Monday, March 29, 2010

Choosing A Cold Air Return Vent Cover For A Hole That Is Too Big (or Small)

A few years ago, while completing a home remodeling project, I ran into a problem that frustrates many homeowners who are replacing worn or ugly vent covers. I discovered the hole that my floor grate was covering was an unusual size. In my situation, the opening in the floor was 12" x 30". Today we look at the options I considered for covering this unusually large air return opening.

Before we begin, it is important to remember to measure the size of the opening before purchasing an air return grille or heat register. Most surface mounted vent covers have a base that drops into the opening. If the base on the vent cover is larger than the opening in your floor, the base will not fit flush in the opening and the grille will not lay flat on the floor.

When my home was built, it was heated by a coal burning furnace in the basement. There were baseboard registers in most rooms but in the middle of the home was the large floor grate that still functioned as a cold air return for the current forced air furnace and air conditioner. The grate was broken in a few places and covered with several layers of chipping paint. Given the age of the grate, it is likely that at least one layer of paint was lead based. The grate was beyond repair so restoration was quickly eliminated as an option.

Next, I considered replacing the old floor grate with a new grille but I could not find an air return grille to fit a 12" x 30" opening. I considered a custom grille but custom manufacturing of grilles and registers can often be prohibitively expensive.

With a limited budget, I considered make due with the best fitting grille I could find. If the opening was only a fraction bigger than the inside dimensions of the air return grille I had selected, I simply could have chosen a grille with screw holes and secured it in place with screws. Or, I could have resized the opening to fit the grille. For example, an opening that was 5-3/4" wide could be extended a quarter inch so a common 6" wide grille would fit into the opening. Or, if the opening were 4-1/2" wide, a quarter inch shim could be used on each side to shrink the opening to fit a standard 4" wide vent cover. However, the opening in my floor was far from a fraction off. The closest matching air return grille was 6” shorter than the hole I was covering.

My final option was to use multiple grilles placed end-to-end. This strategy is frequently used with long narrow duct openings (e.g., 4” wide x 48” long). To cover my 12" x 30" air return opening, I selected two 12" x 12" Reggio Register cast iron grilles. I placed the grilles side-by-side with a 6” oak spacer between them to cover the gap. Rather one difficult to cover 12" x 30" opening, I now had two much easier to fit 12” x 12” openings that were 6” apart. My project involved refinishing the oak floors so when the project was complete, the oak spacer blended in perfectly with the refinished wood floors. The Reggio Register cast iron grilles and 6” spacer now look original to the home.

Replacing worn or ugly vent covers is typically a simple task that can pay huge dividends. The task can be as easy as lifting out the old and dropping in the new; unless, of course, the opening is an unusual size. However, this shouldn’t deter you from taking on the task. As we’ve seen, there are options and sometimes the solution simply requires a little ingenuity.

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