Invisible Cold Air Return (Reader Tip)

Phil Smith of Decatur, Indiana, submitted the following helpful home tip to the EHT staff:


While refinishing my basement, I was putting the final touches on the suspended ceiling, in regards to the cold-air return vents needed to support the HVAC system. I used a 2-by-2-foot ceiling tile grid work, with each of the tiles having a slight recess within the suspension track system for a cleaner, modern style.

Unfortunately, the grid work under the installed cold-air return fell right in the middle of the 2-by-2 grid. The suspended ceiling is installed within 4 to 6 inches of the floor joist in order to gain the maximum amount of ceiling height below. With the area being so “tight,” and to ensure I didn’t “choke” the HVAC system with clean air, I needed to install some air returns down into the room to circulate the air better.

After thorough searches of all the local hardware stores, I was amazed that there is not a louvered, pre-made, inexpensive return vent that allows you to drop into a standard ceiling tile opening—2-by-2 feet—without having to trim away excess metal (24-by-24-inch metal cold-air returns are actually 1-3/4” wider ), or to incorporate into a partial tile (difficult to attempt due to the added feature of the recessed tiles we chose ). I didn’t want the cheap look of plastic louvered/egg-crate material showing in the ceiling, since the cold-air return is extremely noticeable when entering the basement.

I decided to use an existing full tile, similar to the rest of the ceiling, to obstruct the view of a cold-air return. The return needed to be covered by 1/2 of each individual tiles and across two full tiles within the suspended ceiling in order to line up. Now I needed a way to circulate the air into the return.

I used a piece of standard 1/4-inch pegboard material (roughly 2 by 2 feet) as a “drill template” to provide a clean pattern for the holes. The template was held on top of the tile with some spring clamps, and I placed the entire assembly over a cardboard box. I used a hand drill to drill the holes, with the excess material falling into the cardboard box for easy clean-up.

This worked great not only to give me a uniform pattern across both partially drilled tiles (12 by 24 inches) but also allowed me to match the rest of the ceiling for a really clean look. The holes drilled in the ceiling tile are really only noticeable if you are standing directly under them.

The overall benefit is that I completed the cold-air return inexpensively using a standard ceiling tile. I also matched the rest of the ceiling visually in the overall process—a tremendous help.

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