99.95 residential duct cleaning jobs. In all honesty, our sales department became nervous because we simply cannot compete with those rates.

Then, much to our consternation, we saw the prices drop further.

Bait and Switch

One day we came across a client who had been offered one of these deals, one that started out as a $99.95 job for 10 ducts. The customer said the price was then bumped up, costing $37.50 for an extra three ducts.

Seems reasonable enough, right?

Well, then the installers told the customer those 13 ducts now needed to be sanitized, costing another $12.50 per duct, or $162.50.

First of all, such sanitization violates National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) standards that say to only use sanitizers when microbial growth is present or suspected. Second, sanitizer is inexpensive and easy to apply. It should be priced accordingly.

The client was then told her two heating units needed to be sanitized, costing an addition $128, and she should, of course, allow them to service the two units while they are cleaning the ducts. Add $298.

The $99.95 advertised duct-cleaning job had now reached $725.95, and that doesn’t include $178 for the electrostatic filters they tried to sell her. The final bill: $903.45.

Dryer Duct Cleaning

A different client called one of these companies after reading a newspaper insert that touted residential duct cleaning for $64.95.

They did not clean the heating ducts, and ended up charging her $200 for cleaning her dryer duct. For those who may not know, this is an exorbitant amount.

To make matters worse, the dryer duct was not fully cleaned and dryers won’t work if the duct is clogged.

The woman refused to pay. She called another company, and, for a standard service call of $85, her dryer duct was thoroughly cleaned and functioning properly.

Mice in the Attic

A contractor with whom we work closely had a customer who called one of these companies that ran an ad for a $69.95 cleaning. She showed him the final bill: $750.

The duct cleaning was a quickie of hooking a large vacuum hose to one duct with the system running. Then there was a $250 add-on for sanitization.

To motivate the customer, they told her she had mice in her attic that had contaminated her duct system. (This was not true.)

Next, she was charged $33 per duct for soot sealer — squirted from a spray bottle into the un-removed register. Sealing dirt in a duct violates yet another NADCA standard, which recommends dirt removal only.

When the woman, a voice teacher, complained later that she and her students had sore throats, seemingly stemming from the service, she was told it sounded like the cooling coil in her unit now needed to be sanitized.

Let the Buyer Beware?

These are troubling stories. I told my nervous sales staff to actually look at our residential sales, and they found they have risen nicely in spite of this so-called competition.

But the public is being hit hard. Duct cleaning is unfamiliar territory for most consumers, making them easy targets for unscrupulous companies. On top of that, it is hard to evaluate things you do not understand.

The best advice I have found is to resort to basic common sense: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

To the competitors offering such service, a word of advice: one of the customers above got on the phone and called a consumer watchdog group, specializing in exposing scams such as the one discussed above.

Caveat emptor, the Romans used to say — “Let the buyer beware.”

But these are modern times. Consumers are teaching us a new phrase: Caveat vendor — “Let the seller beware.”

Stradford is the ceo of Action Duct Cleaning Co., Inc. of Los Angeles, CA. For more information on the company, visit www.actionduct.com (website).

Sidebar: The Need for Duct Cleaning

If you have ever seen the particles of dust floating in a sunbeam, you have some idea of how much particulate matter is in the air around you. In fact, the average cubic inch of air contains 100,000 particles. In smoggy cities, the amount can reach 5,000,000 particles per cubic inch.

As air passes through the air conditioning and heating units and ductwork of the home, it is only a matter of time before those particles begin collecting on the unit and duct interiors. Accumulated particles can include anything and everything that floats in the house or comes in from outside. Animal dander, human skin flakes, ground up dirt particles, hair, mold spores, bacteria, vehicle exhaust fumes — all of these and more can collect on duct interiors, fans, cooling and heating elements, filters, and registers.

If residents of the home are allergic to any of these items, their symptoms could flare up whenever the heating or cooling system turns on in the home. In some instances, odors develop in the air handlers or ducts due to particulate buildup, or dirt may begin to blow out of the registers.

Another concern is the buildup of mold or bacteria inside an air conditioning unit. Such microbial growth is rare in residential systems, but can occur where moisture is present. Cleaning removes such growth, and approved disinfectants can be used by a reputable duct cleaning company to retard or eliminate microbial contamination.

Publication date: 10/09/2000