Monday, August 31, 2015

Noisy Vents Are 'Exhausting'

A dirty, noisy exhaust vent

When was the last time you turned on the exhaust vents in your ceilings?  "What exhaust vents?" you say.  Take a look at the ceiling of each room in your building.  Depending on how your HVAC system (heating, venting and air conditioning) was installed, you'll see anywhere from one to several little vents up there.  Unless your heating and air conditioning comes up from the floor (as ours does), you'll find all of the vents up there.  In the bathrooms and maybe even the laundry room or kitchen, you may also find another vent that doesn't blow air when the AC is on.  That's your exhaust vent. 

There should be a switch somewhere in that room that doesn't turn on a light when you flip it.  Go ahead and flip it on.  If you hear a gentle wooshing sound, that's good. That is the exhaust vent doing its job right.  On the other hand, if it sounds a bit more like your vacuum cleaner or worse yet, the garbage disposal in your sink, that's bad! The only thing worse is if it makes no sound at all. That means you need to call an electrician to come and see if the thing is even wired up properly and then if the thing works at all.  I have actually heard of people moving into a brand new home only to find out that some things, such as these vents or the exhaust vent over their stoves, weren't even wired up.  If you don't find a vent at all, you need to contact that electrician (maybe even a carpenter if there's no vent pipe at all) to install one.

"What do I need an exhaust for?" you ask.  Exhaust vents (sometimes known as 'fart fans') help to draw unpleasant odors out of a room. They are especially helpful in rooms without windows as bathrooms and laundry rooms often are.  If none of the windows in your building are open-able, there should be an exhaust vent in every room. 

Humidity isn't something that one thinks of worrying about when you live in the desert, but even here it can cause problems if it becomes excessive after everybody in the family has taken a shower especially.  Warm, sunless, humid environments, such as your bathroom, are great habitat for all sorts of fungi.  Mildew, that weird smell that damp stuff gets if it's been sitting around too long, is caused by fungi.  You can even get mold on the inside of your bathroom cabinets, bottom of your sink and surfaces of your toilette and tub/shower, even the back side of the wall board or 'sheet rock' in your bathroom over time if the room is never aired out.   

Exhaust vents also help to draw hot air out of rooms thus making them cooler.  As the warm air rises, it isn't trapped against the ceiling where it can then circulate back down to where people are if there is an exhaust vent to draw that hot air out.  Some designers call this concept a 'heat chimney' and are starting to install large ones in some of the more eco friendly buildings.  The buildings at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas are a prime example of how heat chimneys, in concert with ceiling fans and great insulation of walls and ceilings can cool buildings without hardly ever having to run air conditioners at all.  Even in our little modular home, we find that we don't have to run the AC as often if the exhaust fans and ceiling fans (adjusted so that they draw air up rather than blow air down) are on all day.  Those little motors that run them use much less electricity than the compressor for the AC does that's for sure. 

Maybe you know where your exhaust vents are, but don't use them any more than you absolutely have to because the things are so noisy that the annoying sound is stressful, even mentally exhausting to listen to.  If that's the case, it's past time they were cleaned.  Let's look at how to do that.

Once the cover is off, you can get to the actual vent

The first thing you have to do is reach the ceiling safely.  Find a sturdy ladder (one that won't make you shake like a leaf once you get up there) that is tall enough that you can stand on the second, better yet third, step from the top and still reach the vent without having to stretch your arms to their extreme and position it so that you won't be leaning over backward or too far forward to reach the vent.  If you don't own such a ladder, borrow one from somebody or buy one. Don't risk your safety by cobbling something together or stacking stuff on top of each other. 

Now that you are up there, remove the decorative/protective plate that covers the vent. Each manufacturer seems to need to have their own way of doing it.  If you aren't sure how to get it off, look it up in the manufacturer's manual.  Most likely, you won't have the physical manual there, but you can usually look it up on their website by doing a search for the manufacturer adding in terms such as 'exhaust fan' and 'manual' along with it.  This Broan exhaust fan has a weird wire hanging system that took a bit to figure out without breaking it. 


Be sure to shut off the wall switch then unplug the fan unit before doing anything else!

As soon as you get the cover off, unplug the power cord to the fan!  Sure, the wall switch is in the 'off' position, but it never hurts to be absolutely sure when it comes to dealing with electricity and things that spin really really fast.  Not worth the risk of getting hurt.  Unexpected, bad things like accidents are just that: unexpected.  The exhaust fan can't hurt you though if it isn't getting any power.

Get the big stuff with a vacuum cleaner
Then, get the harder to reach stuff with a pipe cleaner

The tools of choice are a vacuum (the most powerful one you have) with all of its extensions, the crevice tool and the brush tool followed by a sturdy pipe cleaner.  Be gentle with these things and don't hit any part of the housing or fan too hard.  If it won't come off with the vacuum attachments without smacking the housing with it, switch to the pipe cleaner and use back and forth motions as if you were brushing your teeth.  We want this thing clean, but not broken. 

Get in all the crevices on the front and back

This Pipe Cleaner made short work of the vent cover

Now, use the pipe cleaner to get in all those little cracks and crevices on the vent cover. Be sure to do both the front and back of it.  Not only will it look nice, but most importantly, the air will flow more efficiently into the exhaust.  The fan can not work its magic if the vent slots are plugged. That goes for lots of things including floor fans, AC air return panels, even the cooling vents on TVs, computers and the ones in your car (don't forget under the hood!)
Now that it's all clean, make sure the wall switch is still in the off position and then plug the fan back in

Take one last look to make sure it's all clean.  Don't forget to get up in there with the pipe cleaner. Up in side the housing is where the air has to flow to get out of the house.  Then, make sure the wall switch is in the 'off' position.  Once you are sure, plug the fan cord back into the socket in the fan housing and put the cover back on. 

All done! Now it will look nice and do its job more quietly

To look at it, it may seem like we haven't done anything much, but when you flip the switch, you should now only hear a nice 'swoosh' of air.  Your room will now be cooler, less humid and less stinky.  It's not just the big, flashy things we do for our spaces, but also the little, rarely noticed things that make a big difference. The difference may even show up as lower utility bills. 

If it still makes an awful noise, now it's time to call in backup and get an electrician. You many have to replace the exhaust fan.  Letting it run in a plugged up, dirty condition for too long can ruin the motor.  Hopefully, though, these cleaning tips will be all you need to do and will keep your exhaust vent or 'fart fan' running for a long time yet. 

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