Five Mistakes New Duct Cleaners Make

November 11, 2006
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Our company is a pretty big operation as air duct cleaners go. We've got a fleet of 15 giant power vacuum trucks, and we do thousands of residential air duct cleanings year in and year out.

We've been cleaning air ducts for a long time - since 1969 in fact - so we've had lots of time to make mistakes, but we've been able to learn from them. A lot of our competitors, however, have not. We've seen scores and scores of local providers open shop, run for a short while and then disappear. From my experience and observations, then, here are the five most common mistakes that cause new duct cleaners to fail.

1. No Preparation Required

The most common mistake new providers make is thinking there is no preparation required. When we started up there were maybe five providers serving the whole region. Now there are almost 300. In a fiercely competitive market like ours, winging it is a recipe for early failure.

If you're thinking about going into air duct cleaning, you better find a reliable mentor and get some formal training so you can hit the ground running. Even then, it will be a struggle. But at least you will have a clear idea how to do the work properly; what equipment to buy; how to approach maintenance, repair and replacement; who to hire; how to advertise; how to get referrals; what to do about licensing, certification and insurance; and a lot more (when you think about it like that, it's a miracle any of the local startups survive).

2. Underpowered Equipment

Another common mistake newbies make is believing that underpowered equipment is good enough. Time after time we have seen new providers advertising duct cleaning and come to discover they are using cheap, small portable vacuum units that are little more than shop vacs. A great number of customers have seen the giant power vacuum trucks operating in their neighborhoods, and the comparison is obvious and devastating to the companies using this inadequate equipment. People talk, after all, and word gets around.

Some startup duct cleaners have tried to get around this by bolting a portable into a van or pickup and advertising it as "truck-mounted" equipment. Others purchase portable equipment and attach a rotating brush to the end of the vacuum hose. But people aren't stupid, and they can see the difference. Why do these providers sabotage themselves from the beginning? What they needed to do was to purchase a giant power vacuum truck, the largest and most powerful equipment available on the market, and advertise it heavily.

Other equipment is important too. A startup company has to outfit each truck with all the tools the job demands, including brushes, whips and snakes. And it's not just the truck that needs outfitting: the technician has to have a clean uniform. Torn jeans and Megadeth t-shirts are a bad idea.

3. Training and Certification

A third mistake startups make again and again is not providing training for their technicians and not requiring third-party certification. What they seem to forget is that this kind of work is not the mindless repetition of a few simple procedures. Every house is different, and the technician has to be someone who can think on his feet and adapt standard procedures to fit the circumstances of each home.

We have heard countless stories of a person being hired off the street, working with another technician for one day and being on his own the next. To make matters worse, the technician he was with for that day received no better training than he did, so it was the blind leading the blind. This approach will fail. It takes time for even an uncommonly bright and motivated person to learn every correct procedure.

We give the technician-trainee six intensive, hands-on weeks of training (think "air duct boot camp"). And even then, we don't send a new technician out alone. He works with a more senior and experienced technician until we're sure he's ready. Additionally, our technicians are required to become certified by NADCA as Air System Cleaning Specialists within a fixed time after hiring.

Our techs must also be certified by the State of Michigan as a Pesticide Applicator, so they can perform sanitizing treatments on ductwork. Both certifications require study and the passing of a test based on a published, public standard. And even with all this careful training and preparation our guys still make mistakes and have to go back and do jobs over. What do you suppose it's like for these startups that don't pay so much attention to training?

One more thing on hiring technicians. Not only does the technician have to become expert in the procedures involved in duct cleaning, he is also the human face of the company for every single customer, and therefore must be a communicator. No matter how technically proficient he is, a technician who is not warm and enthusiastic around customers will leave them with a poor impression of your company.

Not exactly the image of success, is it?

4. Licensing

Why in the world would you ignore licensing and insurance requirements? Each state has its own requirements, and whatever they are, a startup company is better off to find out what is needed and get it done. True, regulators and law enforcement do not usually go after the smaller fish in the pond. But you can't - and shouldn't - count on that. Just one fine from the state could easily break the bank. In any event, it's a lot cheaper to get the credentials and protection the law and good sense require than it would be to be punished for going without.

5. Galloping Off in All Directions

New air duct cleaners often try to be all things to all people, instead of just focusing on air duct cleaning. This business has a discipline built into it; it has to be learned. Some companies in our region actually try to also provide carpet cleaning, chimney sweeping, wall washing, tile and grout cleaning, painting, upholstery cleaning, deck cleaning and so on. First, they are almost sure to fail to ever truly excel at duct cleaning because their focus, energy, and investment are so fragmented. Second, trying to find a way to convince customers that they could be good at all these different things is tough. And this business is tough enough without creating new barriers you and your ads have to climb over. The danger faced by a "we-specialize-in-everything" startup is ending up a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.

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