Should you add duct cleaning to your list of in-house services?
If your HVAC construction company has been subcontracting its air duct cleaning projects, you may have considered using your own employees to perform the work.
You might have thought to yourself, “How hard could it be? We have guys that perform ductwork fabrication and install them so why not clean ducts ourselves, too?”
The answer is — you can. However, like any other add-on income stream, you need to understand all required processes and HVAC construction technicalities before you begin offering additional air duct cleaning services. Duct cleaning can be a fantastic add-on, especially since you may already have a broad HVAC sales customer base. It can also open doors to the other services you may be able to provide if duct cleaning uncovers hidden problems.
“Duct cleaning,” a term to which the industry has grown accustomed, is rather misleading. The industry should call it a “complete HVAC system cleaning.” The National Air Duct Cleaners Association, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommend cleaning the entire system from where the air enters the system to where it is returned to the space. This includes all internal surfaces of the airstream, including the air-handling units, fans, coils, mixing boxes, variable-air-volume boxes, heat exchanges, condensate drain pans, ductwork and components in which air travels through or across. The EPA says, “Failure to clean a component of a contaminated system can result in recontamination of the entire system, thus negating any potential benefits.”
If you’re a mechanical HVAC construction contractor with a sheet metal works shop, you’re probably already acquainted with the components that make up an HVAC system. If you work in a general sheet metal shop, you’ll need to understand the location of system components and how to access them. Some systems are simple to understand; others are not. For example, other trades may have blocked access to various components of the HVAC system with obstacles such as pipes, walls and ceilings.
Would you be able to work your way around them?
Prior to adding HVAC construction cleaning services to your business, you must ask yourself if your company has staff qualified to disassemble air handlers, VAV boxes and other components. You’ll then have to look into training and equipment.
If you have been subcontracting duct cleaning work, you should observe the subcontractor in action. You should do it even if you aren’t interested in adding duct cleaning to your business. After all, these are your customers and you are responsible for the subcontractors you use.
You don’t want to have a “hack-and-vac” duct cleaner representing your HVAC construction company. This type of company cuts holes in the duct work every 4 to 8 feet and then collects the debris with handheld attachments connected to a small vacuum. A good subcontractor should have large, electric portable, high-efficiency particulate air filter-equipped machines connected to the ducts pulling 2,500 to 6,000 cubic feet per minute of air, in addition to using a variety of rotary bushes and compressed-air tools. They may have a huge, truck-mounted vacuum system that can pull upwards of 12,000 cfm from inside the duct system. Both of these systems put the work area under negative pressure, per the requirements of NADCA’s standards. This type of cleaning also allows you to clean longer ducts quicker with less access.
Duct cleaning 101 is basically three things: breaking the contaminants loose (agitation), moving them down the duct (negative airflow), and collecting the contaminants properly in HEPA-equipped vacuums (commonly referred to as “collectors”).
Where can you get this kind of training? There is more to HVAC systems cleaning than can be discussed in an article or on the Web. NADCA doesn’t offer any formal training courses outside of a couple events each year.
Searching for “duct cleaning training courses” on the Internet will bring up various results with one- to five-day training courses. Also, some HVAC market equipment manufacturers will provide on-site training if you purchase their equipment.
What equipment will we need and how much will it cost? Given you should already own the basics tools, there are a couple important things to remember: All jobs are different, and although some equipment may work in most ranges, it’s harder to finish a big job with small equipment than a small job with big equipment. There isn’t simply one piece of equipment that will do it all.
Be aware that you may need to purchase different items from multiple manufacturers. Some manufacturers sell each other’s equipment in order to meet their customers’ needs. They may even have startup packages or bundles to get you started. You should expect to spend between $6,000 to $12,000 for residential or light commercial, $8,000 to $16,000 for commercial and $15,000 to $25,000 or more for industrial duct cleaning in HVAC construction.
No matter what type of duct cleaning you’re looking to get into, you will need a debris collector — small, medium or large — ranging between $3,000 to $15,000, vacuum hoses and connectors ranging from $300 to $800 or a vacuum truck ranging from $50,000 to $100,000. Trucks usually come complete with compressors and tools ready to work.
There is common misconception the HVAC sales industry that a large vacuum will do the job without agitation or compressed air. Wrong.
A quick lesson on air movement: It is volume of air that moves the dirt down the ducts, not just the pressure or negative air. There are 12-volt compressors that can blow up tires and can reach 150 pounds per square inch, but that won’t work. Electric compressors (110-volt) can only produce five to 10 cfm. Larger electric (220-volt) might get you to 15 cfm, which is just sufficient enough for residential duct-cleaning tools. Gas-powered compressors in the 10- to 14-horsepower range will produce 15 to 24 cfm and will do the job for residential and light-commercial duct cleaning. Gas-powered 15-24 cfm compressors range in price from $2,500 to $4,000.
Commercial/industrial HVAC construction work will need high-volume air for the bigger ducts and will require multiple crews. Rotary-screw compressors rated at 40 to 100-plus cfm work best, and some are very portable. It may be in your best interest to rent a compressor for your first few jobs as rotary-screw compressors can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000. With the larger compressors and larger tools you can bring three-quarter-inch hoses to the work area and split it off to run multiple crews.
Commercial rotary-brushing systems and high-volume-air tools will cost $1,000 to $1,500. Using small, residential whips and skippers in ductwork larger than 12 inches is like using a 2-inch brush to paint a house.
Bill Benito is the owner of Connecticut Steam Cleaning Inc. His company has been cleaning coils and HVAC systems since 1986 and has been a member of NADCA since 1990. He also owns Scand Tech USA, a duct-cleaning equipment manufacturer in South Windsor, Connecticut. He served nine years on the NADCA board of directors and was the president of NADCA from 2013 until April 2015. Benito was also on the association committee that wrote its assessment, cleaning and restoration standard.
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