Most people don’t get around to cleaning their home’s air vents very often, if ever. If you recently took on this task (or hired someone else to do it) and noticed black specks, splotches, or flecks on your metal air vents, covers, or inside the ducts in your home—you may be wondering what it is.
You may be thinking—is it mold? And if it is—should you be concerned? If you think you may have encountered a mold problem in your home, this article will help give you a definitive answer.
If your air vents are covered in black specks that lighten when bleached, then it’s likely black mold is growing in your home. Black mold poses minor health risks.
Luckily, there are simple ways to remove mold and restore your home’s indoor air quality. Read on to find out what you can and need to do about black mold in your air vents so that you can get back to breathing fresh, clean air.
What is Black Mold
Black mold is a scary-sounding term. But in reality, black mold isn’t so terrible. “Black mold” doesn’t exist as its own species. Black mold is really just—mold.
Mold—whether black, white, or any other color—is a naturally-occurring fungus. It grows in the presence of moisture and oxygen. Its purpose is often to break down decaying matter.
While it’s perfectly natural to have mold growing outside on trees or on the ground, mold growing inside the home is undesirable. Since mold can travel through the air via spores, it can make its way into your home.
In addition to being found on food items in your cabinets—mold can grow on various building materials inside your home, including:
When you hear someone concerned about black mold, what they really mean to say is Stachybotrys chartarum. This type of “black mold” is not commonly found in residential settings.
What Causes Black Mold
Mold can grow wherever the environment is suitable. For mold, that means a moist place with oxygen. Mold can begin growing wherever the conditions are right and wherever spores have landed. Material that retains moisture for a prolonged period is more likely to develop mold.
Is Black Mold Toxic to Humans
There is no conclusive evidence that black mold is toxic to humans. However, some people are more sensitive to mold spores and may develop symptoms. Most molds are harmless for most people.
Black Mold Danger to Infants
While the link has not been proven, mold may be life-threatening to infants. There may be an association between Stachybotrys chartarum and a rare, but deadly condition called acute idiopathic pulmonary hemorrhage (AIPH) in infants.
What Causes Black Mold To Grow in Air Vents
Air vents provide a favorable place for mold to grow. The perfect combination of airflow, dirt, and moisture can cause mold to grow.
But how does it get there? Mold spores can get into your heating or cooling system and land on your air vents as air is pushed through your HVAC system.
Once mold spores land in your air vents, they stay and grow because the environment is favorable. Condensation inside your vents provides a safe haven for mold to survive and reproduce. Condensation happens when warmer, humid air condenses on your cooler metal air vents.
Your air vents go undisturbed, uncleaned, and unnoticed for long periods of time. Mold grows inside while being provided ample food from organic dust that flows through your vents. Mold has ample opportunity to multiply in your air vents.
Signs Black Mold is Growing in Your Air Vents
There are many signs that warn you that mold is growing in your air vents. Other than visibly seeing the black mold spots, you might also notice other signs or symptoms caused by the mold in your vents.
If you notice a musty odor coming from inside your air vent, it could be a sign of mold growth. Sometimes the musty smell will become stronger when the air or heat kicks on.
In addition to noticing signs of black mold with your senses, you may also experience health symptoms from mold in your home. Other symptoms include allergy symptoms, sneezing, nasal soreness, and throat irritation.
Symptoms of Being Exposed to Black Mold
Depending on a person’s sensitivity and the extent of the mold problem, mold exposure can cause more persistent negative health effects for some people.
- Red or itchy eyes
- Skin irritation
Mold exposure is especially dangerous for asthma patients and people who are allergic to mold. Common intense reactions can include trouble breathing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.
Headaches, nausea, dizziness, or fatigue are other serious symptoms of mold exposure. It’s important to follow up with your doctor if you suspect you have inhaled mold and are having symptoms.
Black Mold Vs. Toxic Mold
When you hear the term “black mold” or “toxic mold,” it’s likely that this is in reference to the strain of mold called Stachybotrys chartarum. This type of mold is suspected of causing more serious health problems.
The chances of the mold in your air vent being this more dangerous strain are low because of the humidity required for it to grow. The ideal humidity for home comfort runs between 40-60%.
Stachybotrys chartarum requires a humidity level of 90%, which is uncomfortably high. Other types of mold prefer a lower humidity in the 35-70% range. So, it’s likely that if you do have mold in your air vents, it’s probably not this toxic strain.
How to Tell the Difference Between Dirt and Mold in Your Air Vents
So, you’ve found some black spots inside your air vents. Now, you want to find out whether it’s mold or dirt. There are two approaches you can take.
Dirt and dust don’t cling to surfaces like mold does. These matters can be removed easily with soap and water. If it’s mold, on the other hand, it will be much more difficult to scrub off. If wiping your air vents with soap and water doesn’t do the trick, take a different tactic.
Turn your thermostat off and put gloves on (and an N-95 mask if you’re worried about inhaling spores). Next, dilute bleach with water into a 1:16 mixture. That means if you use a quarter cup of bleach, you’ll dilute it with four cups of water.
Dab this bleach mixture on the suspicious black splotches with a cotton swab. If the dark spots lighten or turn pale, but return after a month or two, then it’s likely mold.
Do it Yourself (DIY) Methods to Get Mold Out of Air Vents
If you think you have a case of mold growing in your air vents, you have two options. First, you could hire someone to come out and clean or replace the affected parts of your system. That can get very expensive in a hurry, so your other option is to clean the mold out yourself.
Here, we’ll provide several DIY methods that you can use to clean mold out of your air vents. We’ll give you a combination of soaps, chemicals, and other tactics to get your vents squeaky clean.
Each of these jobs requires cut-resistant and chemical-resistant gloves to protect your hands. You may also want to use goggles or glasses for eye protection and an N-95 mask for respiratory protection.
You may already have everything you need to clean your vents yourself. Here’s a list of things to get together.
- PPE: Gloves & mask
- Laundry detergent or dish soap
- Mold-resistant disinfectant spray
- Warm Water
- Spray bottle
- Sink or Basin that is larger than your vents
- Rags, mop, scrub brush
- Screwdriver (may be required for wall/ceiling vents)
The first method is to soak your air vents in a detergent mixture. To do this, you’ll need to remove the affected air vents. Air vents are either loosely set into the floor or attached to walls or ceilings with two small screws.
- Put on gloves and a mask
- Remove the air vent cover
- Add detergent to a basin full of warm water (about one tablespoon of detergent to 1 gallon of water)
- Submerge your air vent diffusers in the detergent mixture for about 15 minutes
- Vacuum the duct opening out
- Spray the detergent mixture on your duct opening
- Use a rag or mop to wipe out the inside of the duct
- Scrub your air vent covers after soaking
- Wipe down the inside of your vent and diffusers with a mold-resistant disinfectant
- Dry everything and reattach the vent covers
Baking Soda Method
If the detergent method didn’t do the trick, you might need to add baking soda to the mixture for extra cleaning power.
- Same materials as the detergent method above
- Baking soda
Follow the same steps as the detergent method above, except for the mixture proportions:
- Mix 4 tablespoons of detergent or dish soap with two tablespoons of baking soda, and 4 cups of water
If you need more solution to fully submerge your vents or have enough left to spray inside the openings, double the mixture proportionally as needed.
Earlier, we used bleach to test whether the black specks in your air vents were mold or dirt. You can use the same bleach solution to clean your metal air vents. Again, you’ll use one part bleach to 16 parts water. That means ½ cup of bleach for 8 cups of water.
- PPE: Gloves & mask
- Sink or Basin that is larger than your vents
- Screwdriver (may be required for wall/ceiling vents)
- Follow the same steps as the detergent method, except use the bleach mixture in lieu of the detergent mixture.
- Skip the mold-resistant disinfectant to avoid mixing dangerous chemicals.
Replace Your Vents to Remove Mold
If cleaning your air vents doesn’t remove the mold, or if it keeps coming back—replacement is another option. Replace your vents by measuring and heading to a big box store to get new ones. Alternatively, you can order new vents online.
There are many variations of air vents. So when you’re shopping, here are some common terms you can search for:
- Ceiling register
- Return air grille
- Baseboard diffuser
- Air register
- Supply register
- Air vents
- Intake register
- Baseboard register
- Wall grille
- Toe space grille
- Floor register
Mistakes to Avoid When Cleaning Mold from Air Vents
The biggest mistake that you can make when cleaning mold from air vents is this: failing to fix the problem. If you do not address the cause of the mold, it will keep coming back. (See how to prevent mold below).
Here are some other common mistakes made when cleaning mold from air vents.
- Leaving behind debris that contains mold spores
- Using the wrong cleaning products or the wrong dilution
- Not using protective equipment like gloves, mask, and goggles
- Not using a mold inhibitor after cleaning
- Not changing the furnace filter
- Not completely drying the vents and covers after cleaning
- Not turning the HVAC system off before cleaning
- Failing to clean around your furnace or air conditioner
- Hiring incompetent professionals
- Not using the proper equipment or tools for duct-cleaning
If you decide to clean the mold off your air vents, be sure to avoid the above mistakes. If it appears that mold continues far into your HVAC system beyond the vent covers, consult a professional.
DIY Vs. Professional Duct Cleaning Service
Going the do-it-yourself route can save you money, but you will need to invest time and effort into cleaning, monitoring, and maintaining your air vents.
On the other hand, if you hire a professional, you can pay for air vent cleaning services. However, it may cost you several hundred dollars, and the mold may still come back. Duct cleaning can also cause damage to your system, so be sure you find a professional who has the right tools and whom you can trust.
In the end, it’s your decision whether you will attempt to do it yourself or hire a professional. Once you’ve got the mold cleaned off or your vents replaced, it’s time to look at ways to prevent mold from coming back.
How to Prevent Mold Growth in Air Vents
Now that you know how to clean mold from your air vents, let’s cover how to keep it away long-term. This is important because if you don’t fix the issue that’s causing the mold, the problem could get out of control.
Here are tips for preventing mold growth on air vents:
- Replace furnace filters frequently (at least every three months)
- Have a professional insulate ducts to reduce condensation
- Clean condensate drip pans in your utility room
- Check your system for leaks
- Use a dehumidifier if your home has high humidity
- Use mold growth inhibitors after cleaning vents
- Get your system inspected by an HVAC specialist
Discovering black mold inside your air vents can be an alarming sight. But luckily, there are ways to remove mold and restore fresh air to your home. By following the steps above, you can identify the problem and fix it.
Whether you choose to have a professional come in or do it yourself, be sure that you address the root cause so that the mold problem does not return once removed.
Ruben has a diverse background in the home services industry, with experience running a construction company, a kitchen and bath showroom, and a moving and relocation company. This breadth of experience has provided him with a wealth of knowledge and expertise in various areas of home improvement in general and specifically in the heating and plumbing niche.