How to Cheaply & Easily Update Ugly Vent Covers

How to Cheaply & Easily Update Ugly Vent Covers

Our “new” farmstead fixer-upper was built in 1978, and many of the original owner’s design aesthetics seem to have creeped into 2019! Cabinets, flooring, trim, and wallpaper (some of it painted over, yeesh!!!) all seem to be circa 1978! 

More expensive updates such as cabinets and flooring will have to wait, but simple fixes such as a fresh coat of paint, replacing ivory outlets and switches with white, and simply giving everything a good scrub was the very first sweat equity we put into our new home!

Even after the walls were painted with my fresh gray palette and the outlets and switches were updated with the help of my father-in-law and husband, the air return grates and in-floor vent covers were a terrible eyesore. They were beat up, a dated ivory color, filthy dirty, and missing screws to hold them in place.

A quick online search revealed that completely replacing the vent covers would cost me between $12 and $20 per piece. With the number of vents in our house, it could have easily cost me hundreds of dollars that I would much rather use elsewhere. With older homes, it can sometimes be difficult to find covers that fit the current openings, as well, which would lead to additional costs to fabricate custom pieces or modify the openings in the floor and wall.

How to Update Ugly Vent Covers

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • Screwdriver or electric drill with appropriate head to remove wall grates
  • Vacuum with brush attachment
  • Soap and water (I used regular Dawn dish soap)
  • Rust-oleum Gloss Protective Enamel Spray Paint
  • Sheet Metal Screws (optional, if your old screws get destroyed or are missing)

Most of you have a screwdriver and vacuum with brush attachment at home, as well was soap and water! You can find spray paint on and have it shipped directly to your door, or you can pick it up at almost any hardware store.

You want a high-quality spray paint that can take a beating and stops rust, which is why I’m recommending this specific spray paint. It might seem like vent covers just sit in your wall or floor, but think about the many times that you’ve rammed it with your vacuum cleaner or dropped something on them.

1. Remove the Vent Covers

First, use your screwdriver or drill to remove the screws from the vent covers (floor vents don’t usually have screws, only wall mounted covers). I found that many of the screws holding my vent covers in place were completely stripped, and pulling them out with a vice grip destroyed them. Make sure to save at least one screw so you can bring it to the hardware store to find the correct replacement.

Ugly Vent Cover
Filthy, beat up, ivory vent covers.

2. Clean

Once you open up the vents, you’ll likely find more dust and debris than you ever thought possible. It is absolutely disgusting what is stuck in there. I actually found the pages of books, craft beads, and a CD behind the wall!

If you’re lucky, a thorough vacuuming with the brush attachment and a quick wipe-down with hot, soapy water will remove the dust buildup from the grates. If grime is caked on with grease…and who knows what else…it may require a soak in the bathtub with hot soapy water. The vents nearest the kitchen were the ones I needed to soak, so be warned! Rinse the grates well and allow to dry before painting.

While you have the vents open, you might as well clean back there. If your debris are mostly dust and lint, a regular household vacuum cleaner will do the trick. If you have larger debris, like screws, crayons, or beads, it may be wise to use a shop vacuum, otherwise the larger pieces will destroy your regular vacuum.

If you have many different shaped pieces, use painter’s tape to label the back of each one so you don’t have difficulty finding their home again when you’re all done. Learn from me, that was the worst and most frustrating puzzle ever!

3. Painting

Once all of your vents and grilles are clean, take them outside or to a well-ventilated area and lay them out so you can easily reach the edges that will be visible once you place them back in their spots.

Grate covers
I laid my grates out on an old table outside. Just make sure rain isn't in your forecast!

Using short, quick strokes, spray your hardware with a thin layer of paint. I chose white to go with my farmhouse theme, but black or charcoal gray are trendy colors that would fit with modern or industrial décor. Rust-Oleum also sells metallic finish spray paints, so whatever you fancy, you can likely find it!

I only painted the front of my grates, but if you want extra protection you can paint the back as well. Pay special attention to the slots of your covers, too. You want to make sure that the paint covers them well, so spray them from all angles.

Allow the first layer to dry for about 30 minutes, then return and add a second coat. Most of my vents were well covered after the second coat, but some of the more thoroughly abused covers with stains and chips needed a third coat, and then a final touch up in troublesome areas.

Rust-Oleum 7792830 Stops Rust Spray Paint

If you have to replace screws, find a cardboard box or piece of Styrofoam and poke the pointy end of the screws through. It will look like a bouquet of screws. Lightly spray paint the heads of the screws, the only parts that will be visible after they have been tightened. Make sure you don’t coat the screws too thickly, or you’ll cake the indentations for the screwdriver bit and it will be very difficult to turn the screw without it slipping!

Allow the hardware to dry overnight before replacing in your house. Try not to abuse them too much for the next few days while the paint cures so the covers develop a hard protective shell. But, now if you do get a chip you know you can easily repair it with spray paint!

Seriously, these look like brand spanking new! I did all of the wall grilles in my house (10 total, in various sizes) with about a can and a half of spray paint and some replacement screws for under $20, compared to hundreds of dollars if I tried to replace each one! I haven’t done all of the in-floor vents yet as most of them are new-ish and in pretty good shape, just a strange brown color, but those will likely be next.

Easy updated vent covers

If you have grates that are actually broken or bent beyond repair, you will likely have to purchase a replacement. A can of spray paint can’t help you there! If you can update the rest of your hardware with spray paint, though, you can afford to splurge. There are a number of vent sizes here if you decide a few of your covers can’t be saved.

What other things do you like to update with spray paint? I have lots of projects in my house, and I’m willing to try out anything that will save me a few bucks to put toward my outdated, original to the house kitchen and stained ultra-plush carpet!

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