Replacing a Central Air Conditioner Return Vent Cover

Both central air conditioning return vent covers were smashed. Oddly smashed. I could almost picture a toddler on a Fisher Price trike having a blast slamming into them repeatedly… because nothing else really seemed to fit the damage I was seeing.

But no matter what really happened, we were preparing the home for rental in a beautiful neighborhood, and the return vent covers definitely had to be replaced. They were the largest returns in the home, unfortunately, and the grills each held HVAC filters too. So, they were going to be a little expensive. But they were unsightly. And since we were painting the entire home interior as well, the timing was perfect to do everything once and right.

The return vents in any HVAC system can take on many different forms/shapes and will be found in numerous locations throughout the home. In essence, return vents are for air being pulled back into the air conditioning (and heating) system. It’s not uncommon to hear the terms register, grill or return somewhat interchangeably – but generally speaking, the HVAC system ducts are covered with grills – and those grilled ducts that are used to pull air back into the system are the returns.

Home Rehab Surprises

At first glance, when arriving at the home, things didn’t really look so terrible.

There was nothing functionally wrong with the HVAC return vent covers. But as always with rehab efforts, the more you get into the home, under the sinks, into the attic, trying all of the plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets and appliances – the more you discover.

Original HVAC Return Vent Covers

It can frankly be a fun process, as long as the discoveries stay within budget and aren’t too terrible, of course…

(A tree root through the sewer line, for example: NOT Cool!)

But opening the first return vent cover to remove the HVAC air filter made it even more clear, these were both well-worth replacing. Not only were they banged up so much that they had warped the filters within, but they were just plain dirty. Not something I would want in my home.

Original HVAC Return Vent Cover and Filter

Finding and Buying Replacement Return Vent Covers

One of the many hardware store runs easily provided the right return vent covers, shown at the bottom of the cart below along with a package of replacement air filters just on top. We were addressing a long list of replacements and repairs at this home as it had been vacant for several months and we really wanted to clean and spruce it up; the hardwood flooring [transition] strip and new light fixture you can also see were just a couple of the other items.

With return vent covers, I find it’s prudent to not-only bring photos and dimensions – but to also have one of the original covers with you as well. I had one of the damaged covers out in the truck; I wanted to make 100% sure I was getting exactly what was needed because there can be a lot of variations with these covers. If you have the time (I didn’t), you can definitely even order these on line in advance, with your original vent cover in hand. Scanning all the buyer reviews, naturally, before committing to a final purchase; I absolutely love Amazon for this reason.

Shopping for HVAC Register Return Covers and Filters

One of my nice, new and meticulously clean replacement return vent covers is shown below, leaning against the freshly painted wall. I’m now ready to begin the replacement.

New Central Air Conditioner HVAC Return Cover

Removing the Damaged Return Vent Covers

In hindsight, I really should have removed both of the damaged return vent covers before the walls were painted. But given the way things unfolded on this project, that wasn’t an option – and so I had to be particularly careful with the new paint. And frankly, even if we didn’t repaint the walls, it’s always prudent to score the paint with a sharp razor knife before trying to pull off any kind of fixture like this, otherwise the paint could tear – and you could end up with something else to fix.

Separating Paint Cleanly for HVAC Return Cover Installation

I know that sometimes it’s not easy to catch subtle damage in photos, but in the shot above you can see a bit more on how dented up these HVAC return vent covers really were. How the heck could this really have happened?

(It looks like it was hit with a baseball bat to me!)

The old covers are both removed, each held in by a few wood screws to the studs behind, and now it’s time to install the new replacement covers.

HVAC Return Vent Cover Installation

HVAC Return Vent Cover Installation Seating Preparation

The covers are positioned and some pilot holes are drilled into the wood behind.

Fortunately for me, the new covers covered up the paint color discontinuity completely, so I didn’t have to worry at all about the difference. This saves me about 10 minutes of touch up painting… and, hey, we’ll take it!

Drilling Pilot Holes for HVAC Return Cover Replacement

The wood screws are installed, securing the new cover nicely…

Central Air Conditioner Primary Return Vent Cover Installation

Once in place, these particular HVAC return vent covers hinge outward as shown – and the system air filters are held firmly within the outer grill.

Final Seated HVAC Return Cover

HVAC Air Filter Considerations

Now, with the air filters, there are only a few things to be concerned with. First, you have to be sure you get the right size of course – and the air filters are all very prominently marked as you can see below. But here again, there are many, many variants – so be careful you truly get exactly the right size. The old air filter, as filthy as it may be, is the best source of the sizing.

(HVAC air filters aren’t always installed within the return vent covers as we found in this particular home, by the way. They can very commonly be installed within your furnace as well, making this part of my particular installation irrelevant in some cases – but it’s still worth pointing out here.)

HVAC Air Filter

In addition to the size, the air filters come in various grades as well.

The filter shown above is primarily for dust, and it’s a pleated air filter which is quite common. But there are higher grades for particular allergens as well. And in all cases, there will be a replacement interval recommendation which should be taken seriously, especially for the higher grade HVAC air filters. One tip that’s well worth considering: when you install a new air filter, write the date on it. In this way, when you go to replace it 45 or 60 days later – you can be sure your timing is correct.

Prep for Final HVAC Return Cover and Filter Install

The final thing which is VERY important is the seating of the HVAC air filter. They must be installed for proper air flow – and as you can see below, there will be a directional indication marked on the filter itself. Be sure to install your air filter, whether within an HVAC return vent cover or elsewhere, in the proper direction.

HVAC Filter Return Cover Seating Direction

Once seated properly, everything should be nice and snug.

The return vent cover is mounted securely to the studs supporting the vent, and the air filter is firmly in place (but not warped in any way) within the supporting portion of the cover.

HVAC Return Cover and Filter Final Installation

Closing things up for both new HVAC return vent covers conceals all of the internal detail, and we’re good to go for the new tenants. Fresh paint, new air filters – and brand new [aesthetically “boring” but no longer ugly and dirty] vent covers.

That are NOT to be used for target practice anymore.

(Hopefully.)

HVAC Return Cover with Internal Filter Final Installation

What the heck could really have banged up those covers like that??

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