What is a “cool air return“? Silicon Valley home hunters are very likely to encounter both heating vents (also called heat registers) and cool air returns in houses, townhouses and condos across the South Bay Area. They are found wherever a home enjoys central forced air heat with ducts and vents. (Some Victorian houses have forced air heat but it is only brought to perhaps one main room or area in the house!)
The purpose of a cool air return is to feed the furnace with a supply of cooler air to be heated ad then circulated back into the rest of the dwelling via the heat registers or vents. Often the cool air return is found near the floor. This makes sense when you consider that the hottest air will rise, leaving cooler air nearer the ground. Heat registers are often near the floor (and near a window), but if the home is on a slab foundation and has forced air heat, the vent will be on the ceiling.
How can I tell the difference between the cool air return and a heat register or vent?
Generally speaking, the vents for warm air are long and narrow, and the cool air return is much larger and boxier in shape. Below please find an image of heating vents.
The first example of a heating vent is probably the most typical you’ll find in Silicon Valley: it’s metal, kind of a dark gray color. Older ones (homes from the 50s) have an even narrower shape but still tend to be metal, sometimes painted dark brown.
The next example is usually found where the property has hardwood floors. The idea is to make the vent blend in and be less noticeable. Naturally, the wooden vents come in a variety of colors to match the many types of woods that might be found in a residence.
By and large, cool air returns and heat registers are pretty ugly. The wooden vents are a nice step above the usual offerings. Several companies sell nicer cool air returns and heat registers or vents, though. So if you are remodeling and want to get away from that “tract housing feel”, a few custom touches might be just the ticket for a more unique feeling home.
What else can be done, besides changing the material from metal to wood, to improve the look of my home?
An entire industry seems to be rising out of the desire for more attractive finishing touches in homes, offices and public spaces. With a little searching, you’ll find that in addition to the basic vent style shown above, there are other types too. For instance, ornate brass (or other finishes), may be found in Victorian homes which do have heat in every room. Restoration Hardware advertises several of these, some of which would look great with a Craftsman style home or other distinctive architectural styles. (Click on the link to see their offerings and images of these vents.)
A quick search on Google images will reveal that there are lots of choices out there! I’ve seen just about every type imaginable. One website, called BuyAirVents.com, has a nice selection of cool air return covers as well as warm air register covers. Another site, Beaux-Artes, features exquisite grille work which looks fabulous in a variety of settings – check out the return air page! My own home is Spanish style – so now I’m on a quest to find vents that will match the look of our house too.
Further reading on vents and temperature control