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Better Business Bureau ®
Start With Trust®
Northeast California
Year-Long BBB Investigation Yields Troubling Findings in the Air Conditioning Duct Cleaning Industry
August 05, 2010

July 20, 2010—West Sacramento—The Better Business Bureau released today, troubling findings from a series of investigative shoppings in a segment of the furnace and air conditioning duct cleaning industry.

The BBB focused on companies using direct mail to advertise duct cleaning services in the price range of $45-$80.

“It is our opinion that thorough and effective cleaning can take several hours to complete at a cost of $300-$500,” said Barry Goggin, president of the BBB serving northeast California. “We wanted to find out what the companies actually did for the $45-$80 they were advertising.”

The BBB’s findings were based on seven shoppings covering six different companies, and from the evaluation of 29 consumer complaints against the same companies the BBB shopped.

Conclusions:

- 26 instances: In the opinion of the BBB, the cleaning done was superficial at best.

- 32 instances: In the opinion of the BBB, the companies engaged in aggressive tactics to sell additional services and expensive equipment. Additional services included a chemical sanitization program, cleaning of the furnace itself, 2 and 6 year extended warranties, mold eradication, Ultra Violet lights, and new filters.

In the course of pitching additional services, salespeople:

- 19 instances: Devalued the basic service as not being worth the effort or price going forward unless other services were purchased at an extra cost.

- 28 instances: Referred to health risks (asthma, allergies, migraines, sinuses, children’s health) due to the condition of the ducts that the salespeople alleged needed to be addressed with extra services.

- 21 instances: Specifically referred to the presence of mold.

One company, Maximum Aircare, used what the salesperson represented as a special “10 minute mold test” to prove the existence of mold in the duct work. The test equipment used was the size of a large ball-point pen with a label placed on it that read “10 Minute Mold Test.”

“We peeled back the label and under it the words ‘3M Clean-Trace Surface Protein Plus’ were printed on it,” said Goggin. “When we contacted 3M, we were told the tester was designed for testing food processing equipment to be sure it had been cleaned properly.”

According to 3M, the device is intended to register the existence of proteins. The BBB purchased a few of these “10 Minute Mold Tests” off the internet from “InspectUSA” and “IMS Laboratory.” They looked essentially the same as the 3M device being used as a mold tester by Maximum Aircare. The instructions from InspectUSA state: “This kit is intended as an initial screening tool to test a visible stain for the presence of a wide array of molds. This test does not distinguish between toxic and non-toxic species, nor is this test intended for use in the detection of hidden molds [emphasis added]. Additional sampling and laboratory analysis may be required to confirm results.”

The instructions from IMS Laboratory state, “Because this test looks for the presence of specific proteins and carbohydrates, it is subject to false negative and positive results. Certain substances such as food, blood and untreated wood may yield a false-positive result [emphasis added].” If the tester yields a positive result, IMS Laboratory then directs the user to mail them the mold tester so they can test it in their lab.

“In our opinion, there is no practical way that this tester can be used on the spot to legitimately determine specifically whether or not mold exists,” said Goggin. “This ‘mold test’ can yield a positive or false-positive result regardless of the existence of mold. It will also test positive for mold spores that are virtually everywhere. To determine whether or not mold exists, and to determine if the mold or mold spores pose a health hazard, you need a laboratory to test it.”

The “mold testers” were used as “proof” to support scare tactics in order to sell additional products and services to eradicate the mold and clean the system. The BBB hired an expert to check one of the duct cleaning jobs done by Maximum Aircare immediately after they finished their work.

The expert concluded that the ducts were as dirty as before the cleaning service was done. A swab was taken at the same spot where Maximum Aircare had stated they had found mold, and the BBB’s swab was submitted to a laboratory that confirmed mold spores, but no actual mold. No extra mold eradication service was actually needed, although the salesman said it was imperative for the health of the homeowners and their young baby.

A pen-like ‘mold tester’ was also used in 6 other instances by a company named Air Max III. Air Max III used a ‘positive mold tester reading’ as ‘proof’ of harmful mold to help sell additional services.

According to the lab that tested the BBB sample, before you can know if conditions are harmful to your health, you must know what kind of mold or mold spores there are, how concentrated they are, and the length and kind of exposure you’ve had to them.

When looking for a professional to clean out air ducts, BBB recommends that consumers:

  • Check the Company Out With BBB. Before setting up a visit, check the company out with your Better Business Bureau. Ideally, the business will be Accredited by BBB or at least have a good rating. Pay close attention to the name of the business you’re researching because unscrupulous outfits often choose a name that is similar to an existing business that has a solid reputation. To check out a business’s Reliability Report or locate a BBB Accredited business visit http://www.bbb.org/us/Find-Business-Reviews/.

  • Look for the Fine Print. Ads and contracts may contain fine print which the business might think will absolve them from honoring their advertised price. Always ask plenty of questions and get to the bottom line of what it’s going to cost you, before you sign on the dotted line.

  • Get a Second Opinion. If the duct cleaner discovers that you have a mold problem, get a second opinion. Mold remediation can be expensive so you’ll want an expert to confirm dangerous mold or mold spores exist and advise you on how to take care of the problem.

  • File a Complaint with BBB. If you believe you’ve been misled by a business, file a complaint with your BBB online at www.bbb.org/us/file-complaint. Even if BBB isn’t able to resolve the issue for you, the complaint can serve as a warning to other consumers about the business.