Good article, but it fails to point out that leaky return-side ducts could be drawing dust and allergens into the duct system from the enclosed spaces in which they run, e.g. between walls, below floors, attic. So duct cleaning may only be a temporary solution. The homeowner can get a home energy audit -- free in many states -- to determine if they have significant duct leakage. An Aeroseal dealer may be able to effectively seal up the duct system without needing to tear into walls etc to get to the ducts.
There is a lot of good, general information in the article. As with anything, the homeowner should do their due diligence in getting enough information to make an educated decision. Should duct-work be cleaned? YES! Does it need to be cleaned annually or even every second or third year? Not necessarily. It all depends on a bunch of variables. You're right that a well designed and balanced system will deliver the right amount of air flow, but sometimes conditions outside the home/business, make it a necessity to get the ducts cleaned. As for mold? NO filter is going to address a mold issue. If you have mold, you have a moisture issue that needs to be addressed. Also, in my 38 years of experience in the HVAC and sheet metal industries, washable filters are one of the reasons ducts need to be cleaned. They are no where near efficient in cleaning/filtering the air to the level that they should.
The amount of debris or mold present in your system could certainly ratchet up the overall price. The cost of mildew removal is around $0.07-0.08 per square foot, on top of your initial cost, according to Blue Book. Removing these elements involves added time, special equipment and even special chemicals. In fact, you may be referred to a specialist if mildew and mold is too severe.
I agree, if you replace (or wash depending on type) your air filters regularly AND vaccum, then you probably don't need the ducts or air coils cleaned. However, if you purchase a pre-owned home, and the previous owners did not regularly change the air filter or vaccum the home, then duct cleaning is worth the expense especially if you are sensitive to allergens. Especially if the previous owners had pets.
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Air duct cleaning implies cleaning of the conduits in the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system. It includes cleaning of supply and return air ducts, registers, grilles, diffusers, heat exchangers, heating and cooling coils, condensate drain pans, fan motor, fan housing, and air handling unit housing. These ducts gather particles of dust, pollen, and other debris. They can also become a hub of microbiological growth (e.g., mold) with the presence of moisture. Spores from such growth can get released into your living space and cause respiratory irregularities, autoimmune disorders, and some environmental allergies.
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The final cost of this service is best determined after a professional inspection. Many air duct cleaning companies build their prices based on individual services, while others offer package pricing which includes such components as the air conditioning and furnace. The following estimates can give you an idea of prices to expect for various services.
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?).