7 Toxic Signs of Black Mold in Air Vents (Early Stage Symptoms)

signs of black mold in air vents

One of the most disturbing things that you can encounter as a homeowner or tenant is the possibility of your air vents being contaminated with mold.

When I was inspecting homes for buyers, I frequently discovered mold growth inside the HVAC system when I pulled off the front cover.

And since mold needs moisture, darkness, and food to survive and thrive — the HVAC system is the perfect breeding ground. If you are wondering about the ‘food source’ for mold, it is usually in the form of common household dust.

Toxic Signs of Mold in Air Vents

  • Black dust surrounding the HVAC vent covers
  • Observable mold inside the air handler
  • Musty odor around the home
  • Brain fog and confused thinking
  • Inexplicable fatigue
  • Allergic symptoms like sneezing, itchy skin, and runny nose
  • Upper respiratory tract symptoms like coughing and wheezing

1. Black Dust On The Air Vents

If you see black dust on the surface of an air vent that can’t be easily cleaned—it is likely a species of mold or mildew, and an early sign of black mold in the air vents. If mold is inside your air duct system, the spores can get blown to the vents, and eventually end up as a black dust.

Also, mold can start growing on the air vents themselves because dust accumulates on the surface — which is a food source. Cleaning the visible mold on vents is recommended because the mold may release spores into the air, possibly causing harmful health issues.

signs of black mold in air vents
The black dust on the air vent louvers is mold. Mold in ductwork can get distributed to the room vents and throughout the home.

Read Also: How Much Are Home Inspections For Mold?

2. Visible Mold Inside The Air Handler

Besides mold growing on the surface of air vents, it can also grow on the inside of your central HVAC unit and ductwork. Mold will have a darkish or white appearance and it is really hard to mistake it for anything else. Just be sure not to mistake it for drywall dust which is very common with new homes.

You may have a furnace and A/C combo, or you may have a heat pump. Whatever system you have, the HVAC air handler is a central area for where mold can grow and get distributed throughout your entire home.

Why does it grow in HVAC air handlers?

Mold tends to grow in furnaces and air handlers because they are an area where a lot of moisture forms, and they frequently get very dusty (dust is a food source for mold). When I was home inspecting, I always took off the HVAC cover, and probably at least 1 in 10 homes had mold growth inside the air handler.

signs of black mold in air vents
Mold growing inside a furnace. The mold is growing on the insulation, in the blower fan, on the evaporator coil — pretty much everywhere.

3. Musty Odor

If you smell a musty odor, this is an unmistakable early sign of mold. Especially if you get the musty smell when your HVAC system turns on — this is a sign of mold in the system.

When I do home inspections and there is a early stage mold problem (such as in the basement), the first thing I notice is that distinctive musty smell — a very ‘earthy’ fragrance.

Read Also: How To Get Rid of Mold in a Basement?

4. Brain Fog

Brain fog may be an early sign of black mold in the air vents. A recent study pointed out that brain fog was as common as getting symptoms of the respiratory tract.

5. Fatigue

If you have inexplicable tiredness, it may be a symptom of mold in the ductwork. If you also noticed fatigue when you turn on the HVAC system, it may be from contaminated air ducts.

6. Allergic Symptoms

Some of the most common symptoms of mold exposure is allergic issues such as itchy eyes and skin, and a stuffy nose. Mold can also make your eyes and skin inflamed with a reddish color.

I once was exposed to toxic mold after coming back from a vacation. The refrigerator turned off, and mold grew everywhere in the fridge. While cleaning it out, I had this itchy sensation all over my skin.

7. Upper Respiratory Tract Symptoms

Studies have also shown that mold exposure can lead to upper respiratory tract problems. Things like coughing, wheezing, and even hypersensitivity pneumonitis in vulnerable people.

If you have asthma, mold can make it worse and even trigger asthma.

Read Also: How To Prevent Mold in Air Conditioners?

Common Types of Mold in the Air Ducts

There are numerous types of mold that can be found growing in HVAC systems and for final confirmation, sending a sample to the lab will likely be necessary — but here are a few of the most common types…

1. Stachybotrys chartarum (black mold)

Black mold technically refers to a type of mold species called stachybotrys chartarum. Stachybotrys is rarely found in the wild, and it will only grow with a specific environment such as very high moisture, low nitrogen, low competition (from other molds), and no sunlight.

Black toxic mold (stachybotrys) is also commonly associated with flood or water damaged homes. Recently, S. chartarum has been associated with sick building syndrome.

2. Aspergillus

Aspergillus is one of the most common family of molds (genus) found indoors and can take on a wide spectrum of colors. This type of mold can be difficult to identify to the varied colors and forms. The most common colors are yellow, green and white.

For those with weakened immune systems, aspergillus can cause an infection in the lungs or sinuses (which may spread to other areas of the body).

3. Ulocladium

This is also a common indoor mold that could grow in air ducts. This mold has a leather-like texture and can be brown, gray, or greenish black. Ulocladium is frequently found growing alongside other types of mold such as stachybotrys.

4. Acremonium

Acremonium is a genus of mold (variety of species) that takes a long time to grow (months or years) and it takes on a white powdery appearance. This mold family is generally gray, white, or pink in color. Another common feature of this mold in that in the beginning it is compact and moist.

5. Mucor

Mucor is a ‘genus’ of over 40 different species of mold and it is commonly found growing in HVAC systems. It usually takes on a white, brownish, or gray color and it is very fast growing type of mold.

Read Also: The Best Moisture Meters For Home Inspectors (Review)

Cleaning Mold From The Air Duct System

1. Clean The Air Vent Covers

Sometimes the air vent covers (HVAC registers) can get covered in mold and they should be cleaned. HVAC air vents are also pretty cheap. I think it is a good idea to consider buying new vent covers if your vents are very old, rusted, and moldy.

How to clean air vent covers?

You may be able to just clean it in place with a cloth and disinfectant spray. If you need to remove the vent to properly clean it, they are pretty easy to remove. It’s usually just two screws that hold it in place. After removing the vent, thoroughly wash it with a brush and dish detergent. After cleaning the air vent, let it dry. I also recommend coating the air vent with a sealing spray paint such as Kilz which will help prevent new mold growth.

2. Air Duct Cleaning

If you noticed mold inside of your air handler or ductwork, you should get your air ducts cleaned by a qualified mold remediation company. Air duct cleaning uses either powered brushes or compressed air tools to clean the deep recesses of your air vents.

When having your air ducts cleaned, it is important to make sure that they thoroughly clean the central furnace or air handler. Specifically they will need to clean the…

  1. Blower fan (will probably need to remove it)
  2. Housing/plenum
  3. Motor
  4. Evaporator coil (may need to remove it)

When hiring an air duct cleaning or mold remediation company, I recommend doing some research on the company, preferably read some reviews or get some references. Also, you may want to get 2-3 quotes before actually hiring a company for the job. Typically, air duct cleaning can cost anywhere from $300 to $700 depending on the size of the home. Sanitization of the ducts usually costs extra.

Read Also: 7 Pictures of Mold in Air Ducts

3. Sanitization or ‘Fogging’ of Air Ducts

If you are certain your air ducts were contaminated with mold, then having your air vents sanitized with a fogger is recommended.

Typically, it is air duct cleaning companies who sanitize air duct systems by spraying a disinfectant aerosol into the HVAC ductwork. This aerosol is usually made from plant-based ingredients and is harmless to humans (totally breathable). It also has a nice fragrance and will make your home smell great.

Always clean air ducts first BEFORE sanitization

It is important that you have your air ducts and furnace cleaned of any mold prior to sanitizing your air ducts. If you just sanitize your air ducts without cleaning, then the mold my get killed but it will then turn into a toxic dust that can get blown throughout the home.

Air duct cleaning prior to sanitization prevents mold from degrading into a fine toxic dust. An air duct cleaning company may charge anywhere from $100 to $300 for this extra step of air duct ‘fogging’.

Air Duct Mold Prevention

Here are a few ways to help prevent mold from taking root in your air vents…

Regular Filter Changes To Reduce Dust

It’s important to change your filter on a regular basis — I usually recommend replacing the HVAC filter monthly. I recently did a home inspection where there was mold growing on some of the air vents, and I noticed that the filter hasn’t been changed in over a year! (You can also read my guide on the best furnace filters that can capture mold right here.)

People don’t understand that dust is a food source for mold. Dust is mainly composed of dead skin cells which mold loves to eat. As the dust builds up on your air vent, and combined with the natural moisture from the air conditioned air — sometimes mold takes hold and grows.

HVAC UV Lights To Kill Mold

I usually recommend installing a UV light for the HVAC system. A UV light is a light bulb that is on 24-hours a day (or when the furnace is on) with a special light frequency called UV-C. (You can read my reviews of the best HVAC UV lights here.)

This special frequency has been proven to kill mold, mildew, and even viruses by disrupting their DNA and inhibits their ability to reproduce. Hospitals have been using ultraviolet light for years to disinfect operating rooms and other infected areas.

These light bulb systems are installed on the furnace duct, either on the supply or return side and will help prevent any future mold growth.

Some UV light systems only come on when the HVAC turns on (saving energy and extending the life of the bulb) such as UV lights made by a company named OdorStop. OdorStop UV Lights come with 6-ft power cords, install templates, and rubber gaskets (for a tight seal). You can view the latest price of OdorStop UV Lights right here.

A Properly Draining A/C

signs of black mold in air vents
Rusting and water stains are signs of a poorly draining HVAC system

It’s important to make sure that your air conditioner is draining moisture (condensate) to the drain and away from the unit. If there is standing water in your air handler because the drain pan or condensate piping isn’t sloped correctly, then this will feed mold growth in the unit.

I can’t even tell you how many times I have seen A/C drain pans that have had issues. Below is a picture of a backup drain pan (there is another drain pan inside) in an attic that is heavily rusted because of standing water.

Insulate All Air Ducts in Unconditioned Spaces

If you have an older home that has uninsulated air ducts in rooms without air conditioned air such as in the attic or in a crawlspace, then due to the temperature differences, these sections of air ducts may be contributing a significant amount of moisture into the air.

It would be a good idea to insulate these air ducts to prevent excessive moisture buildup which may be contributing to mold growth.

I once inspected a garage that had an uninsulated duct going through a garage ceiling. A significant amount of moisture condensed in the ceiling and led to the entire garage getting covered in mold.

A Defective Whole House Humidifier

Many homes have whole house humidifiers, which are great products that will add needed moisture into the air during the cold weather months. However, if you have never cleaned the evaporator panel, or if the unit isn’t working properly, then whole house humidifiers can contribute a large amount of moisture into your furnace or air duct system — which can lead to mold growth.

Always change the evaporator panel or pad every year before usage and make sure that it is draining properly and not adding too much moisture into the air. You can read my full guide on how whole house humidifiers can lead to mold issues here.

Plumbing Leaks Or Exterior Rainwater

You should be on the lookout for leaks from plumbing pipes or from the outside that may be adding moisture to your HVAC system.

During my home inspections, the most frequent cause of water or moisture into the home is from poor exterior grading — which means that the ground slopes towards the home rather than away. For the first ten feet from the home, the ground should gradually slope away from the home at least seven inches.

Besides poor grading, it’s important to make sure that the downspouts drain water away at least several feet away from the home — the easiest way to fix this problem is to install downspout extensions.

Use a moisture meter to find leaks

If you suspect that your basement walls has excessive moisture, or that there may be a plumbing leak near the air vent, a very handy tool to use is called a moisture meter. A moisture meter will detect very small amounts of moisture and you can check a large area very quickly.

Two Types of Mold Testing

There are two main mold tests in the industry—swab tests for visible mold growing on surfaces — and air tests for spores in the air.

Air testing is when home inspectors or contractors use controlled volume air pumps to sample the air for mold spores. We usually take at least one air test per home level and one outside as the control sample.

After we take the air tests, we seal the tests and ship them to a laboratory for testing. The test results will tell you the estimated number of mold spores per cubic meter of air, as well as the different species of mold discovered.

Swab Or Surface Tests

The second way to test mold is by using a swab test which is only performed for visible mold. There are basically two options, you can have a home inspector (or other home pro) swab it and send it to a lab — or you can use a home test.

If it is just a small area of mold, or if it isn’t too concerning yet, you may just want to try an at home test. The DIY Mold Test provides three surface tests, an inspection booklet, and includes the lab and report (shipping to lab not included). You can view the latest price of the DIY Mold Test right here.

When I take a swab test, I basically take a cotton swab or clear tape and take a physical sample of the suspected mold. This sample is also sent to a certified laboratory which will tell my client if it is mold, and what species. It will not tell you the amount of spores in the air however.

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Arie Van Tuijl

Arie Van Tuijl

I am a licensed home inspector in two U.S. states and the founder of Home Inspector Secrets. After performing hundreds of inspections, and seeing thousands of house defects, I realized people would love to have an online resource dedicated to home maintenance. I write detailed home guides and product reviews sprinkled with inspection tips. You can read my bio here.

About Home Inspector Secrets

Home Inspector Secrets is an online resource for owners, buyers, and sellers to understand all aspects of home maintenance. We have detailed home guides, product reviews, inspection advice, and much more.

Other Home Guides

Looking to learn more about home maintenance? Check out our other informative home product reviews and guides!