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How To Replace an HVAC Air Filter

Bob and Sue’s Home Maintenance Tips

Part 1: How to replace an HVAC air filter
By Bob and Sue Russo

The “return air intake” in your home sucks the air from inside your home back into your HVAC unit, which keeps your house toasty in the winter and cool in the summer. If the air filter is clogged, your HVAC unit needs to work harder to keep you toasty or cool and your utility bill will take a hit. Note:  You may also hear the term “return air intake” referred to as the “cold air return”. Old-time, northern transplants may use the second term, because they are more accustom to using furnaces. If you have a new home in North Carolina you have an HVAC system. This article with video will show you how to replace an HVAC air filter in just a few minutes.

We just heard a story tonight about a young couple that called their HVAC repairman because their house wasn’t staying a comfortable temperature, only to find out that they needed to change their air filter. They were charged $100 for this service. You can do this yourself for just a few bucks.

The return air intake has a filter that (according to most manufacturers) should be changed monthly but you can purchase filters that are rated to change once a month or every three months.  The return air intake filter reduces dust particles in your home, so if you can write your name in the dust on your coffee table, you’re probably overdue.  Another dead giveaway, is if your return air intake looks like the photo on the right below. YIKES!

HVAC air filter cover

You might want to put this job on your calendar just like you would a doctor or dentist appointment. We change ours about every three months because we buy three-month filters.

If you have a large or multi-level home, you most likely have more than one return air intake.  The same information will apply to all of them.

(PLEASE NOTE In some older homes, the air filter is located directly in the HVAC Unit or furnace. Please refer to your owner’s manual for your HVAC Unit or furnace if you do not have a filtered return air intake as shown above.)

To change the HVAC air filter, please follow the steps below.

  1. Locate your return air intake and open the door by releasing the clips usually located at the top of the frame.The disposable air filter rests just inside the frame.
  2. Make note of what size filter you have. Ours is 20 x 25 inches. You will need to do this for every return air intake in the house. They may not all be the same size.  Leave the filter in place, close the door and latch…we’re ready to go shopping.
  3. Go shopping! You can buy air filters at Target, Walmart, Home Depot or Lowes etc. We like to buy several and have them on hand. We personally prefer to use the mid-priced filters, but you can buy washable filters for a little more money.

HVAC air filters

We just got back from shopping and realized how confusing this would be for first time home owners. Here’s the net of it. Any of these filters that are the right size, in our case 20 x 25 inches will work. The bottom shelf of this display shows the least expensive filters. These filters need to be changed on a monthly basis. The middle and top shelf filters are three-month filters. The only difference between the middle shelf filters and the top shelf filters is price and how much gunk they actually filter out of the air in your home. We have tried the higher priced filters, but in our experience they clogged up faster and seemed to diminish the air intake slightly. (We are not professional HVAC repair people, so if this point troubles you, you can always refer to your HVAC manual to see what they suggest.)  There is one more option that we have never tried; washable filters. The mid-range filters that we buy cost about $4.00. The washable filters cost about $10.00. With the washable filters, instead of changing the filter, you remove them, separate the screening from the frame and hose the screening off until it runs clear and then reinsert the same filter. This idea sounds like it would be good for the environment, but we looked these up on several HVAC sites and they were not recommended. They indicated that your filter traps bacteria and fungus as well as dust. Rinsing these off does not remove the bacteria and fungus. If you really want to go green there were some suggestions to get around this, for example buy two sets of filters for every return air intake in your home and alternate the washed filter out every other change.  Since we lack the experience with washable filters we would suggest that you follow the recommendations in your HVAC owner’s manual. If they tell you not to use them…don’t use them.   

We should also note that most HVAC Manufacturers don’t recommend HEPA filters because of the dense filtration material used in HEPA filters. Your HVAC units may not be sized to handle the pressure dropped caused by a HEPA filter. The more your filter filters, the harder your HVAC system needs to work. This could cause wear on your HVAC unit and/or your house may not stay so toasty or cool.  Your best bet is to go with the least expensive standard three-month filter. 

  1. Okay now comes the easy part….Installation! Open the door on the cold air return and remove the old filter. Place the new filter in so that the arrows for “air flow” are pointed into the opening. Guide the filter back into the frame and close the door and latch. That’s it!

Change HVAC air filter

Enjoy your beautiful new McKee Home! Bob and Sue

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McKee Homes online marketing manager

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8 thoughts on “How To Replace an HVAC Air Filter

  1. Thanks for the guide on changing an air filter! I didn’t realize how important it was to change your filter regularly. I need to start doing it. I appreciate you mentioning that filters have different sizes, so make sure you write it down so you can buy the right size.

  2. I just recently bought my first home and I really want to make sure that I take good care of my HVAC in that home. It is really cool that you can get washable filters. That does seem like something that can save you some money.

  3. I like that you mentioned that if you don’t clean your air filter then your utility bill will be raised up. I think that if you don’t have any ideas about how to change the filter then you might do more damage than is already done. I think that you might want to call a professional if you are struggling with replacing your filter.

  4. Thanks for the comment about manufacturers not recommending HEPA filters. I probably wouldn’t have realized that was something I should be paying attention too. I also heard something somewhere about filters with an odor control aspect. Do you have any information about this type of thing?

  5. The vents over my air intakes definitely look like the one in the dirty example. I didn’t know that this is caused by a dirty air filter. Our HVAC system get really dirty really quickly, probably because our house is so old. In addition to a new filter, I should try running an air purifier.

  6. These are some great tips, and I appreciate your advice to measure the size of all of your air return vents before replacing the filters. I thought all of them would be uniform throughout the house, and I didn’t realize that they could vary. My filters need to be replaced, so I’ll be sure to check the dimensions of all of them before purchasing any. Thanks for the great post!

  7. I recently moved into a rather old house, and I have had to replace many things inside of it. This is totally fine since I knew what I was signing up for when I bought the home, but I haven’t really known what to do with my filter. Your visuals of what a filter looks like when it needs to be replaces were actually really helpful to me, thank you! Using your helpful information I should be able to properly diagnose my filter and find a qualified professional to replace it.

  8. I’m not sure when the last time I’ve replaced my air filter, but I can tell that I need to get on that right away. Learning how to change it myself will give me incentive to keep track of when it needs to be replaced. It’s good to know that the hard part is finding the right filter. I’ll have to look up what kind of filter I need. It’s good to know that installing it is the easy part of replacing a filter. Now I feel more confident in my ability to replace my air filter. Thanks for the tips!

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