You've probably seen the ads or coupons offering air duct cleaning for as little as $35. I learned that these offers could just be the first step for companies to get into your wallet. Alberta Knecht, 83, was sucked into such a costly situation.
"He just kept going through the figures and everything and talking about it and next thing I know, it came to about $800-$900," Knecht said.
The air duct scam is as old as dirt. Shari Purves-Reiter of Washington Labor and Industries said companies often target seniors. "Con men know how to con people, and they look for marks, and unfortunately a lot of times that does include elderly people who might be a little more trusting," Purves-Reiter said.
The company that cleaned Knecht's house was Pacific Home Services. The Better Business Bureau has given the business an "F" rating. PHS claims to be based in Renton, but the address is for an apartment complex, and managers there had never heard of the company.
I called Pacific Home Services, but the person who answered wasn't about to give Knecht a refund or answer any questions. Purves-Reiter said there's probably a reason for that.
"They have a phone number set up, and people call it and then they have people in the state they send out," she said. "A lot of times they're not registered. Many times they don't have a business license."
To help Knecht, we reported Pacific Home Services to the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general's office. But I wanted to take a closer look at how these businesses operate, so we went undercover to get answers.
To do it right, we brought in Greenwood Heating and Air to professionally clean the home's air duct system. Next, we set up two companies offering cheap deals for air duct cleanings. To see how thorough they are with their cleaning, we intentionally left one of the home's cold air returns dirty, with a visible dust ball.
The first company to stop by was American Fresh Air. For $49, the company promised an air duct cleaning, including an unlimited number of vents. A look at our video shows issues almost immediately. The technician has a hard time with the furnace, spending several minutes staring and walking around it. Eventually, he flips the basement lights on and off and walks out. Meanwhile, a second technician is vacuuming the air ducts upstairs.
To get a second opinion of the work performed by these companies, I asked Robi Lomont from nationally certified Alpine Cleaning to take a look at the hidden-camera video. His first concern is the guy vacuuming the vents. He has an extender on the vacuum hose, which could be problematic.
"You ram that right through, it'll break through the plastic and you'll have a home repair bill versus a cleaning bill," Lomont said.
Our experts told me that a real air duct cleaning would require the technician to hook up near the furnace, not at the vent inside your front door. Also, all the vents in the home have to be sealed off. This creates a negative pressure or suction for the vacuum system. Unfortunately, American Fresh Air failed to block all the vents. As for that dirty vent with the dust ball, the company never even checked it.
The next company to stop by was Summit Clean Air. The first issue we noticed was that the company did not turn off the furnace while the vacuum was pulling air through the system.
"You could burn out a fan motor. You could unbalance a fan motor where you are going to have an annoying sound for the rest of your life," Lomont said.
Summit Clean Air also failed to seal the system and hooked up to a vent inside the front door. Lomont said all this does is spread the dirt.
"(It's) pretty much taking it from point A and putting it on point B and making it look better here and dirtier there," he said.
Summit's technician checked the cold air return that we left dirty, even going so far as to take a cellphone picture of the dust. But they never actually cleaned it. Lomont told me that these companies are definitely not providing $50 worth of work.
Staff at Alpine Specialty Cleaning – the trusted company – said they will clean Alberta Knecht’s air ducts for free.
American Fresh Air told me it fired the employee for not handling the situation correctly.
We spoke to Summit Clean Air several times. They told me they were going to have a manager contact us but we never heard from them.
Home maintenance is just one of those things where you don't want to cut costs. The upfront savings just aren't worth the risk. Here are some tips from our experts so you can avoid getting taken by one of these companies.
• Expect to pay at least $300 for a full air duct cleaning.
• Never accept a deal over the phone.
• Always ask for the ID of anyone working at your home.
• If you think something fishy is going on, demand that the work stop.
• Check the resources with the HVAC Inspection, Maintenance and Restoration Association.