Each month, we publish a series of articles of interest to homeowners -- money-saving tips, household safety checklists, home improvement advice, real estate insider secrets, etc. Whether you currently are in the market for a new home, or not, we hope that this information is of value to you. Please feel free to pass these articles on to your family and friends.
Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?
Most people are now aware that indoor air pollution is an issue of growing concern and increased visibility. Many companies are marketing products and services intended to improve the quality of your indoor air. You have probably seen an advertisement, received a coupon in the mail, or been approached directly by a company offering to clean your air ducts as a means of improving your home's indoor air quality. These services typically -- but not always -- range in cost from $450 to $1,000 per heating and cooling system, depending on the services offered, the size of the system to be cleaned, system accessibility, climatic region, and level of contamination.
Duct cleaning generally refers to the cleaning of various heating and cooling system components of forced air systems, including the supply and return air ducts and registers, grilles and diffusers, heat exchangers heating and cooling coils, condensate drain pans (drip pans), fan motor and fan housing, and the air handling unit housing.
If not properly installed, maintained, and operated, these components may become contaminated with particles of dust, pollen or other debris. If moisture is present, the potential for microbiological growth (e.g., mold) is increased and spores from such growth may be released into the home's living space. Some of these contaminants may cause allergic reactions or other symptoms in people if they are exposed to them. If you decide to have your heating and cooling system cleaned, it is important to make sure the service provider agrees to clean all components of the system and is qualified to do so. Failure to clean a component of a contaminated system can result in re-contamination of the entire system, thus negating any potential benefits. Methods of duct cleaning vary, although standards have been established by industry associations concerned with air duct cleaning. Typically, a service provider will use specialized tools to dislodge dirt and other debris in ducts, then vacuum them out with a high powered vacuum cleaner.
In addition, the service provider may propose applying chemical biocides, designed to kill microbiological contaminants, to the inside of the duct work and to other system components. Some service providers may also suggest applying chemical treatments (sealants or other encapsulants) to seal or cover the inside surfaces of the air ducts and equipment housings because they believe the sealant will control mold growth or prevent the release of dirt particles or fibers from ducts. These practices have yet to be fully researched and you should be fully informed before deciding to permit the use of biocides or sealants in your air ducts. They should only be applied, if at all, after the system has been properly cleaned of all visible dust or debris.
Deciding Whether or Not to Have Your Air Ducts Cleaned
Knowledge about the potential benefits and possible problems of air duct cleaning is limited. Since conditions in every home are different, it is impossible to generalize about whether or not air duct cleaning in your home would be beneficial.
You may consider having your air ducts cleaned simply because it seems logical that air ducts will get dirty over time and should occasionally be cleaned. While the debate about the value of periodic duct cleaning continues, no evidence suggests that such cleaning would be detrimental, provided that it is done properly.
On the other hand, if a service provider fails to follow proper duct cleaning procedures, duct cleaning can cause indoor air problems. For example, an inadequate vacuum collection system can release more dust, dirt, and other contaminants than if you had left the ducts alone. A careless or inadequately trained service provider can damage your ducts or heating and cooling system, possibly increasing your heating and air conditioning costs or forcing you to undertake difficult and costly repairs or replacements.
You should consider having the air ducts in your home cleaned if:
Other Important Considerations...
Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g., dust) levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts or go down after cleaning. This is because much of the dirt that may accumulate inside air ducts adheres to duct surfaces and does not necessarily enter the living space. It is important to keep in mind that dirty air ducts are only one of many possible sources of particles that are present in homes. Pollutants that enter the home both from outdoors and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning, smoking, or just moving around can cause greater exposure to contaminants than dirty air ducts. Moreover, there is no evidence that a light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts poses any risk to health.
If you think duct cleaning might be a good idea for your home, but you are not sure, talk to a professional. The company that services your heating and cooling system may be a good source of advice. You may also want to contact professional duct cleaning service providers and ask them about the services they provide. Remember, they are trying to sell you a service, so ask questions and insist on complete and knowledgeable answers.
Suggestions for Choosing a Duct Cleaning Service Provider
What to Expect From an Air Duct Cleaning Service Provider
If you choose to have your ducts cleaned, the service provider should:
How to Determine if the Duct Cleaner Did A Thorough Job
A thorough visual inspection is the best way to verify the cleanliness of your heating and cooling system. Some service providers use remote photography to document conditions inside ducts. All portions of the system should be visibly clean; you should not be able to detect any debris with the naked eye. After completing the job, ask the service provider to show you each component of your system to verify that the job was performed satisfactorily.
How to Prevent Duct Contamination
Whether or not you decide to have the air ducts in your home cleaned, committing to a good preventive maintenance program is essential to minimize duct contamination.
To prevent dirt from entering the system:
To prevent ducts from becoming wet:
Moisture should not be present in ducts. Controlling moisture is the most effective way to prevent biological growth in air ducts.
Moisture can enter the duct system through leaks or if the system has been improperly installed or serviced. Research suggests that condensation (which occurs when a surface temperature is lower than the dew point temperature of the surrounding air) on or near cooling coils of air conditioning units is a major factor in moisture contamination of the system. The presence of condensation or high relative humidity is an important indicator of the potential for mold growth on any type of duct. Controlling moisture can often be difficult, but here are some steps you can take:
Should chemical biocides be applied to the inside of air ducts?
Air duct cleaning service providers may tell you that they need to apply a chemical biocide to the inside of your ducts to kill bacteria (germs), and fungi (mold) and prevent future biological growth. Some duct cleaning service providers may propose to introduce ozone to kill biological contaminants. Ozone is a highly reactive gas that is regulated in the outside air as a lung irritant. However, there remains considerable controversy over the necessity and wisdom of introducing chemical biocides or ozone into the duct work.
Little research has been conducted to demonstrate the effectiveness of most biocides and ozone when used inside ducts. Simply spraying or otherwise introducing these materials into the operating duct system may cause much of the material to be transported through the system and released into other areas of your home.
In the meantime...
Before allowing a service provider to use a chemical biocide in your duct work, the service provider should:
1. Demonstrate visible evidence of microbial growth in your duct work. Some service providers may attempt to convince you that your air ducts are contaminated by demonstrating that the microorganisms found in your home grow on a settling plate (i.e., petri dish). This is inappropriate. Some microorganisms are always present in the air, and some growth on a settling plate is normal. As noted earlier, only an expert can positively identify a substance as biological growth and lab analysis may be required for final confirmation. Other testing methods are not reliable.
2. Explain why biological growth cannot be removed by physical means, such as brushing, and further growth prevented by controlling moisture.
If you decide to permit the use of a biocide, the service provider should:
1. Show you the biocide label, which will describe its range of approved uses.
2. Apply the biocide only to uninsulated areas of the duct system after proper cleaning, if necessary to reduce the chances for regrowth of mold.
3. Always use the product strictly according to its label instructions.
While some low toxicity products may be legally applied while occupants of the home are present, you may wish to consider leaving the premises while the biocide is being applied as an added precaution.
Do sealants prevent the release of dust and dirt particles into the air?
Manufacturers of products marketed to coat and seal duct surfaces claim that these sealants prevent dust and dirt particles inside air ducts from being released into the air. As with biocides, a sealant is often applied by spraying it into the operating duct system. Laboratory tests indicate that materials introduced in this manner tend not to completely coat the duct surface. Application of sealants may also affect the acoustical (noise) and fire retarding characteristics of fiber glass lined or constructed ducts and may invalidate the manufacturer's warranty.
Questions about the safety, effectiveness and overall desirability of sealants remain. For example, little is known about the potential toxicity of these products under typical use conditions or in the event they catch fire.
In addition, sealants have yet to be evaluated for their resistance to deterioration over time which could add particles to the duct air.
Most organizations concerned with duct cleaning, do not currently recommend the routine use of sealants in any type of duct. Instances when the use of sealants may be appropriate include the repair of damaged fiber glass insulation or when combating fire damage within ducts. Sealants should never be used on wet duct liner, to cover actively growing mold, or to cover debris in the ducts, and should only be applied after cleaning according to appropriate guidelines or standards.
Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent
Not all real estate agents are the same. If you decide to seek the help of an agent when selling or buying your home, you need some good information before you make any moves.
An agent can cost or save you thousands of dollars
Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can cost or save you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your needs. Some agents may prefer that you dont ask these questions, because the knowledge youll gain from their honest answers will give you a very good idea about what outcome you can expect from using this agent. And lets face it - in real estate, as in life - not all things are created equal.
Hiring a real estate agent is just like any hiring process - with you on the bosss side of the desk. Its critical that you make the right decision about who will handle what is probably the single largest financial investment you will ever make.
1. What makes you different? Why should I list my home with you?
Its a much tougher real estate market than it was a decade ago. What unique marketing plans and programs does this agent have in place to make sure that your home stands out favorably versus other competing homes? What things does this agent offer you that others dont to help you sell your home in the least amount of time with the least amount of hassle and for the most amount of money?
2. What is your company's track record and reputation in the market place?
It may seem like everywhere you look, real estate agents are boasting about being #1 for this or that, or quoting you the number of homes theyve sold. If you're like many homeowners, you've probably become immune to much of this information. After all, you ask, "Why should I care about how many homes one agent sold over another. The only thing I care about is whether they can sell my home quickly for the most amount of money."
Well, because you want your home sold fast and for top dollar, you should be asking the agents you interview how many homes they have sold. I'm sure you will agree that success in real estate is selling homes. If one agent is selling a lot of homes where another is selling only a handful, ask yourself why this might be? What things are these two agents doing differently?
You may be surprised to know that many agents sell fewer than 10 homes a year. This volume makes it difficult for them to do full impact marketing on your home, because they can't raise the money it takes to afford the advertising and special programs to give your home a high profile. Also, at this low level, they probably can't afford to hire an assistant, which means that they're running around trying to do all the components of the job themselves, which means service may suffer.
3. What are your marketing plans for my home?
How much money does this agent spend in advertising the homes s/he lists versus the other agents you are interviewing? In what media (newspaper, magazine, TV etc.) does this agent advertise? What does s/he know about the effectiveness of one medium over the other?
4. What has your company sold in my area?
Agents should bring you a complete listing of both their own, and other comparable sales in your area.
5. Does your Broker control your advertising or do you?
If your agent is not in control of their own advertising, then your home will be competing for advertising space not only with this agent's other listings, but also with the listings of every other agent in the brokerage.
6. On average, when your listings sell, how close is the selling price to the asking price?
This information is available from the Real Estate Board. Is this agent's performance higher or lower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how high a price you will get for the sale of your home.
7. On average, how long does it take for your listings to sell?
This information is also available from the Real Estate Board. Does this agent tend to sell faster or slower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how long your home will be on the market before it sells.
8. How many Buyers are you currently working with?
Obviously, the more buyers your agent is working with, the better your chances are of selling your home quickly. It will also impact price because an agent with many buyers can set up an auction-like atmosphere where many buyers bid on your home at the same time. Ask them to describe the system they have for attracting buyers.
9. Do you have a reference list of clients I could contact?
Ask to see this list, and then proceed to spot check some of the names.
10. What happens if I'm not happy with the job you are doing to get my home sold?
Can I cancel my listing contract? Be wary of agents that lock you into a lengthy listing contract which they can get out of (by ceasing to effectively market your home) but you cant. There are usually penalties and broker protection periods which safeguard the agents interests, but not yours. How confident is your agent in the service s/he will provide you? Will s/he allow you to cancel your contract without penalty if youre not satisfied with the service provided?
Evaluate each agents responses to these 10 questions carefully and objectively. Who will do the best job for you? These questions will help you decide.
Important Tips To Keep Your Home Safe
It's much more than a physical structure. It's the place where memories are made, where dreams are shared, where lives are lived. And many of your home's contents--the video of your baby's first steps, grandmother's brooch or old family photos, for instance--simply cannot be replaced. That's why it makes good sense to do everything you can to protect your home from fire and theft.
Most fires are preventable. First, let's look at the top causes of home fires.
There are some other simple, common sense precautions you can take to decrease your chances of a home fire:
If your home has one or more fireplaces, special precautions can help to keep home fires burning safely:
If Fire Breaks Out
Smoke detectors greatly increase the likelihood you'll survive a fire. Place at least one on each floor of your home and outside each sleeping area. Install detectors inside bedrooms for added protection. Mount detectors on the ceiling, at least 4 inches away from the wall. Test detectors monthly and replace batteries once a year. To help you remember, plan to install new batteries on an annual event, such as the Fourth of July. Replace smoke detectors after 10 years.
If a fire does break out, take immediate action. Smoke and flames spread rapidly. Get out of the house right away, then call the fire department from a neighbor's house or a cellular phone. Fumes overcome most victims long before flames reach them. Use your safest exit. If you must escape through smoke, get down and crawl low under the smoke, keeping your head about 12-24 inches off the floor.
If you haven't gotten around to conducting a family fire drill, now's the time to do it. And visit your local hardware store or home center to invest in a few fire extinguishers. Extinguishers are classified according to the type of fire they will put out, and you'll find the classification displayed on an extinguisher. A Class ABC extinguisher is multi-purpose and works well against any small, self-contained fire. Keep one in the kitchen, extras in the basement or garage. Contact your fire department to ask about training. Don't attempt to fight a fire unless you know you have the right extinguisher to handle that type of fire, and be sure to keep your back to a safe exit.
Fire Safety Checklist
Take this quick quiz to help you assess your family's fire safety plan:
Every year, burglars hit more than five million households, stealing more than $4 billion worth of property. Determined thieves can break into just about any home, but you can take steps to make entry a lot more difficult for them.
Sounding an Alarm
For greater peace of mind, consider investing in a professionally installed alarm system. Alarm systems come in many shapes and sizes, at prices that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Many installers also charge monthly monitoring fees, which should be taken into account when you shop for a system. A home alarm system includes some combination of the following components:
Keep in mind that false alarms can be a problem. In addition to annoying the neighbors and taking the police away from real emergencies, some communities now assess fines for excessive false alarms. The National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association reports that nearly 80 percent of false alarms are caused by user error. Steps to prevent false alarms include regular system maintenance and ensuring that whoever has a key to your house also knows the codes to activate and deactivate your system. Local police are a good source of information and recommendations regarding security systems. They work with the security services in your area and can tell you what types of break-ins are most common in your community.
After you've determined which alarm system is best for you, ask your insurance agent, family or friends for referrals. Get written quotes from at least three companies. Before you obtain an alarm system, investigate a security service's reputation and how long it has been in business. Also ask about warranties and what they cover.
Insuring Against Loss
Homeowners or renters insurance provides money to replace possessions after a fire or theft. Remember to keep a good inventory of your property, including serial numbers. A quick way to do this is with snapshots or a camcorder. Store your inventory in a safe-deposit box or other location outside your home, and update it every year.
While you're making an inventory of your valuables, consider engraving them with your name. This makes it easier to trace the goods back to you if they're stolen. Many local police departments will loan etching tools.
Most insurers recommend that you insure your property at replacement cost. This reimburses you for what it would cost to replace items today, instead of paying only for their current, depreciated value. You'll pay a little more in premiums for this extra peace of mind, so shop around for the best policy and the best price. Consider only reputable companies and agents. Get at least three quotes. Some companies provide lower rates if you have more than one type of coverage with them, such as auto and home. Review your insurance coverage annually.