HVAC Dampers: What is It and How to Use It Effectively

One of the simplest parts of an HVAC system is also one of the most overlooked. That would be the HVAC damper, which helps to regulate airflow on furnaces and air conditioning systems. If you’ve wondered exactly what a damper does or if one would be beneficial in your home, our guide has all the answer.

What is an HVAC Damper?

The term damper can be somewhat confusing as it’s found on a variety of things including wood-burning stoves, grills, and central heating and air systems. Regardless of where it’s located, a damper basically allows you to restrict airflow. They are “plate-shaped” and typically made of thin metal with a small mechanism for adjustment.

The purpose of an HVAC damper is to simply help homeowners balance their system throughout the season. This is a particularly helpful feature found in larger homes along with two-story residences. Floor registers serve a similar effect by allowing you to shut off air to a room, but a damper can seal off entire areas.

Where to find the Damper

This is where things can get tricky as not every home has a balancing damper, and they are installed inside of air ducts. That means you won’t be able to see them with the naked eye, although there are several things to look for.

The easiest way to find an HVAC balancing damper is to find the main supply trunk for your system. If there are multiple supply ducts, you could have a damper on each one. They are usually located close to the main supply trunk. If you have an upstairs area, there will probably be a damper in the supply duct that runs upstairs as well.

In larger homes, you may find a damper in the runs, which are also easy to identify if your ductwork is exposed. Wherever there is a balancing damper, there will be a handle or screw that lets you adjust it as you see in the photo below. If you’re lucky, they will already be labeled and easy to move. If you don’t see a damper, but have a two-story home or believe there may be one, there are a few options.

Hidden Dampers

In older homes where renovations have taken place, there’s a chance the dampers could have been covered up. This is common in basements and attics that have been remodeled into living areas, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. In some cases, there will be a damper control inside an air vent in that room.

You can check this by removing the vent cover or shining a light into the vent. There’s also a chance you have electronic dampers on your system which won’t have standard controls but should be recognizable on exposed ductwork. Automatic dampers are found on zone-controlled systems, however, and don’t need to be adjusted manually.

How to tell if your Damper is Open or Closed?

If you found dampers in your home, you may think you’re home-free but that isn’t always the case if they aren’t clearly labeled and easy to access. While we can’t help you with the latter, you only need an assistant and permanent marker to take care of these next steps.

As mentioned, any damper in your HVAC ducts will have a lever or bolt that allows homeowners to adjust the balancing damper. If they are already labeled as “open” and “closed” then you can skip ahead to our next section. Otherwise, you’ll need an assistant and a pair of pliers if the damper doesn’t have a lever.

In some cases, you may be able to simply look at the nut or handle to discern whether the damper is open or closed. The best method is to simply open all the registers in your home, however, and use your HVAC systems fan mode. If that isn’t an option, you can turn on the heat or air for the next steps.

When you are sure all the registers are open in your home, go to the first damper and adjust it. Have your assistant check rooms in the living area to see which rooms the damper effects if you can’t track the line visually. Do this for every “known” damper on your system, and label them on the ductwork as you proceed. 

When to adjust HVAC Dampers

Now that you know how to adjust a damper and locate them in a basement or attic, it’s time to talk about how to use them effectively. Knowing when to use a damper can not only save energy but allows you to have a more efficient system in the summer or winter while eliminating hot and cold spots.

Have you ever heard the term heat rises? Well, it’s true which is why you’ll find upstairs rooms and attics warmer in the summer months. Cold air essentially sinks, which is why downstairs areas stay cooler and upstairs areas can get hot in spring in summer.  

To combat this, you can close any dampers that distribute air into the basement area of your home. You can also shut some of the dampers off in areas of your first floor that are unused in the summer. Both instances force more cool air into upstairs areas of your home, while cool air still drifts downwards into living spaces.

As for winter, the same basic principle applies. You’ll want to close dampers to any unused areas upstairs and force air into living areas downstairs. If you have a home office or other areas that are seldom used and have a damper in the ductwork to that line, those rooms can be shut off as well. If you want to take things to the next level, you can fine-tune your system this way as well.

When you find the perfect balance of hot/cold air in the summer, it’s a good idea to label those adjustments on your ducts near each damper. You can simply write “summer” or “winter” on the ducts or even a percentage if you know what degree on the HVAC damper provides the perfect temperature.

Common Problems with HVAC Dampers

If you followed our steps on how to tell if your dampers are open or closed but hit a snag, you could have a problem with the damper itself. While they are incredibly simple by design, failure can occur although it’s a problem easy to address and repair.

The biggest problem most homeowners face are dampers that have become jammed or stuck. As the levers can be fairly thin, you don’t want to apply too much pressure initially. You can try something like PB Blaster or WD-40, however, which may loosen the mechanism right up. Loosening the bolt or wing nut that holds the damper in place can also fix a stuck damper.

If the handle moves freely and you feel air coming through the vent with the damper in the closed position, it could be broken. The same goes for vents that are open with no airflow in a room although dampers are known to last for around 20 years when properly installed.

HVAC Damper Replacement

When you have a broken or stuck damper that you can’t budge, it may need to be replaced. If it’s in a location that is easy to access in an attic or basement, you may be able to tackle this DIY project yourself. With that in mind, it’s an area where a professional can save you a considerable amount of money and time.

The cost of a standard replacement damper can cost anywhere from $15-24 depending on the size and thickness of the sheet metal. These come in small sections that fit onto your existing lines although there are cheaper kits with only the damper valve as well. By comparison, a motorized HVAC Damper for automated systems will set you back $40 to $150.

If you’re considering hiring a professional to replace a broken damper located near a furnace or on a trunk line in an attic, the cost varies depending on several factors. Location will play a part in pricing along with the cost of materials and labor. You can find a quote from a certified local HVAC professional in your region using our quote tool.

Conclusion

Learning how to properly use the damper in a home can help you balance the environment while taking care of any hot or cold spots in a room. Just remember to keep them labeled for future reference, and rebalance your system as needed when the weather changes in your area.

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