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ConsumerWatch: Cheap Air Duct Cleaning Offers Can Become Costly

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Air Duct. (CBS)

Air Duct. (CBS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – Sign up for a low-cost air duct cleaning and you could end up with a lot more than you bargained for, warns the Better Business Bureau of Northern California.

The agency recently completed a year-long investigation of six Northern California companies that advertise air duct cleaning for $80 or less. Many of the companies placed coupons in mailers or in newspaper advertisements.

Ernest Wielsch knows the risks firsthand. The 85-year-old retired auto repair shop owner recently signed up for a $65 air duct cleaning from Pure Air, an Emeryville company that frequently places coupons in discount mailers. Wielsch said Pure Air workers convinced him he needed a lot more than simply a duct cleaning. Wielsch said they convinced him he needed a $600 ultraviolet light that would clean the air.

“They didn’t tell me much, the only thing they told me is that if I install it in the heater unit, it creates clean air,” Wielsch said.

Wielsch had good reason to want clean air – his wife of 60 years had recently died of lung cancer, and Wielsch was concerned there might be a connection.

All told, the visit, which included a system cleaning, sanitizers and filters cost Wielsch $1,377 – way more than the $65 Wielsch was expecting.

We showed pictures of the UV light to Dr. Kyaw Tha Paw U, a professor of Atmospheric Science at UC Davis.

“Most of these household cleansers are not very effective because the light intensity is not great enough,” Dr. Paw U says.

We were curious about Pure Air so we arranged for a duct cleaning at the home of a ConsumerWatch volunteer and recorded the visit on a hidden camera. We, too, had a coupon, but ours was for $77.

The Pure Air workers who made the house call did not try to sell us the $600 ultraviolet light cleanser. But, they did try to convince us to have the motor in the furnace cleaned for $375, and tried to talk us into buying a $99 air filter, that they said “would last a lifetime.”

The motor in the furnace was just three months old, and the filter had been replaced six weeks earlier.

Barry Goggin of the Northern California Better Business Bureau said Pure Air was engaging in what’s known as “upselling.” Goggin said companies that advertise low cost duct cleaning deals are frequently “using the low price as an opportunity to get into the home in order to sell additional services.”

John Schulte of the National Air Duct Cleaning Association agrees. “We’ve seen a lot of ‘coupon guys,’” Schulte said. “They’ve been out there for a while. Don’t do it. Don’t even waste your time. They are not going to do a good job for that price.”

Schulte said a thorough duct cleaning should take between three-to-five hours and cost about $400. He said, as a general rule of thumb, homeowners should have their ducts cleaned every five years. But he says that’s only an estimate. He says people who do not have pets could wait longer, perhaps seven years between cleanings.

ConsumerWatch contacted Pure Air on Mr. Wielsch’s behalf. After we called, the company removed the ultraviolet light from Mr. Wielsch’s home and refunded him all his money, less $65.

(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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