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How to Clean Air Vent Covers & Paint Old Heat Registers

The air vents in the house from which Hawk-Hill.com takes its namesake were crusted, dirty, and rusty. To restore the air vent covers, I cleaned them with two cycles in the dishwasher, some scrubbing with a steel brush, and then restored a beautiful finish using multiple light coats of metallic spray paint. The final result? Great looking vents that have a smooth, glossy surface that’s so much easier to keep clean.

Here’s how to navigate this article on cleaning and repainting heat vents:

Keep reading to learn how to transform the look of your home with a low-cost heat vent makeover.

This post was originally published back in the infancy of my blog – October 2012! Unfortunately, my DIY photography skills back in 2012 were also in their infancy, and after almost a decade of having this article online, those low-resolution photos didn’t serve this tutorial well.

Luckily, the need for air vent upgrades is a common one, so I recently had another opportunity to repeat this DIY. Because air vents are exposed to almost constantly flowing air, the metal seems to pit, scar, and rust much faster than metals and other parts of our homes. My suspicion is that much like metals used on boats or outdoors, moving air creates a much harsher environment for metal finishes.

Redoing this DIY

Faithful readers know I left Hawk Hill House in 2015 to relocate to Seattle for graduate school, and after graduating I returned to Missouri in 2021, this time settling in an urban neighborhood in St. Louis in a home I’ve affectionately nicknamed “Hawk Hill Cottage” as a throwback to the large farmhouse and acreage of the original Hawk Hill for which this blog is named.

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Settling in St. Louis, I purchased a 110-year-old cottage that had been lovingly renovated over 15 years by the previous owner. Although much care had been given to a renovation that involved gutting the house to the studs, the air vents were uninspired at best and kind of gross at worst. You can see in these images the registers, air intake, grills, and air vents ranged widely in condition from perfectly okay boring brown metal registers to rusty and corroded grilles.

Soon after moving in, I knew this was the opportunity I was looking for to redo my old tutorial on cleaning and painting, this time with high-quality photos and a simple step-by-step tutorial. Once the paint was dry this project was finished and I was THRILLED! A complete makeover for my vents for only the price of 1/8th of a can of spray paint. I used Rustoleum’s Oil Rubbed Bronze for an upscale take on a basic spray paint finish.

Here’s the original step-by-step guide, updated for 2022 with new photos, materials, and clearer descriptions.

How to Deep Clean Air Vents

When you live in an old house, certain things just look old, and with time and busy schedules, often they don’t get cleaned, replaced, or even noticed. The vents in the back section of Hawk Hill fell into this category:  rusty, corroded, and I’m afraid to admit what that white cobweb-type stuff might contain. One evening I noticed how rough these vents looked and I decided to remedy them.

(Well, That’s not totally true. Actually, I noticed them, then researched how much it would cost to replace all the air vents in my house, and THEN I decided to attempt to clean them up! )

First, Wipe or Rinse off Surface Debris

If there’s a lot of loose debris, rust, or pet hair on/in your air vent, start the vent cleaning process by rinsing off this surface layer, or wiping it down with a damp rag.

Next, Run Through a Dishwasher with Citric Acid

The dishwasher is the fastest way to deep clean air vents, and an additional tablespoon of citric acid in with the wash will even tackle rust on your heat grilles and registers.

It’s a good idea NOT to wash stuff this gross with regular dishes that you eat from. (Sometimes I just dedicate a dishwasher load to utility items like air vents,  dog bowls, tools, flea market-bound recycling-center glass, and empty planters.) If you’ve read much on my blog, you know that I think Citric Acid fixes just about any cleaning problem- so toss a tablespoon or two in your dishwasher to get an extra deep clean.

heat vent grills loaded in a dishwasher.

Lastly, Remove Corrosion with a Steel Brush

After the vent was clean, I realized how rusty my vents actually were, and that it was the rust that was collecting dust particles which, combined with summer air conditioning moisture, created more rust and general gunk. If you notice rust on your air vents, scrub off rust and corrosion with a steel brush, (if you are dealing with a lot of rust, check out my no-scrub rust removal remedy ). Rinse thoroughly or run the vents through another dishwasher cycle and then let the vents dry completely overnight.

ba753-blog_12_vent_01_450

If you don’t have a steel brush get one- they are fab! Don’t look in the grill section- grill brushes are marked way up, but simple, cheap steel brushes can be found in the paint scraping tool section of your hardware store.

How to Repaint Air Vents with a Metallic Finish Spray Paint

Once your vents are clean and any rough spots on the surface sanded smooth, it’s time to repaint to really get the WOW-experience of taking vents from grungy to brand new-looking.

2. Select & Purchase Paint

While you’ll find a whole section of this article on tips for what color to paint your heat registers, this decision should be made before progressing. In these photos, you’ll see Rustoleum’s Universal Metallic line: Oil Rubbed Bronze (the 2012 project) and Gunmetal Grey (2021) registers.

2. Set up a Painting Space

Professional results from spraypainting only require a few small preparations. First, choose a well-ventilated area that is not exposed to wind, and lay down cardboard or paper to protect nearby surfaces from overspray. Never spraypaint indoors.

Working inside a half-broken-down cardboard box to protect my driveway and contain over-spray, I began painting my vents.

3. Paint in Multiple Light Coats

The key to beautifully repainted vents that look like they have a factory finish is to not rush the painting process. The best results come when I really shake my spray paint cans well and then paint my vents with several light coats from many angles.

Paint from many angles. Paint from one angle, let dry, then paint from another angle, let dry, etc. Lots of very light coats of paint from many angles help ensure that paint covers every surface that might show when someone walked past, over, or around the vent. Light coats help prevent paint from running and pooling in areas that got over-sprayed while I was trying to reach hidden spots.

Carefully paint the open/close mechanism. Commenters on this post have asked, wisely, about how the open/close mechanism inside a heat vent works after repainting. I’ve painted about a dozen vents using this method- light coats repeated over and over-and never had an issue with smooth open/close afterward. The key is preventing heavy overspray from pooling around the mechanism of the closure.

How to choose a paint color for your HVAC vents

There are so many types and colors of spray paint on the market that a project like this – often without an obvious answer to what color you should choose – can feel overwhelming. Don’t worry, I have some tips on how to choose the perfect paint color for repainting heat vents, return air grilles, and antique-style registers.

1. Decide whether to Choose a New Color or Repaint the Old One

Choose whether you want to match or change the original color. If you like the color of your vents but not their damaged finish, choose a paint color that matches the existing color (the best way to get a match is to take the vent with you to the hardware store to buy paint.) If you find the current color of your heat vents to be a bit of an eyesore, jump to the next step.

2. Decide on a Color Family

Once you’ve decided you want a different color finish for your heat vents, the task of choosing a paint color gets real. I recommend evaluating two things when choosing a finish for your repainted heat vents:


A. Existing metals in your home. While metal finishes can be mixed successfully, many homes have one metal that is repeated consistently throughout the home. If, for example, all your doorknobs and light fixtures are rubbed oil bronze, then it’s a clue rubbed oil bronze paint might work well on your repainted vent- except you still need to consider B.


B. Before automatically choosing a matching finish, consider the floor or wall surrounding each heat vent. If the metal used in other areas of your home would create an eyesore if placed in this particular spot, then it is best to choose a paint color that will blend in, rather than match.

For example, on my gray-toned pergo laminate floor, the antique gold used for fixtures in the rest of the house would have awkwardly drawn the eye to heat vents in the floor. By painting them, instead, with Rustoleum’s Gunmetal Grey, I was able to help my utilitarian heat vents visually blend into the floor.

3. Find a Metallic Spray Paint in the Finish You’ve Selected

After you’ve decided what color tone you’ll use to match, complement, or blend your heat vents with their surroundings, it’s time to choose paint.

Hands down, the best paint for repainting air vents are colors in Rustoleum’s Universal Metallic line. The colors available range from metallic brass, copper, gold, gunmetal gray, rubbed oil bronze, and stainless steel, but also include flat colors with a little bit of a metallic sheen like flat soft iron, flat chestnut, and matte grey.

This is an easy project that only takes about 10 minutes total of hands-on work for each vent- maybe less! A bit more time is involved in waiting for the vents to dry after washing and again for the paint to dry. This project can be done in a weekend- perhaps even in a day.

Giving old air vents new life with special cleaning and refinishing

Final Thoughts

This post on updating air vents (a.k.a. grills or registers) was one of the first posts on hawk-hill.com. I love to tell how quick and easy it is to update my registers for virtually no cost. So when I moved into a cottage in urban St. Louis with gross, icky floor registers, I knew exactly what to do.

And since my picture-taking skills in 2010 are very different than 2022, I decided to record my repeat of this classic old DIY project. As you can see, the results were every bit as dramatic as the first time around. I am confident that when the cottage sells in a few years, the buyers will be impressed with these modern-looking gunmetal gray vents and registers.

Cheryl

Monday 31st of January 2022

Doesn't the mechanism to open and close vent after spraying not work?

Lindsayanne Brenner

Monday 31st of January 2022

I've cleaned and repainted over a dozen of these vents, and had no issues opening and closing the vent after painting. The trick is to not overdo it on the spraypaint. Several very light coats can sufficiently recolor the surface of the metal without creating a thick buildup that will prevent smooth opening and closing.

Lynda

Tuesday 20th of February 2018

You are just full of good ideas! Tackling those nasty bathroom vents today.