Each year, millions of homeowners rely on central heating and air systems to keep them comfortable. They’ll keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but even the best HVAC unit is worthless without great ductwork. Unfortunately, these essential ducts tend to take up space and are considered unsightly by most.
Whether you’re interested in renovating your home and have a ductwork issue or are building your dream house, low-profile ductwork is an excellent option. In this guide, we’ll cover a few of the alternatives available to consumers today along with the pros and cons for homeowners considering a DIY installation.
To get an idea of low profile ductwork and the options available, you should first understand a little more about ductwork itself. While we won’t delve deep into stackheads or plenums in this guide, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the trunk lines, distribution runs, and a few other basic terms.
The main duct that carries heat or air throughout your home is referred to as a Trunk Line. The Trunk runs through the Plenum and can run the entire length of some homes. They are typically found in basements or attics, depending on how the home is built and located between joists.
Along the trunk line, you’ll find a series of smaller ducts that distribute air throughout your home. They connect to boots, which run into the floor or wall and are covered by grates. While HVAC systems and furnaces can use a variety of connectors, take-offs, and elbows, the ductwork itself falls into one of the two categories below.
Flexible or Rigid Ductwork?
With most residential homes and most commercial products, you’ll find rigid or flexible ductwork used in the HVAC system. Some older homes will have a combination of both, and each has unique advantages and disadvantages
- Flexible Ductwork – This type of ductwork can be used in tight spaces where airflow is needed, but there isn’t much room. These tubes are braced with thin steel wiring which gives it structure, and covered by plastic or pre-insulated with a fiberglass layer on the outside. Flexible ducts are affordable, and easy to work with, but can be punctured easily. Restricted airflow can be a concern as well as these ducts are prone to kinks.
- Rigid Ductwork – Any ductwork in the rigid class is durable, which makes them difficult to puncture or tear. Most are made of thin gauge galvanized steel or aluminum but can come in both round and rectangular form factors. This type of duct is more expensive and can be challenging to work with. Leaks are also possible where sections are joined, although they are easier to clean and don’t attract mold or mildew like synthetic materials.
Ductwork Options for Rooms with Low Ceiling Height
If you plan on building your home from the ground up, you can always plan ahead to save space with ductwork or use compact systems like a mini-duct HVAC. When you intend to rework or reorganize existing ductwork within a home, things become a little more complicated.
Note: A new ductless HVAC alternative called a mini-split system has recently become incredibly popular in the United States. For more information on mini-split systems and how they are installed, check out All You Need to Know About Mini Split Systems.
Move or Reroute Ductwork
The easiest option for homeowners interested in saving some headroom is to simply move the ductwork. This is ideal in areas like unfinished basements or attics, where ducts are often placed beneath ceiling joists.
In this case, you simply need to remove duct hangers and reposition the ducts between the joists. Depending on the size of the ductwork, this can save you anywhere from 4” to 8” of headroom. While you may have to make a few adjustments to keep things in line, it’s the cheapest option for most homeowners.
If you are unable to slide your ductwork between the joists, the next best option is to consider rerouting them entirely, although that can be a costly endeavor and does require a professional more often than not. Breaking down the distribution lines into smaller runs is an option as well, but only if your HVAC system has enough power to compensate for this change.
Whether you don’t feel like dealing with hanger straps or simply don’t have enough room to reroute or move ductwork in your home, low profile ductwork is an alternative. They are a step down from companies that produce custom ductwork designed specifically for the project at hand in regards to price, but not considered a “cheap” solution compared to the other options we’ve discussed.
Plenums, air returns, and stack ducts come in a variety of sizes and are often found locally in big box hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot. The same goes for flexible ductwork, although the selection narrows with round rigid pipe and unique metals outside of galvanized steel.
Trunk lines and distribution lines aren’t as easy to acquire, however, and will need to be sourced through an HVAC supply shop in your area. It’s also important to remember that while you can find low-profile rigid lines that are thin enough to work within walls, they will need to be wider than traditional rigid metal ductwork.
Low Profile Ductwork Installation
The cost of low profile ductwork basically boils the material itself and the price paid to have it installed. Materials will be supplied by the installer when you hire a professional, who can help you decide between things like nearly flat rectangular vents or flexible ones. If you choose to tackle the project yourself, there are several things we think you’ll want to be aware of before deciding against hiring a pro.
Are the ducts you need to replace easy to access? In some attics, ceiling height won’t be a problem, but space might be. Dragging old ductwork out of a cramped attic is one thing to consider, and you will still have to dispose of the old ductwork regardless of where it’s installed.
There are a handful of common tools needed as well like safety goggles, leather gloves, and pliers, but you will need to pick up a few unique tools in addition to the ductwork and fittings. Drive couplers, sealant for the ducts, and duct hangers are a few of the more common things you’ll need to purchase along with bend ducts or 3-ways depending on the installation.
While it’s impossible to provide homeowners with a list of what they’ll need or a proper price, you can expect to pay anywhere between a few dollars to more than $10 per linear foot for the ductwork alone. Flexible ductwork can be around half the price of galvanized, and our ductwork guide will help you better understand the cost of the material.
Leaky air ducts will keep your system from working at full capacity, and can even cause issues like mold or mildew in some areas. Even the most discreet design is useless if the ducts are undersized and your HVAC system becomes overworked.
Professional Ductwork Installation
When a professional is hired to install low-profile ductwork, they will handle all the details. That includes walking you through the installation process and ensuring your new ducts are properly sized for the heating and air system in your home.
On average, you can expect to pay between $5 to $10 per linear foot for labor depending on where you live and the difficulty of the job. A seasoned pro can install new ductwork quicker than homeowners, however, and provide peace of mind against common mistakes.
If you decide to hire a professional, which we highly recommend, you will want to get multiple estimates for your project. Even if the first bid is well within your budget, it’s important to get several prices… and perspectives on the ductwork in your home.
This is also an area where it pays to do your due diligence on the contractor or HVAC technician you’re considering hiring. Check local reviews online and with the Better Business Bureau in your city or county. Many companies have a social media presence as well, which can give you a bit more insight into how they operate.
You can use our Free Estimate Tool to get at least 3 free estimates from your local contractors. All the contractors found through our tool are qualified and pre-screened for ductwork installation.
There are a number of reasons why homeowners decide to opt for low-profile ductwork from basement remodels to areas with ductwork that simply have a low ceiling height. While our guide will help you get your project started before you make any changes to the ductwork in your home consult an HVAC technician as errors can have a drastic impact on an HVAC systems performance.
Low Profile Ductwork FAQ
Q: How long does ductwork last?
A: That all depends on the type of ductwork and how well it’s made. High-quality sheet metal ductwork has the best lifespan and can last for a century if rust and the elements are kept at bay. Alternatively, you can expect flexible ducts to hold up between 15-25 years in many cases.
Q: Can duct tape be used to seal leaky air ducts?
A: While duct tape can seal almost anything and works great in a pinch, you need to use aluminum or foil tape on HVAC ducts.
Q: Should you replace the ductwork in our home when replacing a central heating and air unit?
A: No. Unless your ductwork is in poor shape and in need of repair, it doesn’t need to be replaced along with a unit.
Q: Are aluminum air ducts better than ducts made from galvanized steel?
A: Aluminum is an excellent option for ductwork and it can last for decades. While they often come pre-insulated, they are more expensive to purchase and install.
Q: Can you have old ductwork reinsulated?
A: Yes, and it’s quite common on round metal ductwork that’s still in good shape, but has deteriorating insulation around the outside.
Q: How can you tell if ductwork is leaking?
A: In some cases, you may be able to tell with a visual inspection if you see a broken seal or damage to a duct. If you don’t see an issue but feel there is a leak, a technician can run a pressure test on your HVAC system.
Q: Can you run ductwork inside exterior walls?
A: Yes, although it’s something that needs to be handled by professionals as they can cause condensation issues when not properly installed.