Q. We replaced our old heat pump with a new energy efficient model recently. The system uses the original ducts. When we start our system after it has been idle for several days we notice what seems to be a mildew smell coming from the ducts. After a while the odor goes away. The old heat pump didnít seem to do this.
I have sprayed disinfectant into the air return and into the area around the condensing unit with not much success. We have owned the home for four years-- built in the 1980s-- and as far as I know the ducts have never been cleaned. We lived in our other house for years and never had the ducts cleaned.
I donít see any water near the unit in the basement. I looked down the air returns and see there is a good accumulation of dust on the sides and bottom of the ducts. Could this be the source of the odor? Any suggestions?
A. Mildew odors in forced air heating and cooling systems are annoying and can be a real pain to locate and cure. You are on the right track looking for a wet spot as the culprit but rather than standing water I'll bet it's a condensation point either on the coils themselves or somewhere along the duct work.Oil and Gas heating systems with air conditioning are not immune to this sort of thing but, unlike heat pumps, tend to receive more regular cleaning as a part of their routine maintenance than heat pumps seem to get. I routinely see heat pump systems many years old that have never met a service technician. Many folks apply the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle to heat pumps mistakenly ignoring such virtues as cleanliness of filters, coils and ducts. Apart from the dusty ducts, you didn't mention whether or not the whole air-handler itself, including the coils, have been cleaned lately. I suspect not, so that would be the place to start. Wads of the type of dust you see on the side of the return duct can get past the filter and probably lodge between the fins of the coils and get wet during air-conditioning operation from the system condensing moisture out of the air. Turn the system off and let it sit a while and mildew sets in. Turn it back on and the mildew dust-bunnies act like obnoxious air-wicks releasing mildew smell. Iíve seen it referred to in the heating and cooling trade as the ďdirty sock syndromeĒ. Unless you are one of those very advanced and dauntless do-it-yourselfers I don't recommend tackling the job yourself. Call a heating and cooling service technician and tell them what you've told me and what I've told you. Have the system cleaned and the coils vacuumed or air-blasted. Clean and make sure the whole air handler chassis gets a good going over. Make sure the heating coils get looked at, too. Check the condensate pan located under the air conditioning coils that catches the dripping condensate to be sure it's clean and does not let water stand in some part. I have seen swamps form in these pans especially if they are not tilted properly to drain. Many pros suggest pouring some bleach through the condensate drain lines to keep them clear-- if you can get to it easily Iíd say do it. Cleaning the whole duct distribution system is a good idea if the ducts are seriously dirty. During the heating mode the dust will dry out but add cooling and condensation and it can stink. The problem is compounded if you have pets. Cats and dogs give off both dander and fur and a good bit of it ends up in the air distribution system. Take a flashlight and a hand mirror and examine as many of both the return and supply ducts as you can reach. Pull the registers up from the floor and unscrew the wall grilles-- youíd be surprised at what you might find in there. You name it--toys, coins, socks, food-- if it can fit down there I íve found it. If you have a good vacuum cleaner with a wand and brush attachment, you can do a pretty passable job of duct cleaning yourself. Hiring a professional duct cleaning service will give you a whistle-clean job but be prepared to shell out a few hundred dollars for it.