Photograph of disconnected air conditioning duct in a crawl space Loose, Leaky, or Blocked Air Conditioning or Heating Ducts
     


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Loose or leaky air duct troubleshooting: this article describes the effects of and how to find & repair blocked, clogged, crimped, loose or leaky air conditioning or heating ducts, leaky air duct connections, defective heating or cooling ductwork. The photo at page top shows what happens when cooling ducts are poorly connected through a crawl space. The crawl space was nice and cool but no cool air was being delivered to the living space. in addition, the air blowing around in the crawl space stirred up fiberglass and debris, including mold which increased the movement of these particles into the occupied space.

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HVAC Duct Connection Leaks - Poor duct work connections

For diagnosing poor air flow from an air conditioning or heating system also see RETURN AIR REGISTERS & DUCTS and SUPPLY DUCTS & REGISTERS. We also provide a checklist of more air duct troubleshooting suggestions at RETURN DUCT AIR LEAKS or at SUPPLY DUCT AIR LEAKS. And at UNSAFE DUCT OPENINGS we discuss certain air duct leaks and openings that are downright dangerous.

Where do we Find the Most-common Types of Air Duct Leaks

Photograph of loose supply duct connection metal duct work Photograph of loose supply duct connection flex duct

This article continues discussion of common defects found in air conditioning duct work such as loose or leaky duct connections and their effect on the air conditioning or heating system. Our air duct photos above illustrate common air duct leak problems that not only go unnoticed or undiscovered but that increase heating or cooling costs by leaking supply air.(SUPPLY DUCT AIR LEAKS) Similar leaks in return air ducts can pick up and distribute contaminants in a building (RETURN DUCT AIR LEAKS).

Disconnected Cool Air Supply Duct Hidden in Crawl Area

Supply duct leak (C) Daniel FriedmanA client who lived in an apartment in New York City engaged our company to find why her city apartment could not get cool even though she had a new air conditioning system installed. We found that the ducts had become disconnected in the attic crawl space where the air handler was placed. It was wonderfully cool in the attic. The apartment was quite hot. So were the electric bills. Below at Soffit Cool Air Blast we describe a more egregious case of duct work that was missing entirely.

These photographs show the two most-common air conditioning or heating duct leaks, at a loose falling metal duct connection (left photo) and at a poorly-secured flex-duct connection (right photo). Leaking supply air at these connections means less cool air (or warm if it's heat) delivered to the occupied space.

If the air conditioning system output at the registers is poor, especially if it is working in some building areas but not others, one of the first things to check is the condition of the duct work. Look for and seal leaks like these. Also review the other duct and supply adequacy defects described at articles linked-to from the left of these pages.

The cure for these duct leaks is simple: reconnect leaky duct sections (photo at left).

In addition to making a mechanically sound connection between duct sections (sheet metal screws, mechanical fasteners, nylon tie strips), we use metal foil tape to complete the seal on connected metal duct sections. The flex-duct connection was re-made and a tighter plastic band used to secure the flex duct in place.

Watch out: don't rely just on duct tape to secure air ducts.

But the cost of air duct leaks can be significant if the leak persists over a long time or in a location where blowing air or loss of dehumidification lead to mold or other indoor air quality concerns. Leaky air ducts can significantly increase building heating or cooling costs and can lead to other building or even health worries. The Florida air duct leak field report case just below illustrates this problem.

Soffit Cool Air Blast Traced to Hidden Missing Air Conditioner Duct - Mistake by Builder

Photo of disconnected / incomplete HVAC duct (C) Daniel Friedman

We live in a manufactured home built by Homes of Merit a.k.a. Champion Homes in Florida. We have been living in this house for about 9 years, and we have already have had to replace our A/C unit, having been told it was "worn out". But we didn't suspect that there was a hidden cause of that failure until today. The house is 27 feet wide by 57 feet long each part has its on air conditioning trunk line system.

- Stock photo of incomplete HVAC duct (left) from InspectApedia library.

I was fixing my back door which my house is 30" above ground level, so I was up on a ladder when I noticed there was cool air coming out the soffit with great force. I told my wife that this is probably why our electric bill has always been higher than for similar homes in our area: $300 to $400 a month. I concluded that there must be a loose air duct connection that was blowing cool air into the inaccessible attic space over our home, pressurizing that area, and leaking out at the soffits.

To investigate this duct problem I had to cut an 18" opening in the gable to gain access to the attic space. When I cut the last side to remove the siding, the cool air pressure blowing out on me was like a strong floor fan! I had to crawl on my belly across the rafters to get where I could see what was going on. I thought all I would need would be a piece of duct tape to seal an opening somewhere. Instead I found that there was the air conditioning cool air supply duct junction box and a 15" - 18" galvanized connector sticking out into the open attic. There was no continuing cool air duct work bringing air into the occupied space!

I thought that maybe this duct section was inactive, that it was sealed so to test it I took a long stick with a piece of toilet paper on the end so I could look for air flow in attic areas out of reach - the space was so tight that I could go no further. Placing my toilet paper flag in front of what I thought would be the sealed opening I found that the air flow was so strong it nearly ripped the paper off the stick.

In short, there was a fifteen foot open separation between the supply air conditioning duct trunk line from the kitchen and the rest of the supply duct, laying wide open. Since the construction of the house 9 years ago, the duct had never been connected.

I know this seems a bit like out of a movie but we have had health issues plus all the money thrown out the attic. The return air vent draws the air through the kitchen but through the attic which is wide open to the outdoors.

We just don't know what dust, debris, mold, insect junk may be up there in the attic, being stirred up and blown into the house each time the air conditioning system comes on. Further, cooling the attic may have caused condensation of warm moist air in some attic areas, leading to a moldy insulation or mold on wood problem that also may have been blowing into our home.

We have suffered high cooling costs (high electric bills), inadequate air conditioning, and indoor air quality worries that might explain some of our health issues, since the house was built. - [name withheld] June 2010

One-Way HVAC Air Duct Designs Make for High Heating or Cooling Costs

From a different building, here are photos (below left) of an air handler drawing all of its return air from a basement and another building in which supplemental return air was being taken from the crawl space.

Basement one way air duct (C) Daniel FriedmanBasement one way air duct (C) Daniel Friedman

 

These are examples of a "one way" heating or air conditioning duct design - all HVAC air originates in the basement and is "conditioned" before being blown into the building. This is the most costly and least healthy duct design. At Return Duct Air Leaks & What They Mean we summarize the impact of missing or open return air ducts.

Cooling or Heating Duct Retrofit Leaks in Old buildings

Photograph of companion to basement bypass Photograph of basement bypass to register in bath

Rusted out return duct (C) Daniel FriedmanThe photographs above as well as the rusted HVAC return duct system at left show what can happen when existing registers and in-wall ducts are re-used when installing updated air conditioning or heating ducts in a building or when no one has inspected the condition of the HVAC duct system for decades.

The photo with my hand (above left) shows us feeling an up-draft from the basement below this first floor bath even though the air conditioning system was not running. The second photograph (above right) shows the problem as seen from the basement.

The duct installer had simply pushed smaller-diameter new oval ducts up into the existing duct riser from the basement, leaving more than an inch of opening between the old rising duct and the new inserted duct. The result was leakage of cool air backwards into the basement when the central air conditioning system was running, and leakage of (moldy, smelly) basement air up into the living space through the same opening (by convection) when the air conditioning system was off.

A cure for the first two duct leaks shown above was to use some spray foam insulation to make a better seal at the basement ceiling as well as around the register in upper floor.

The photo at above left showing a rusted-out floor return duct system illustrates a common problem on older homes: rusted sheet metal that ultimately perforates. This interesting return air system also enjoyed picking up both crawl space air and, depending on wind direction, nice cold outdoor air from the crawl space vent visible in the lower portion of our photograph.

To correct the rusted-out return duct system that was using the space between floor joists as ductwork (common in older homes in North America) required removal and reconstruction of the return duct system.

Rooftop HVAC Duct System Leaks

Photograph of rooftop ducts leak water into fg lined duct Photograph of interior of leaked-into fg lined rooftop duct

The photos above illustrates leaks into a rooftop packaged-terminal air-conditioning air handler
(PTAC) and into horizontal runs of air-ducts are installed on a roof surface and when that air duct system is improperly sealed and also is lined with fiberglass insulation.

Details are at ROOFTOP HVAC UNITS

Tips for Spotting HVAC Duct Leaks

Leak stains indicate duct leaks ? (C) Daniel Friedman

In addition to the need for visual inspection you might detect HVAC duct leaks by

  • Hearing air leaks in or near the HVAC system ductwork - see AIR LEAK NOISES. Building occupants might also notice whistles, rushing sounds, or metallic rattling traced to loose, leaky, or disconnected metal ductwork.
  • Observing dust or debris stains along the HVAC duct route where air is blowing into or out of the system on return or supply ducts.

    Watch out: when you see condensation or other leak stains on HVAC ducts or on heating flues, further investigation is needed as unsanitary or unsafe conditions and/or improper system operation or condensate handling may be involved.
  • Observing condensate drip stains on HVAC duct exterior or on surfaces nearby
  • Observing a change in the level of airflow delivered at supply registers (note that there are multiple possible causes)
  • Observing a change in odors or indoor air quality for air delivered by or conditioned by the HVAC system
  • Observing an increase in heating or cooling operating costs that appears to be traced to longer run times for the heating or cooling system to satisfy the thermostat

Exposed spiral metal HVAC ducts (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Understanding the materials and methods used for a particular HVAC system can also improve your chances of finding where leaks are present. For example in the spiral metal HVAC ducts shown in our photo (above) the ducts contain few joints along the run - locations easily spotted; check particularly for proper connection and seal at transitions in duct diameter, elbows, and tees.
  • See RETURN DUCT AIR LEAKS for additional detail on leaks into the HVAC duct system
  • See SUPPLY DUCT AIR LEAKS for additional details and examples of leaks out of the HVAC duct system

Building Code Requirements & Standards for HVAC Duct Sealants or Duct Leak Seals or Tapes

Sealed ductwork (C) Daniel FriedmanIn addition to correcting obviously gross HVAC duct leaks such as missing ducts or damaged/disconnected ductwork, leaks at HVAC duct connections should also be sealed against leaks out (supply ducts) or leaks into the ductwork (return ducts). Both types of duct leaks increase building energy costs to heat or cool the structure and in the case of return duct leaks, health and environmental contaminants can also be introduced into the HVAC system by such leaks.

Authority for actually requiring that HVAC duct connections be sealed comes from model energy codes, building codes, and state or provincial adopted versions of those building code guidelines.

For example, the Residential Code of New York State requires that all HVAC ducts be sealed. We interpret this to mean all duct joints and any other leaks that might be observed along the run of HVAC duct work such as where flexible metal ductwork elbows or tees are installed or where flex-duct may have become damaged.

Home inspection associations point out in publications and training materials that while HVAC installers may comply with the intent of the model building or energy codes, we often observe that compliance only at recent or new duct installations. According to the Central New York ASHI Home Inspectors Association, quoting[13]

Code citation example for duct sealing requirement: NYS RM1601.3.1 Joints and Seams

These requirements apply to materials for the fabrication of air duct and air connector systems for use in accordance with the International Mechanical Code (IMC), International Residential Code (IRC), and Uniform Mechanical Code (IMC), Standards of the National Fire Protection Association for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems, NFPA No. 90A, and the Installation of Warm Air Heating and Air-Conditioning Systems, NFPA No. 90B. 1.1 revised October 27, 2008 [13][14]

  • Joints of duct systems shall be made substantially air-tight by means of tapes [e.g. duct tape rated to withstand the temperatures involved - Ed], mastics or gasketing.
  • Closure systems used with rigid fibrous glass ducts shall comply with UL 181 and shall be marked UL 181-P for heat-sensitive tape.
  • Closure systems used with flexible air ducts and flexible air connectors shall comply with UL 181-B and shall be marked "181-BX" for pressure sensitive tape [e.g. such as foil tape used on solid fiberglass foil-faced HVAC ducts - Ed], or "181-M" for mastic.
  • Duct connections to flanges of air distribution system equipment or sheet metal fittings shall be mechanically fastened [this means SMS, not just duct tape - Ed].
  • Crimp joints for round ducts shall have a contact lap of at least 1.5 inches (38mm) and shall be mechanically fastened by at least 3 sheet metal screws or rivets.

- Special thanks to ASHI Member Greg Harwood [Dec], CNY ASHI Observer, May 2006, re-published by that association in 2012.

More detailed suggestions of things to check in the duct system to improve airflow are at RETURN DUCT AIR LEAKS or at SUPPLY DUCT AIR LEAKS. Also see UNSAFE OPENINGS or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.

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