Bathroom Vent Fans: How to Clean, Replace, Options & Costs

Bathroom exhaust and ventilation fans are important because they help remove excess moisture from bathrooms. Most bathroom fans are wired to turn on automatically whenever you enter the bathroom and flip the light switch. Over time, bathroom fans wear out and eventually need to be replaced.

So, how often should bathroom fans be replaced?

Bathroom vent fans should be replaced every 10 years. How long a bathroom exhaust fan lasts depends on use, vent fan quality, and maintenance. Vent fans should be cleaned at least once per year.

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Most people don’t replace a bathroom vent fan until it actually fails, and there’s nothing wrong with that logic. However, most bathroom fans fail long before they actually stop working.

Keeping your bathroom exhaust fan clean should be an important part of home maintenance. As dirt and grime buildup inside the fan, the blades become heavy and harder to turn, causing excess stress on the motor. The buildup also collects on the motor itself, causing it to overheat – eventually leading to failure.

How Often to Clean a Bathroom Exhaust Fan?

Now I know you probably think, “like you need one more thing to clean.” Well, it’s not too bad and should only take you a few minutes to clean. Yes, bathroom fans need to be cleaned because that is one way of keeping them well-maintained and operating efficiently.

You may be wondering, how often does a bathroom vent fan need to be cleaned? Bathroom vent fans need to be cleaned once a year. In bathrooms not used often, you can likely get by with once every 2 years.

Here are some easy steps to clean your bathroom vent fan.

Turn Off the Power to Your Fan

Before you begin cleaning your bathroom vent, you need to shut off the power to the bathroom fan at the wall switch. You may need to shut off the power to the bathroom at the breaker. You may need a flashlight, so have one close by.

You can confirm power is off to the vent fan with a non-contact voltage pen like the Klein Non-Contact Voltage Detector.

Remove the Vent Fan Cover

Using a stepladder, you’ll need to remove the cover on the vent fan. Some vent fan covers are held in place with screws. However, most have large pin clips that slide in place.

To remove the pin clips simply slide the cover down to access the clips. Press the clips in on both sides to release the hooks.

Clean the Vent Fan Cover with Soapy Water

Once the cover has been removed, if needed, wash it in a deep sink with mild soapy water. Use a rag to scrub off hard to remove dirt. Set the vent cover aside to air dry.

Clean the Vent Fan Blades with a Damp Cloth

Remove the fan blade from the motor. Wash the fan blade in a deep sink with mild soapy water. Like before, use a rag to remove hard dirt. Set aside to air dry. If the blade can’t be removed, use a vacuum wand attachment to remove as much dirt as possible. Use a damp cloth to remove caked-on dirt from the blade off.

Vacuum Dust From the Fan Assembly

Using a wand attachment on your vacuum cleaner, vacuum inside and outside the vent. Carefully vacuum dirt and dust from the motor assembly. If you don’t have a wand attachment, a brush attachment should work just fine.

Reattach the Fan Blade to the Motor

If you did not remove the blade you can skip this step. Now that the housing is clean, it’s time to reassemble the vent fan.

Dry and reattach the vent fan blade if you removed it by pushing the fan blade into place on the motor arm to secure it in place. Be sure the blade is all the way on so that it doesn’t hit the fan cover when in use.

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Reinstall the Vent Cover

Dry and reinstall the vent fan cover. The clips slide back into place. Slide the cover back up snug to the ceiling. Secure the screws if needed.

Finally, Test the Vent Fan

Once assembled, turn the power on at the breaker or wall switch and test the vent fan. Allow the fan to run for a couple of minutes to verify nothing is loose.

Cleaning bathroom fans also helps them to last longer. The more clogged a bathroom exhaust fan is, the harder its motor has to work. This can very well shorten its lifespan.

That said, I suggest that you clean your bathroom exhaust fans thoroughly at least once a year so that you could remove all of the grime, hair, or particles that have built up. You also have to consider how often you use the bathroom as fans in bathrooms rarely used may not need regular cleaning.

If we are talking about the bathroom that you often use, it is best to clean it once a year or maybe even twice, depending on how fast grime tends to build up.

When to Replace Your Bathroom Fan?

First things first, it’s imperative for you to recognize the tell-tale signs that your bathroom fan needs to be replaced. Of course, it is also important for you to replace the fan right away before it fails.

So, when should you replace a bathroom vent fan? Bathroom vent fans should be replaced if the fan is over 10 years old, won’t turn or is slow to turn, is noisy caused by a broken blade or excessive vibration.

Bathroom fans will often start turning slowly or become very noisy before it completely quits. These are signs that your fan needs to be cleaned. Unfortunately, bathroom vent fans can’t be repaired, only replaced. So maintenance is essential.

Here is how you can tell whether or not your bathroom fan needs to be replaced:

The Vent Fan Is Noisy When Turned On

Turn your bathroom’s exhaust fan on and off while listening carefully. If the fan is loud or making odd sounds, chancing is the fan is nearing the end of its useful life.

  • If you hear a loud squealing sound when the fan starts up, the vent fan motor is likely on the verge of seizing up.
  • If you hear a scraping sound, the fan blade is likely broken or is likely hitting the vent cover or housing walls due to excessive vibration.
  • If you hear a humming sound, the motor is likely having difficulty turning the blade and has seized or is about to seize up.

The Vent Fan Blade Isn’t Turning

If the fan doesn’t startup as quickly as it did in the past, it will fail shortly. The reason is that the motor is not working as efficiently as once did and is bound to break down sooner or later.

When you turn the fan on or off but it doesn’t turn on, it means that there are problems with its wiring or its circuits, especially if the lights in the bathroom turn on without any problem.

The Vent Fan More Than 10 Years Old

This is a more proactive than reactive approach. Vent fan components breakdown quickly as they age. Much like smoke detectors, vent fans should be replaced every 10 years, even if they are still in working order.

Older fans use more electricity to operate and can become a fire hazard. The motors inside the fans can overheat relatively quickly. Newer vent fan motors have thermal overloads that shut the fan off if it overheats. An older fan may not have this feature.

Cost to Replace a Bathroom Vent Fan?

If you noticed that your bathroom exhaust fan no longer functions efficiently or shows signs that it will soon fail, you should have it replaced as soon as possible. But how much does a usual bathroom exhaust fan cost? Let’s look at the breakdown of the costs of having your bathroom fan replaced.

The average cost to replace a bathroom vent fan is $375. The vent fan unit costs between $15 and $300 depending on the Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM) rating, Sone rating, and lighting options. The CFM rating measures how much airflow is moved in square feet. The Sone rating measures the loudness of the fan.

The CFM rating for bathroom vent fans ranges from 50 to 150 square feet. So, the size of your bathroom will dictate the size of the vent fan you will need. For a bathroom of 75 square feet, choose a vent fan with a CFM 80 rating.

The Sone rating for bathroom vent fans ranges from 4.0 to 0. The lower the number, the quieter the fan operates. A rating of 1.0 is equivalent to a modern refrigerator.

Fan Models (No Light)CFM SonePrice
Broan-NuTone 688 Ceiling and Wall Ventilation Fan504.0$
Broan-NuTone AE80B Invent Energy Star Qualified Single-Speed Ventilation Fan801.5$$
Broan-NuTone AE110 Invent Flex Energy Star Qualified Single-Speed Ventilation Fan1101.0$$$
Fan Models (With Light)CFMSonePrice
Broan-NuTone 678 Exhaust Ventilation Fan and Light Combination502.5$
Broan-NuTone SPK80L Bluetooth Speaker Bathroom Ventilation LED Light802.5$$
Broan-Nutone QTXE110 Ultra-Silent Ventilation Exhaust Fan1100.7$$$
Fan Models (With Light & Heater)CFMSonePrice
Broan-Nutone 659 Heater, Fan, and Light Combo502.5$
Broan-NuTone 100HL Directionally-Adjustable Bathroom Heater, Fan, and Light Combo1002.0$$
Broan-NuTone QTXN110HL Ceiling Heater, Fan, and Light Combo1100.9$$$

Improvement costs: While improvement costs aren’t really necessities, they can increase your expenses depending on the improvements you want to introduce. For example, a speed control switch can cost a hundred bucks on average, including labor costs.

Labor costs: For those who would prefer to pay someone to do the job for them, you’ll have extra labor expenses to have your bathroom vent fan replaced. Depending on where you live and your electrician, you could spend about $300 in labor costs for three hours of work.

Total costs: If you want to improve your bathroom fans, you could be spending $300 to $500 for each installation. A standard replacement will cost $100 to $120 by choosing to go with a standard vent fan. You can save even more by doing the installation yourself.

Can You Replace a Bathroom Fan Yourself?

If paying an electrician to replace your bathroom fan is a bit over your budget, considering how expensive labor costs can be, you may want to think about replacing the bathroom fan yourself. But you may be asking one of two questions. Is it easy to change a bathroom fan? Is it possible to do it by yourself?

Yes, you can replace a bathroom fan yourself. If you are handy, it is relatively simple to install a bathroom vent fan. If you can install a light fixture or ceiling fan, you can install a bathroom vent fan. However, if you are doing any custom work, it’s best to hire an electrician.

For example, if your bathroom exhaust fan doesn’t come in the standard size that you can find in the nearest store, you’d have to make an entirely new opening in the ceiling or on the wall. If you have to replace the entire unit, you may need to go into your attic to install a new vent exhaust pipe.

This leads us to one of the common problems we find in home inspections; bathroom fans that are not vented to the exterior.

Do Bathroom Vent Fans Need to be Vented Outside?

The purpose of a bathroom exhaust fan is to draw air from the bathroom and direct it outdoors. Bathroom fans do this to remove the moist air from the bathroom caused by showering and bathing. However, we often see vent fans installed with no vent pipe to the exterior, especially in older houses. So, do bathroom vent fans need to be vented outside?

Most bathroom vent fans require venting to the outside. Venting a bathroom fan into the attic or ceiling space without a vent pipe to the exterior can cause mold or mildew to form on the ceiling or in the attic. If installing vent piping is not feasible, installing a duct-free vent fan is an option.

Bathroom vent fans work by drawing in air and expelling it outside. The fan doesn’t actually clean the air; it merely moves the air from one location to another. The fans also draw in the air with odors and airborne contaminants such as dust, so the vent piping is important.

Vent piping for bathroom vents need to be vented completely to the exterior, through a wall or soffit. The vent piping should exit the building with a vent cover installed on the exterior.

Without proper vent piping, you are simply moving moist air from the bathroom into the attic. When this happens, moist air can condense and cause mold and mildew to form on the ceiling and wood framing.

If installing a vent pipe is not possible (for instance, in the first-floor bathroom with no attic access above due to second-floor living space), a duct-free fan could be an option. However, your product options are limited.

The Broan-Nutone 682 Duct-Free Ventilation Fan is a duct-free vent fan that contains a long-lasting charcoal filter. Air is drawn into the fan, across the filter, then out the other side of the fan. The filter needs to be changed at least once per year under normal use.

How Long Do Bathroom Exhaust Fans Last?

A bathroom exhaust fan can last 10 years, but it could also last much longer, depending on how well it is taken care of. However, a vent fan’s lifespan can easily change due to frequent use, regular cleaning, and fan size.

Bathroom fans that are frequently used will wear out faster than those that are not always used. Remember that bathroom fans depend on a motor that will eventually fail due to constant wear and tear. Many people will leave bathroom fans on all day or all night.

Bathroom Vent Fan Fire Risks

Leaving a vent fan on for more than 20 minutes can cause the fan motor to overheat and fail prematurely. The lint buildup inside a dirty vent fan is flammable. A dirty fan motor that overheats could short out or start a house fire.

According to a 2014 report from Countryside Fire Protection District, three house fires were linked to bathroom exhaust fans costing more than $100,000 in smoke and property damages. 1

In Ohio, Columbus fire crews reported nine structure fires caused by bathroom vent fans in 2018. As of April 2019, the same district reported eight structure fires caused by bathroom vent fans, totaling over $330,000 in smoke and property damages. 2

Conclusion

As mentioned, cleaning your bathroom fan can greatly affect its lifespan because of how grime and dirt buildup can slow the fan and force it to work harder to the detriment of its motor’s health. So, if you keep your bathroom fan maintained well by cleaning it thoroughly annually or bi-annually, you can extend its lifespan.

Of course, fan size also plays a role here because larger bathrooms need larger exhaust fans. If you are using a small fan in a large bathroom, the fan needs to operate longer and fail quicker. That’s why you should go with an exhaust fan that is just right for the size of your bathroom if you want it to operate efficiently. 

In that regard, while it may be possible for you to replace your bathroom fan all by yourself without the help of a professional, you will find that it is not as easy as it may look. Even electricians may need 3 hours to get the job done. You may need more time to get it done, and you could miss an important step and install the fan incorrectly. Having an electrician install your bathroom vent fan can yield peace of mind that the job was done correctly.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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