Pipes can rupture or burst for several reasons, including a sudden increase in pressure, corrosion over time, poor installation, general disrepair, and most commonly, the expansion that accompanies freezing water. Whatever the reason for the rupture, the consequences are the same: potentially massive property damage and, if left unaddressed for too long, conditions conducive to mold growth. The process of mitigating water damage and restoring your property are also similar despite the cause of the rupture.
Stop the flow, remedy the cause
The first order of business is of course to stop the flow of water, by shutting off the main water valve. Once this has been done and a plumber has been summoned to make any necessary repair, you can turn your attention to making the requisite calls to your insurance company or a water damage specialist. Your insurance company may have a water specialist that they recommend, but the choice is ultimately yours as the homeowner. Most homeowner's policies cover the repair of water damage from burst pipes, and water damage cleanup and restoration pricing is relatively uniform across the industry among certified specialists.
Extract the water
Once you've identified the restoration company to perform the work, their immediate priority will be to extract excess water from the area. To achieve this they'll use industrial extractors and powerful wet-vacs. Some extractors pull water into a tank which is then emptied, while others pump water off-site, perhaps to a truck. The key is to remove the water as quickly as possible, since the longer it remains, the more likely it is to degrade to a more severe category of water.
Create a "moisture map"
Once excess water has been removed from the area, the restoration specialist will use a series of instruments, including a thermal imaging camera, thermo hygrometer, and moisture meters, to determine the source and extent of the damage and the areas affected. He'll determine the origin and movement of the water, what's wet and what's not, and just how wet the wet things are (e.g. completely saturated or merely damp). With this information he'll create what's referred to as a moisture map, which will serve as a guide throughout the process and aid in directing drying resources to where they're needed most.
This detailed assessment and measurement will arm the specialist with the information necessary to determine what's salvageable and what's not. Items that are beyond saving, including any saturated furniture, carpet and carpet padding, drywall, etc., will be discarded into a dumpster. Before that, however, all unsalvageable items will be fully inventoried and photographed for the purpose of documenting the work and to satisfy insurance requirements. Items and fixtures that are salvageable are treated with an antimicrobial agent, applied evenly, before drying.
Dry it out
The last and longest step of the process is drying. Powerful equipment such as air movers and commercial dehumidifiers will be used to dry the affected area as quickly as possible in order to prevent mold growth. Initial measurements are taken of the moisture content of the building materials (wood studs, drywall, etc.), as well as the temperature and humidity of the air in the affected room. These figures are recorded and used to measure progress against subsequent measurements in the days that follow, until acceptable moisture levels are observed.
As with any water damage restoration project, the key to successful mitigation is speed. Quick intervention and timely cleanup will minimize damage to your property and limit the potential for the cultivation of mold.
Wanna dig deeper? Visit our Water Damage Cleanup service page.
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Many thanks to our water-damage specialist Zach C for lending his expertise to this article.
Besides numb fingers, slippery roads, and school closings, ice dams are another winter plague in Minnesota. These frozen formations can be very destructive to the exterior and interior of your home. With proper precautions they can be avoided, but if they do manage to damage your home, cleanup and remediation should be undertaken immediately
How are ice dams formed?
Ice dams are a product of an insufficiently insulated and/or improperly vented attic combined with below-freezing outdoor temperatures and of course, snow. As heated air from the living space rises and enters the attic, the roof warms. The warmed roof causes the snow on top to melt and trickle down to the roof edge, which is colder. There, under colder conditions, the water freezes. As this process continues, the water flowing down the roof refreezes and adds to that at the edge, causing a ridge, behind which water backs up—thus, an "ice dam."
What kind of damage do ice dams cause?
As more water melts, runs down the roof, and freezes, the ice dam grows in size and thus can become quite heavy. This weight causes great strain on the gutters and downspouts, potentially detaching them from the house. Additionally, as water backs up behind the dam, it is often forced under the shingles, where it pools. When this water again freezes (with a drop in outdoor temperature) it will expand under the shingle and cause damage. If it does not freeze, however, it may well leak through the roof.
And this is where the potential damage is greatest—inside your home. As water backs up behind the dam and spreads out over the roof, it can eventually seep through the roof or find its way in through holes or fissures, making its way into the attic. There, it drips into the insulation, potentially saturating it and establishing a breeding ground for mold. It further seeps through the floor of the attic to your ceiling, causing water spots and water damage to the bedroom ceilings and walls. This is often the first sign a homeowner has of a problem with ice dams (besides perhaps icicles hanging from the edge of the roof). In particularly bad cases, homeowners have witnessed their ceilings "raining."
How can ice dams be prevented?
Since the main contributor to ice dam formation is heat loss into the attic and a (relatively) warm roof, the preventive solution is to sufficiently and properly insulate your attic floor to prevent warm air from the living space penetrating it. A further contributor is referred to as bypass, or air leakage, which occurs via the gaps or holes surrounding light fixtures, wires, or flues into the attic from the living space. These need to be properly sealed to cut off the flow of warm air from below. Further, proper ventilation is critical to the prevention of hot air being trapped in the attic. A combination of ridge vents and soffit vents is most recommended. And remember: dryer vent lines or bathroom vents should NEVER exhaust into the attic but should always end outside.
On the border of prevention and treatment is the installation of heated cables. These cables, warmed by electricity, run along the eaves and in the gutters and can ameliorate ice buildup as well; however, these are more of a band-aid than a preventive measure.
If preventive measures are not undertaken (or have failed) and an ice dam forms, there are a few DIY methods that have been suggested to tackle them, including using a wheeled roof-rake to remove snow from the roof, the application of chemical de-icers, the spraying of warm water from a pressure-washer, and attacking it with a hammer and chisel (yikes!). Another option is to hire a professional ice-dam removal company to apply steam to melt the ice dams, allowing the backed-up water to flow safely off the roof through the gutter system. Again, these are all options once a dam has formed. After successful removal the cause should be pinpointed and remedied.
How is the water damage from ice dams mitigated?
In the unfortunate event that water does infiltrate your roof and enter your attic, prompt discovery and mitigation is key to minimizing damage to your home and preventing mold growth. The first step would be to have the affected insulation removed and the area thoroughly dried. New, dry insulation would then be installed, in the appropriate amount (remember, inadequate insulation can be a main contributing factor to the formation of ice dams in the first place). An insulation company can also ensure that any bypass areas are appropriately sealed.
If water has leaked through the attic floor to bedroom ceilings and walls, demolition of some affected areas, such as drywall and flooring, may be necessary. A water damage specialist can help you determine what is salvageable. Once the necessary areas have been demo'd, the remaining affected areas are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized to avoid contamination and prevent mold growth. Thorough drying procedures are then followed, utilizing air scrubbers, dehumidifiers, and air movers, with lay-flat ducting to direct air to where it's needed in order to accelerate the process.
Once this has been accomplished, any rebuilding of demo'd areas will take place, and with that a return to normalcy—hopefully, with all necessary steps having been taken to eliminate the factors that led to the ice-dam formation and to prevent its recurrence.
Wanna dig deeper? Visit our Water Damage Cleanup service pages.
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Many thanks to our water-damage specialist Zach C for lending his expertise to this article.
Commercial exhaust systems serve to vent odors, moisture, and smoke from indoor spaces such as locker rooms, commercial kitchens, and bathrooms to the outdoors by way of a fan—similar to the way a home's kitchen or bathroom exhaust functions but on a much larger scale. These systems are continuously pulling bad air (dirtied with foul odors, moisture, smoke, cooking smells and oils, etc) from a large and crowded space. For this reason they tend to become quite dirty with filth and grime. When this product of exhaust builds up too much inside the ducts, proper venting to the outside is restricted, resulting in odors and moisture lingering in the occupied space. This has the effect of making the room in question "stuffy" and malodorous, and generally exhibiting poor air quality and circulation.
The above set of before and after images was taken inside a stretch of flexible ductwork belonging to the exhaust system of a municipal community center's locker room. The building itself was constructed in 1998, and the exhaust system had never been cleaned. The resulting accumulation of filth and fluff is visibly evident.
Because the area of the room being exhausted (in this case a locker room) is heavy with moisture and warmth from frequently running water, hot showers, hand and hair dryers, etc, the debris exhausted tends to stick quite readily to other particles and to the venting itself, causing a cumulative, clumpy buildup that's as stubborn as it is unsightly.
The flex duct above was cleaned using the Viper Clean Sweep System, a multi-tentacled whip attached to an air hose. When engaged, the plastic tentacles thrash vigorously to and fro, loosening debris from every crevice for the vacuum to swallow up.
Once the length of flexible duct leading from the locker room had been air whipped, it was time to tackle a larger run of rectangular metal ductwork that followed from it. Because this duct was large enough to accommodate a person, the crawl-through method was used to clean it. During this process, the technician dons personal protective equipment (PPE) and crawls through the duct on his hands and knees, armed with an industrial vacuum with brush attachments, physically brushing the debris from the walls of the ducts and into the vacuum.
In this case, the technician moved through the length of the duct until reaching a large turbine fan, which was also caked with locker-room grime.
To clean the fan, the technician water-blasts it with a pressure washer, washing decades of dust and debris from the surface of the fan and blades. The water is cleaned up with a wet vacuum, and the fan blades and other components are wiped down with a dry cloth. Once one side of the fan is clean, the technician exits the duct through an access hole created earlier, then enters the duct on the other side to finish cleaning the other side of the fan.
Having thoroughly cleaned the fan, the technician then turns his attention to the 15-foot section of rectangular duct remaining before the outside grille. This section is also cleaned with the crawl-through method, with the debris manually brushed off the walls of the ducts going straight into the industrial vacuum, which sits below. (The technician enters the duct with enough hose to accommodate the length of the duct.)
The final step is to clean the outside grille that sits like a window on the exterior of the building. The same manner of dust and grime found inside the flex duct and rectangular duct clogs the tiny holes on the screen of the exterior grille. To clean this, from the inside, the tech washes it thoroughly with a pressure-washer. While most of the excess water from this process runs down the side of the building, whatever is left inside the duct is sucked up with a wet-vac.
The ultimate result of this days-long job is a community center whose occupied spaces boast a visibly cleaner venting system, improved indoor air quality, fewer odors, and a generally improved atmosphere.
Wanna learn more about the process of commercial air duct cleaning, the various components cleaned, and the tools employed?
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Many thanks to our commercial project manager Ben S for contributing photos and wisdom for this article.
The heat exchanger pictured is definitely not representative of our typical job. Furnace cleaning, when performed regularly, is relatively uneventful, as the technicians use high-pressured air triggers to clean various components inside the furnace, and check key areas for proper function. The goal is to rid the furnace and its inner workings of dust and debris that hinder efficiency and that increase the number of contaminants polluting indoor air. As in any frequent task, however, sometimes unusual or exemplary situations present themselves
This month a homeowner in St Paul contacted us and scheduled a furnace flue cleaning as well as a furnace cleaning. His gas furnace, manufactured in the 1950s, was less efficient than it had been (not surprisingly, some would say). More importantly, he felt it was not drafting properly. He was getting what he called "funny smells" in the house, and the carbon monoxide detectors were going off. The customer attributed this to a clogged furnace flue, which is certainly not an unlikely cause. The furnace flue serves to vent harmful gases produced during combustion to the outside, so if it is clogged or otherwise hindered, it stands to reason that a primary indicator would be the CO detector registering concerning levels of carbon monoxide.
After listening to the homeowner's concerns about the furnace not drafting properly, the technician proceeded to clean the flue, expecting to find it clogged, perhaps with animal nesting or other debris. Though quite dirty, however, it was not so dirty that one would have expected air flow to be greatly hindered or draft compromised.
The problem became apparent, however, when the technician was able to see, by way of the access created for the flue cleaning, down into the heat exchanger. It was completely clogged and black with soot, to an extent he'd never seen before. It was clear to the technician that a through cleaning was urgently needed to unclog it and restore it to working order, if possible.
A disclaimer would be in order at this point. The average lifespan of a furnace is about 20 years, and the furnace in question was significantly older than that. The customer insisted, however, that it was otherwise working properly and he simply did not have the funds to replace it. Wanting to accommodate the customer's financial situation, the technician agreed to proceed with the disassembly and cleaning of the heat exchanger, with a thorough explanation of what he was doing and the risk involved, and an assurance from the customer that if the symptoms persisted after the cleaning he would consult a repair company.
An interesting aside: furnaces of this age rely on natural draft to exhaust gases and are not equipped with a draft inducer. This component is essentially a fan, found in modern furnaces, whose purpose is to create draft and move the products of combustion from the furnace up and out the flue. A furnace equipped with a draft inducer likely would shut down rather than becoming as clogged as this one had, in accordance with its sequence of operation.
The technician began the job by removing 17 nuts and bolts from the panel just to gain access to the heat exchanger. As soon as the panel was removed, it was clear that the gasket surrounding it was completely deteriorated and needed to be replaced. The customer purchased a new one while the technician performed the cleaning.
It is unusual that a technician would need to go to such lengths to access a heat exchanger. Typically the heat exchanger is readily accessible, or requires only minimal disassembly in order to access it for cleaning. Moreover, many technicians would likely have passed on this job once observing the amount of buildup needing to be cleaned and the relatively laborious process of accessing the heat exchanger. Likely the customer would have been counseled to simply replace the furnace. However, a combination of a genuine wish to help a homeowner in a tough financial situation and the desire to successfully tackle a challenging and uncommon task inspired our technician to complete the cleaning.
Once the heat exchanger was accessible, the cleaning was carried out using a powerful industrial vacuum and various attachments, specifically a 3-inch round brush head. Because the heat exchanger and its associated tubes were so large, it was easy to fit the vacuum and its attachments down each tube, which made this aspect of the cleaning relatively easy, taking only about 20 minutes.
On completion, the customer replaced the gasket with the one he had purchased, and the heat exchanger panel was reinstalled.
The heat exchanger after the cleaning was not necessarily a thing of beauty, but it certainly was in a much improved condition to carry out its function of heat transfer. In the end, the tech was wiser, the customer was well-informed and happy, and he also was not out thousands of dollars for the purchase of a new furnace—at least not today.
Wanna dig deeper? Download our free tipsheet: 5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Furnace Cleaning Company.
Many thanks to our technicians Ben S and Roy S for lending their expertise to this article.
Bathroom exhaust fans serve to move moisture and odors from the bathroom to the outside. Like dryer vent lines, they move air only one way, from inside to outside—their function is not to recirculate air, as your home's ductwork does. In short, they do not form part of the air duct system, which moves heated and cooled air from the furnace and air conditioner into your living space.
Why are bathroom exhaust fans not cleaned along with the air ducts?
Customers often conflate air ducts and bathroom exhaust fans, both of which are sometimes loosely referred to as "vents." Understandably in that context, they expect the two will be cleaned together. In fact bathroom exhaust vents are not typically included in an air duct cleaning service, as these are two completely different systems. More relevantly, bathroom exhaust vents rarely require professional cleaning.
Why? Because unlike dryer vents, which exhaust lint as a byproduct of the drying process in addition to moisture, and air ducts, which serve to circulate air throughout the HVAC system and into the living space, bathroom vents move only moisture. For this reason, they rarely become clogged, and the light buildup they do accumulate simply does not rise to the level of what a professional duct or vent cleaning is intended to remove.
Do bathroom exhaust fans need to be cleaned?
As we all know, however, they can become visibly dirty, as moist household dust sticks to the vent cover and to the fan blades just behind it. It's a good idea to clean these components periodically to reduce the overall amount of dust in your home and to keep the fan motor in good working order. This superficial buildup can be removed fairly easily. To clean the vent cover and fan, a household vacuum and damp cloth will usually suffice. The vent cover, typically plastic, can be lifted off easily. There may be clamps on the side you'll need to gently push inward. Once removed, you can vacuum the cover with a standard household vacuum attachment, or wipe it clean with a damp cloth. If the dirt is particularly sticky or stubborn, the vent cover can be immersed in soapy water. Behind the vent cover lies the fan, the blades of which over time accumulate the same mix of household dust, minor lint, and moisture. This also can be cleaned with a vacuum attachment or damp cloth (cut the electricity before doing so). Ensure the vent cover is thoroughly dry before replacing.
Does a bathroom exhaust fan ever need professional cleaning?
There are cases, however infrequent, when a bathroom fan exhaust requires more than just a wipe-down or light vacuum. On the few occasions when our technicians have been summoned to clean a bathroom vent exhaust, it's to clear a blockage caused by animal nesting. The warm air and narrow passage would seem quite attractive to a prospective home-builder of the small furry or feathered variety. Normally these critters are kept out by screening over the vent, or a damper under the hood. If these mechanisms are compromised, however, nesting animals (often squirrels) will quickly find their way inside, carrying with them their sticks and leaves and other home-building debris, potentially creating a mammoth clog. A blocked exhaust would prevent the escape of moisture and odors from the bathroom and risk overworking or burning out the fan motor.
What is the process for cleaning a clogged bathroom exhaust vent?
The remedy for these clogs is the same technique that breaks up lint clogs and the occasional nest inside a dryer vent line. Our technicians' tool of choice is a spinning, reverse-blowing skipper ball. How does it work? From the outside vent cover, the tool is fed through the vent on an air line, past the obstruction. Once engaged, the tool is then pulled back toward the technician, as its reverse nozzles blast out air, and the debris along with it. The process is repeated until no further debris is expelled.
With all that said, absent a clog, if you don't have the time or inclination to clean your own bathroom exhaust fans, you can usually opt to add this on to your service for a small additional charge—because, after all, some of us prefer to spend a bit more money and save ourselves the time and trouble.
Wanna dig deeper? Download our free tipsheet: 10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Air Duct Cleaning Company.
Many thanks to our technicians Ben S and Roy S for lending their expertise to this article.
As a furnace cleaning company, we sometimes get calls for issues that would be more appropriately referred to a furnace repair company. Sometimes customers with furnace troubles attempt the process of elimination to reach a diagnosis, eliminating the least-expensive potential fix first (cleaning). Though there is some minor overlap between cleaning and repair, if your furnace is not working, your first call should be to a repair company.
With that said, furnace cleaning can help minimize the need for furnace repair, and on occasion, the recommended repair is simply to clean a specific malfunctioning (read: dirty) part. Additionally, furnace cleaning technicians are typically equipped to replace minor parts, such as flame sensors and hot surface igniters
Your furnace's sequence of operation
To understand the relationship between furnace cleaning and the unit's smooth functioning, it helps to understand a furnace's "firing order," formally known as its sequence of operation. This is the series of steps a gas furnace runs through before generating heat. In a nutshell, once heat is summoned by the thermostat, the draft inducer motor begins whirring. The air pressure switch then monitors the air flow being generated by the inducer to make sure it is sufficient, and if it approves, a connection is made between the inducer and the hot surface igniter. The igniter then glows and the gas valve opens, creating a flame. The flame sensor, for its part, then asks, is there a flame? If the answer is yes, the process remains uninterrupted and heat is generated. If the answer is no, the system will shut down, in order to prevent the release of raw gas into the atmosphere with no flame to consume it. This process continues until the thermostat reaches the desired temperature.
Any interruption to this sequence of operation will effectively halt the furnace, and there are plenty of factors that can contribute to an interruption. If the draft inducer is compromised, for example, the pressure switch will not communicate to the igniter that everything is A-okay, and the igniter will not spark. Dirt and debris can play a major role in these interruptions. A furnace flue clogged with debris would prevent the inducer from creating enough draft to close the pressure switch, stopping the process before it even gets started. A worn or dirty flame sensor incapable of detecting a flame would result in the gas valve shutting off. You get the idea.
The primary goal of furnace cleaning
Despite furnace cleaning sometimes resolving what would seem to be repair issues, its chief aim is maintenance—helping to keep the system in working order by improving air flow through the removal of system-clogging debris. As explained above, a single dirty component can stop the heating process in its tracks. Maintaining system cleanliness will minimize disruptions to your home's heating.
An additional aim of furnace cleaning, and HVAC system cleaning in general, is the improvement of indoor air quality: by removing debris and contaminants from your furnace and other system components, you reduce the number of pollutants circulating throughout the system only to be expelled into your living space. That same debris that clogs up HVAC system parts and hinders air flow doesn't do your lungs any favors either.
Overlap between cleaning and repair
If we refer back to our sequence of operation and the issues that can disrupt it, we have to consider that sometimes the problem is as simple as a single faulty part. Though the lifespan of a furnace is roughly 15-20 years, the lifespan of some individual parts is much shorter. The igniter and flame sensor, for example, have lifespans of only about 5-7 years, so it stands to reason you'll need to replace these before you replace the furnace itself. Because these parts are fairly easy to install and small enough to carry a sufficient stock, many furnace cleaning technicians will replace these, with the customer's approval, if they observe much wear on the part. The replacement of these components, in addition to capacitors and contactors, are about the extent to which furnace cleaning technicians will engage in parts replacement.
One of the biggest (and most dangerous) cleaning-related repair issues is when the furnace shuts down due to a clogged furnace flue. The flue, of course, is the channel or pipe through which harmful gases produced by the combustion of your furnace are exhausted to the outside. If the flue becomes clogged with animal nests, leaves, or other debris, harmful carbon monoxide can back up into your living space and put your family at risk. Furnace flues without caps are particularly susceptible to this hazard. Our technicians are frequently called to the homes of customers whose furnaces have been red-tagged and shut down by a repair company due to a blocked flue.
A surprisingly common contributor to furnace overheating and subsequent shut-down is a clogged air filter. If the filter is choked with dirt, air flow from the return duct into the furnace is restricted and can cause the high-limit switch to detect too much warmth and shut off the burners. A blanket of dust over the evaporator coil can have a similar effect, restricting air flow from the heat exchanger to the supply duct and causing a backdraft. Because the entirety of the HVAC system is dependent upon proper air flow, any hindrance to this flow in the form of dirt or debris can wreak havoc and lead to repair issues.
Who to call when
If your furnace is not working, or not working well, your first call should be to a repair company. It may end up that the diagnosis involves the evaporator coil needing to be cleaned, or that the furnace flue is dangerously clogged, both of which you'd likely be referred to an HVAC cleaning company for. However, the diagnosis should come from a licensed HVAC repair technician. Sometimes similar symptoms can have different causes, so to rule out any other issues, a proper evaluation should be performed.
If you are looking for a cleaning of your furnace or furnace flue as part of routine maintenance on your system, or if you are looking to improve your indoor air quality by minimizing pollutants present within, call a furnace cleaning company. During the course of their service they'll make mention of anything they see amiss and refer you to a repair company if appropriate.
Wanna dig deeper? Download our free tipsheet: 5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Furnace Cleaning Company.
Many thanks to our technician Roy S for lending his expertise to this article.
Or rather, some stories. Everybody loves the before and after photos some companies offer after an air duct cleaning job. Customers like to see the results of the service and the accompanying assurance that their money was well spent, not to mention the visible affirmation that they'll be breathing cleaner indoor air. HVAC cleaning companies enjoy showcasing their work, and before and after photos provide explicit testimony of the benefits of the service. Below are a few examples, with context and caveats
The images above are from a 70-year-old home in St. Paul whose ducts had never been cleaned. The duct is a standard sheet-metal return, fairly easily cleaned with a multi-tentacled air whip such as the Viper Clean Sweep, our technicians' tool of choice.
The photos were taken (as all of ours are) with the technician's cell phone—not, as many customers assume, with a scope. The reason we opt for cell-phone photos over those of borescopes is due mainly to resolution, and ease: a cell-phone photo has a much higher resolution than that of a scope, providing a high-quality and detailed image. Cell-phone photos can also be shared much more easily, quickly sent from the technician's phone to the customer's e-mail. Finally, a visual representation of the condition of the ducts can be had more easily from an access point or vent than from deep within the duct (which would require the use of a scope), with the latter providing no obvious advantage.
The images above were taken inside a Minneapolis home built in the 1960s in which the trusses (the cavity between the main-level floor and the basement ceiling) were used for return air. This building practice was relatively commonplace until recently. These kinds of duct spaces can get quite dirty, due to the porousness of wood and the tendency of dust particles to coagulate within that space. That is to say, dust particles stick more easily to wood than, for example, to metal, and once one particle sticks, subsequent particles stick more easily, resulting in quicker and more abundant buildup than inside a metal duct. This cavity was also cleaned with the Viper Clean Sweep.
In cases of newly constructed homes (above), the ducts are often dusty with drywall particles, which are ubiquitous and stubborn. At first glance this debris may not appear as voluminous as that in some of the other photos. However, because drywall dust tends to collect so densely, it can be considered equivalent to twice its amount in run-of-the-mill household dust. Drywall dust is easily disturbed, and because its particles are so small and lightweight, once rendered airborne, they create a nuisance everywhere they settle—within HVAC system components, on your furniture, in your lungs.
You may notice in the image that a few larger (relatively) pieces have been left behind inside the ducts. These are heavier bits of concrete or rubble that, because of their weight, cannot be removed by duct cleaning tools. This is of little consequence—these are too heavy to become airborne and thus are not going to compromise indoor air quality.
Flexible poly return ducts (above) are commonly found in townhomes in Minnesota. That pictured is from a townhome built in the early 2000s. Because this particular duct was located in the main living space, the dirt within was an accumulation of debris generated over several years, from the kitchen, dining, and living areas. The after photo demonstrates the subtle power of the Viper Microline, a single-tentacled air whip perfect for smaller cavities. Because it is not as forceful as multi-tentacled air whips (or brushes), it does not harm flex lines, but its gentle and swift thrashing loosens debris from every nook and cranny.
Because debris from wood-floor sanding is easily airborne, it often finds its way into a home's air ducts (above). Like drywall dust, this debris tends to cling to the walls of the ducts and its removal requires a more advanced cleaning than that which simple air-pressure provides, such as a rotary brush or tentacled air whip. Our technicians prefer the latter, especially in rectangular ducts (as rotary brushes are circular).
A final word on before and after photos: those that you see online, for obvious reasons, tend to place toward the end of the best-to-worst spectrum, the above included. Though those included here are fairly typical jobs that our techs see regularly, there are plenty of others that are not so remarkable or exemplary, especially in homes whose ducts are cleaned regularly. The salient point here is that no matter what your ducts looked like before cleaning, the top-level cleaning, utilizing an advanced agitation method as opposed to simple air pressure, will get them picture-perfect after.
Wanna dig deeper? Download our free tipsheet: 10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Air Duct Cleaning Company.
Many thanks to our technicians Ben S and Roy S for providing photos and lending their expertise to this article.
It's a fair question, as the two are very similar, and in one case (the fireplace flue), they're the same. The two terms are often used interchangeably, even by industry insiders, as there is much overlap. But there are distinct differences between the two as well. Let's break it down
What's the difference between a chimney and a flue?
A flue is the channel, pipe, or tube through which gases and smoke travel from a source of combustion (fireplace, furnace, boiler) to the outside environment. It is usually a vertical channel, but in some cases, as in fan-powered PVC power vents on newer, high-efficiency appliances, the flue can be horizontal. But here we are speaking of the traditional draft-style flue. That is, those that rely on natural draft—the upward movement of air as a result of differences in temperature and pressure—to safely vent the products of combustion from the home.
A chimney is, on the other hand, in its simplest definition, the housing that encases the flue. It is usually made of masonry, brick, or stone. Its exterior, extending upward beyond the roof line, is generally what we think of when we consider chimneys. It's worth noting that a chimney that does not have a flue inside it or a liner is basically serving as the flue itself.
How do chimney sweeping and flue cleaning differ?
Bearing in mind that a flue is the path through which the byproducts of combustion vent to the outside, a "fireplace flue" is the same thing as what laypeople think of as a chimney—that structure which Santa will hopefully climb down later this month, if we're lucky. So, a fireplace flue cleaning and a chimney sweeping refer to the same process. During the service, the technician generally uses a stiff-bristled brush or other chimney cleaning system to brush the inside of the flue to remove creosote buildup from its walls.
A utility flue cleaning—as opposed to a fireplace flue cleaning or chimney sweeping—would be focused on the vertical flue associated with the furnace, boiler, or water heater. Because these appliances do not generate creosote (which is a byproduct of burning wood), their flues typically do not get as dirty as fireplace flues, and the buildup they do accumulate is not as hard or caked-on, so to speak.
For that reason, the tool of choice on a flue cleaning (though every technician is different) would be a tentacled air whip. Because these are powered pneumatically by air pressure rather than manually, they are highly efficient and are quite effective at removing the scale-and-sediment buildup prevalent within utility flues, as opposed to creosote, which requires more aggressive methods.
How are they similar?
The two processes are similar in that they are both designed to remove buildup and blockages from the inside of the flue to allow free and safe passage for the gases and smoke produced by combustion. In the case of blockage removal, the process is virtually identical, as the debris that blocks both fireplace flues and utility flues is almost always of the same origin: animal nesting. To remove it, the technician will break up the nest using whatever brush or whip will work most effectively, simultaneously sucking up the debris with a vacuum attached below. He'll then complete the job by thoroughly brushing (or whipping) the sides of the flue to remove any remaining or stuck-on debris.
Finally, no body of information remotely associated with flue or chimney health would be complete without reference to the importance of chimney caps. They're vital, and without them, your roof has a gaping hole, inviting all kinds of weather damage and critter entry. It's the single easiest and most cost-effective way to maintain your chimney—or flue!
Wanna dig deeper? Our flue cleaning service page has a detailed description of the process involved and tools used, as well as links for further reading.
Dryer vent clogs present a real fire hazard, but even if this potential disaster does not materialize, a direct and discernible result of dryer lint buildup is a clothes dryer that doesn't do what it was meant to do, meaning frustration and headache for the resident or homeowner affected. In addition to the obvious energy-inefficiency of a dryer that runs and runs without actually drying, the homeowner or property manager is left frustrated trying to figure out the cause and often hires a repair company only to find that in fact the solution was dryer vent cleaning
Our commercial project manager was summoned to a property in Minneapolis to provide a bid for cleaning 500 dryer vents for a multi-story apartment complex. New property management had taken over, and the residents were complaining that the clothes dryers had not been working properly for years. It had been understood that the dryer vents were being cleaned regularly, on a 2-year basis, so there was some confusion as to why the dryers were not doing their job. After some digging by a persistent property manager, it was discovered that leaf blowers fired up from down below had been called into service for the task—a task for which they are not designed and at which they fail miserably.
At this property, multiple dryer vents from the stories below enter into one of several stacks leading to the roof. On the roof, covering each of these stacks, is a metal crown—similar to what you'd find covering a fireplace chimney. On the face of each stack was a louvered vent cover with a screen behind it. Each of these screens was covered in lint, choking off air flow.
Removal of this vent cover allowed access to the nine vents inside, which included not only dryer vents but also bathroom exhaust-fan vents. Interestingly, on disassembly, our technician noted evidence that there had been no previous disassembly nor access cut through the metal crown. This meant that the vents in this decades-old building had never been properly cleaned: from the top down.
The consequence? A massive buildup of lint five inches thick that prevented the proper exit of exhaust from not only the dryers but the bathroom vents as well. It was for this reason the dryers were not working well, triggering the residents' complaints. There were also several disconnects in the dryer vent line found in the attic—disconnects that likely were due to the age of the system but also as a result of previous attempts at cleaning with a leaf blower.
After manually removing and disposing of the 5-inch-thick lint colossus covering each collection of vent openings, the technician set about cleaning each of the dryer vent lines. To prevent the lint from one vent falling into the others while it was cleaned, he fashioned a metal plate with a hole similar in size to the vent opening, and positioned it in such a way that only the vent being cleaned was uncovered.
From this point the cleaning process is fairly standard. The technician inserts a spinning, reverse-blowing skipper ball, attached to 50 feet of air hose, all the way down the vent line through to the back of each dryer. Once engaged, the tool is pulled up the vent line and pushed down again repeatedly, while its reverse-blowing air nozzles blast lint out the vent opening. The technician knows he is done when no more lint is being expelled by the tool, and good air flow is observed from the vent. Each of the louvered vent covers and screens are cleaned with high-pressured air triggers until they are completely free from lint.
Dryer lint is a messy nuisance and a hazard. Its feathery lightness makes it easily propelled on a gust of warm air, as that produced by the dryer. It travels until air flow is insufficient to propel it further or until it encounters resistance, in the form of a screen over the vent opening, a corrugation or bolt in the vent line, or a sticky collection of other lint. As with a snowball rolled across the ground, the lint particles stick to each other, increasing the mass of the whole. As more lint is added, the clog grows denser and harder and eventually chokes off air flow.
Regular and thorough vent line cleaning, with the proper tools and performed by an experienced technician, is necessary to stop this process; any lint left behind will act as a magnet for other lint. Aim for a minimum of every two years, yearly if you do lots of laundry. The $100-$150 price tag is well worth the frustration you'll save yourself from the paradox of a perpetually running dryer yet perpetually damp laundry.
Wanna dig deeper? Our commercial dryer vent cleaning page contains detailed descriptions, before and after photos, and videos of our commercial dryer vent cleaning processes.
View Commercial Dryer Vent Cleaning Page
Many thanks to our commercial project manager Ben S for lending his expertise to this article.
Can you guess what caused the damage to the below flue cap? Before we identify the culprit, a few words about the importance of caps. Chimney or flue caps are indispensable for protecting the integrity of your chimney interior and maintaining air flow and draft. They do so by preventing the infiltration of rain and snow into your flue, which can cause water damage, and by preventing (or minimizing) the entry of animals, who bring with them lots of flue-clogging nesting debris.
This month a homeowner in St. Paul had their power company out to do a routine pre-season check on their boiler. To their surprise, it was red-tagged and shut down, after a determination that their boiler flue was clogged. This left the homeowner without heat in the cold of a Minnesota November. They called several companies seeking to have a boiler flue cleaning, but because of the cold and wet conditions, and the pitch and height of their roof, they were repeatedly turned down. Their roof's pitch was 10/12, and a 32-ft ladder fully extended was required just to get to the roof line. From there it was another 15 feet to the top of the chimney.
When our technician arrived on the job, he first read through the notes from the gas company, who had indicated there was a backdraft from the flue, presumably due to a blockage, to such an extent that some of the plastic components on the top of the water heater had melted (the water heater and boiler shared a flue).
The technician began by disassembling the portion of the flue located in the basement, where the flue enters the chimney stack, expecting to immediately find a blockage there—but there was none. This area is typically where clogs are found—at the elbow where the flue goes from horizontal to vertical after entering the brick. Animals frequently nest in this area due to its warmth. But this occurrence is extremely rare when a cap is in place over the flue, which was the case with this home. All of this left our technician a bit stumped.
To further his investigation, he climbed the roof for a closer look. On reaching the top, he observed that a very determined animal had gnawed through the screening of the aluminum chimney cap. On removing the mangled cap and peering down the chimney, our technician spotted the problem: an enterprising squirrel had constructed a nest a quarter of the way down the flue, causing a complete obstruction. This would have blocked the exit of dangerous carbon monoxide produced by the boiler, and thus the red-tagging by the gas company.
Cell-phone images taken from on-high have their limitations, but here's a bit of a closer look:
The technician began the job of removing the obstruction by using a Viper GFK Chimney Cleaning System, which features a coiled rod—65 feet fully extended—to which brush heads of various sizes and materials (poly or steel wire) can be attached. He inserted the poly brush into the flue from above, attempting to push through the nest. His assistant was below, capturing the falling mess—the smaller debris with an industrial vacuum, the larger debris with his hands. After managing to get the poly brush all the way through the nest and down to the elbow—almost 50 feet from the top of the chimney to the basement--the tech switched to the steel brush to finish the job (the poly brush was successful in removing only about a quarter of it). After 45 minutes, they managed to remove the entirety of the nest and ended up filling a 5-gallon bucket with nesting debris, mostly consisting of large sticks and grass clippings.
On completion, daylight was observed from down below, entering through the top of the flue. When a lighter was held at the opening, the flame was pulled toward it, indicating proper draft. The homeowner was assured that the flue was clean and clear of debris and that it was safe to call the gas company and get the appliance turned back on. Before leaving, the technician placed a new type B gas vent cap on top of the flue.
Unfortunately, there isn't really a huge insight to reveal here. In our technician's almost 20 years of experience, he had never observed a capped flue that suffered such an obstruction. (Uncapped flues are another story altogether.) By ensuring that each of your flues has a cap, you reduce the chances of animal intrusion to almost zero. Checking the fit and condition of your cap occasionally, or having someone else do it, will virtually guarantee your flue remains unobstructed, and elevate you to super-homeowner status.
Wanna learn more about utility flue cleaning? Visit our flue cleaning service page.
Many thanks to our technician Ben S for lending his expertise to this article.