Vinick calls air duct cleaning an essential part of home maintenance, akin to mopping and vacuuming. "It’s like changing the oil in your car,” he says. “If you don’t change the oil, you’re going to have a problem. When your components are loaded up with debris, the system has to work harder. When you remove that debris, you get energy consumption savings.”
As a homeowner and an owner of rental property I can tell you that the air ducts sometimes need to be cleaned. If you have had pets or anyone smoking in your home (even a visitor) for any length of time, having the ducts cleaned is really good idea. I had a tenant who did not smoke, but got married to a smoker more than year after moving in. When I realized someone was smoking I had them move out, but the smell was awful. I had the ducts cleaned and sanitized (it was a bit extra). The ducts were shiny like new afterwards. I left the windows open for a few days and we cleaned the place super clean and then replaced the carpets. The duct cleaning was worth every penny because the house looked, smelled, and felt new afterward. I plan to have my own house ducts cleaned again this year as we have two cats. We had them cleaned about 12 years ago and they found building materials in the ducts! If you move into a house that has never had them cleaned, it is good to do it. If you have allergies, clean the ducts to see if it helps. You never know what is in your ducts if you have never had them cleaned.
Air duct cleaning service providers may tell you that they need to apply chemical biocide to the inside of your ducts as a means to kill bacteria (germs) and fungi (mold) and prevent future biological growth. They may also propose the application of a "sealant" to prevent dust and dirt particles from being released into the air or to seal air leaks. You should fully understand the pros and cons of permitting application of chemical biocides or sealants. While the targeted use of chemical biocides and sealants may be appropriate under specific circumstances, research has not demonstrated their effectiveness in duct cleaning or their potential adverse health effects. No chemical biocides are currently registered by EPA for use in internally-insulated air duct systems (see Should chemical biocides be applied to the inside of air ducts?).
On the other hand, if family members are experiencing unusual or unexplained symptoms or illnesses that you think might be related to your home environment, you should discuss the situation with your doctor. EPA has published the following publications for guidance on identifying possible indoor air quality problems and ways to prevent or fix them.
You may consider having your air ducts cleaned simply because it seems logical that air ducts will get dirty over time and should be occasionally cleaned. Provided that the cleaning is done properly, no evidence suggests that such cleaning would be detrimental. EPA does not recommend that the air ducts be cleaned routinely, but only as needed. EPA does, however, recommend that if you have a fuel burning furnace, stove or fireplace, they be inspected for proper functioning and serviced before each heating season to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning.