How to Install a Bathroom Fan

Updated: Jul. 07, 2023

Replace your old, noisy bath fan with a quiet, energy-efficient model

how to install a bathroom fanFamily Handyman
Replace that old noisy bath fan with one that's whisper quiet and clears the air faster with better airflow. You often can do it in less than a day with little or no ceiling repair.

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A full day

Step 1: Plan the bath exhaust fan replacement

A new generation of efficient and quiet exhaust fans is now available at home centers and from heating, ventilation and air conditioning suppliers. The new fans are virtually silent. They’re also much more powerful and use less energy than the older models. They can even be left on full time if you need continuous ventilation. (Most ordinary fan motors would burn out.) See “Shopping for a Quiet Fan,” below, for more details.

In this article, we’ll show you how to remove an old bath fan and install a new quiet one. In most cases you can do an exhaust fan replacement in less than a day with little or no ceiling repair. While we’re at it, we’ll show you how to replace typical 3-in. uninsulated duct with much superior 4-in. insulated ductwork.

This project involves electrical wiring, so call your local electrical inspector to find out if you need a permit.

Installing a fan requires only elementary carpentry and electrical skills. You’ll need basic hand tools, a power drill and a jigsaw. The basic operations include hand sawing a small drywall opening, driving sheet metal screws into aluminum ductwork, cutting aluminum duct, climbing on the roof and sawing a larger roof vent opening, and disconnecting and reconnecting electrical wires. If you run into problems you can’t handle, such as complicated electrical wiring, tight duct clearances, water damage at the roof vent cap or a steep roof pitch, don’t hesitate to call a licensed electrician.

You’ll have to go into your attic and walk on your roof, so play it safe. Wear a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, boots, a hat and a dust mask to protect yourself from dust and insulation in the attic. While on the roof, use roof brackets, roof cleats or a safety harness for secure footing and fall protection. And if your roof is too steep or you don’t feel confident up there, hire a pro for this part. The bath fan we’re replacing is fairly typical. It’s located in a ceiling with an accessible unfinished attic above.

The fan is properly wired and ducted with 3-in. uninsulated ductwork to the roof. If your old fan unit has additional features like a light or heater that operates off a second switch, your electrical wiring will be more complex. If the rewiring confuses you, consult a licensed electrician to work out the details. If you have a second floor above the fan, measure the height of the space available. The new, quieter fans are taller than the old ones, at least 7-1/2 in. tall. While it should fit into typical floor joist space, check the fan dimensions to make sure.

If you don’t have an attic above, as we show, you’ll have to do the entire installation from below. This means you’ll have to cut open the ceiling a bit (and patch it later!) to get the fan in and run ductwork to a wall vent cap. The connections will be the same as we show in the photo series. However, changing to a larger wall vent cap can be more complex if you have brick, stucco or vinyl siding rather than wood. If you’re unsure how to proceed, check with a siding specialist for advice.

Step 2: Remove the old fan

Photo 1: Pull out the old motor assembly

Turn off the power at the main panel. Pull down the grille cover and remove it. Then unscrew or pry out the old fan motor assembly using a screwdriver.

Photo 2: Disconnect the wiring

Remove the electrical cover plate. Carefully slide out the wires and remove the wire connectors. Turn on the fan switch (on the wall) and test the wires with a voltage tester to make sure the power is off. Untwist the wires. Remove the lock nut from the cable.

Photo 3: Remove the old housing

Go into the attic and unscrew the old fan housing from the joist. Remove the cable and pull out the wiring. Untape or remove the clamps that hold the ductwork at the housing and at the roof.

Before you start, you’ll have to turn off the electricity to the fan at the main panel. With the fan running, flip circuit breakers or loosen fuses until it stops.

Put on your safety goggles. As you pull down and snap off the old grille, watch out for falling debris! You’d be amazed at how much crud can spill out. Then unplug the motor and remove it from the housing (Photo 1). It will be held with clips or screws. Wear gloves. The edges may be sharp.

The electrical connections are usually in a small splice box (Photo 2). Check the wires for power with a voltage tester to make sure it’s off. Then disconnect them.

Next you have to go up to the attic. You need a power drill, screwdriver, utility knife, metal snips, wire cutter, wire stripper and a work light. To avoid extra trips, carry all the tools with you in a bucket. To make it easier to work in the attic, find a small piece of plywood to kneel or lie on—approximately 2 x 3 ft. In the summer, work in the morning. Attics get hot on warm days. Push the insulation back from the old fan housing and remove the housing (Photo 3). Most older fans will be mounted directly to a joist. The screws might be hard to remove. A power drill simplifies this task.

Caution: Aluminum wiring

Aluminum wiring requires special handling. If you have aluminum wiring, call in a licensed pro who’s certified to work with it. This wiring is dull gray, not the dull orange that’s characteristic of copper.

Step 3: Install the new fan and duct

Photo 4: Fit the new fan housing

Trace the new fan housing outline on the ceiling over the old opening. Enlarge the hole with a drywall saw. Pay attention to ceiling joist locations.

Photo 5: Mount the housing

Align the fan housing from above, making sure the housing is oriented properly for ductwork and electrical connections. Then screw the mounting brackets that hold the fan to each joist with 1-in. drywall screws.

Photo 6: Attach the duct

Screw the 4-in. aluminum elbow to the fan’s exhaust port using three 3/8-in. self-tapping Phillips sheet metal screws. Take care not to hamper the damper flap inside. Then slide out the inner liner of the flexible ductwork, gather three or four of the metal rings and use three more screws to attach the liner to the elbow.

Photo 7: Secure the insulation

Pull down the insulation jacket and tighten the 6-in. metal clamp at the elbow. Cut the duct to length with a utility knife and wire cutters and attach a 6-in. piece of straight aluminum pipe to the end with screws and a clamp, leaving about 3 in. of metal exposed. Using metal snips, cut the 3-in. exposed end of the aluminum pipe at an angle to match the roof pitch.

Photo 8: Connect the wiring

Remove the plate at the electrical splice box and pull out the fan wires. Push the electrical cable through the hole provided and anchor it with a cable clamp. Twist together the electrical wires (white to white and red or black to black) and install the connectors. Attach the bare copper wire to a ground clip or a screw on the plate. Fold the wires back into the electrical box on the housing and replace the cover.

Photo 9: Caulk the ceiling gap

Caulk the ceiling/housing joint with silicone or another high-quality caulk.

Now go back down to the bathroom. Hold the base of the new fan housing to the ceiling and draw the new opening size (Photo 4). Most new, quiet fans are larger than the old fans. If not, you’ll have to patch the ceiling with drywall. To simplify cutting, line up two sides with the existing hole. Wear goggles while cutting.

Before going back into the attic, cut a piece of insulated flexible duct approximately 18 to 24 in. longer than the old duct and cut one piece of 4-in. dia. aluminum ductwork 6 in. long. Take them into the attic along with the fan, fan mounting brackets, aluminum elbow, sheet metal screws, drywall screws, electrical cable staples, electrical clamp, caulk and duct clamps. You may also need blocking to attach to the joists to support your new fan housing.

You’ll need a helper to mount the new fan. Slide the mounting brackets on and extend them to the joists. Align the fan with the new drywall hole. Then ease it down to your helper, who will hold the housing flush to the ceiling while you screw the brackets to the joists (Photo 5).

After installing the fan, run the ducts. Attach the aluminum elbow to the exhaust port (Photo 6) and the duct liner to the elbow. Then measure and cut the flexible insulated duct. The ideal duct run should be as direct as possible, with the fewest turns. Extend the duct from the exhaust port to the roof opening, but don’t stretch it so tight that it kinks. Then finish connecting the insulated duct to both aluminum ends (Photo 7).

With our fan, the wiring is done from the attic. Some models wire from below. In either case, clamp the electrical cable to the housing with a standard clamp with 6 in. of wire extending into the box. Strip 5/8 in. of insulation off the end of each wire and connect the wires (Photo 8). Staple the cable to a framing member within 12 in. of the cable clamp. You may find that the existing electrical cable is too short to reach the new fan. If the cable runs to a nearby junction box, you can replace it with a longer section. Otherwise, you’ll have to install a new junction box. If you’re not familiar with the rules of wiring, call in a licensed electrician to do this part. In any case, have your work checked by the local electrical inspector.

Seal the perimeter of the fan housing with flexible caulk (Photo 9). This is critical for reducing sound transmission as well as air leakage. Replace the insulation, making sure to cover the fan housing. Look around for all your tools before you go back down!

Step 4: Install the cap

Photo 11: Anchor the duct

Reach into the roof hole and pull up the angled end of straight duct, leaving about 3/4 in. above the roof surface. Screw it to the sheathing with 1/2-in. self-tapping sheet metal screws. Seal the gap between the duct and the shingles with silicone caulk or another high-quality caulk.

Photo 12: Slide on the vent cap

Slide the new vent cap under the shingles for a proper fit. Pull it out. Apply roofing cement to the shingles where the top and side flanges will rest. Nail in place.

Photo 13: Seal the cap

Gently lift the shingles and nail the vent cap at the top and sides using roofing nails. Apply roofing cement under the shingles at the sides and the top of the vent cap and over nails.

Complete the roof work in one trip. While working on the roof, you’ll need the new roof vent cap, a scrap of the straight aluminum ductwork (cut one end to match the roof angle), a jigsaw, a tape measure, roof cement, caulk, a utility knife, roof nails, 1/2-in. Phillips self-tapping sheet metal screws, metal snips, a pry bar, a carpenter’s pencil and a hammer. Wear a tool belt or apron or you’ll be going up and down the ladder retrieving stuff that slides off!

If you’re not fully confident working on your roof, install a pair of roof brackets along with a 2×10, or nail a 2×4 cleat to the roof a few feet below the vent opening. It’ll give you a more secure area to place your feet as you work on the roof.

Replace the old vent cap with a new one. Remove the old one care fully so you don’t damage shingles. They can be brittle, especially on a cold day. Then enlarge the old 3-in. hole to fit the 4-in. duct, using the 4-in. duct as a template. The opening will be oval-shaped in the direction of the roof slope (Photo 10). Reach through the roof and pull the straight aluminum duct up through the hole, with the angled end extending 3/4 in. above the roof surface. Screw the duct to the sheathing (Photo 11). A magnetic drill bit is helpful here. Drive a roofing nail through the side of the duct to temporarily anchor it. Seal around the edge with caulk to keep condensation from running back down the duct or under the shingles.

Check the screen and the damper in the new vent cap before installing it to make sure both are in place. When you’re done, fill any nail holes you put in the roof with roofing cement.

To complete the job, install the decorative grille. Now is the moment of truth. Turn the power back on and listen to the fan—if you can hear it!

Shopping for a Quiet Fan

A quiet fan has a “sone” rating between .5 and 1.5. A sone is a measure of loudness. The lower the number, the quieter the fan. By contrast, typical low-cost bath fans range from 2 to more than 5 sones (which you can easily hear in the next room). Select the ventilation capacity of the fan that fits the size of your bathroom. To quickly estimate the cfm needed (cubic feet per minute, or how much air a fan moves), a “rule of thumb” is to multiply the length of your bathroom by the width and round up. For example, an 8 x 10-ft. (80 sq. ft.) room would need a vent rate of 80 cfm and would require an 80-cfm fan. Quiet fans have better motors (rated for continuous operation), heavier-duty housings and larger ducts, usually 4 in. They cost considerably more than standard fans.

Additional Information

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Chalk line
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Drywall saw
  • Dust mask
  • Hammer
  • Jigsaw
  • Non-contact voltage tester
  • Pry bar
  • Utility knife
Gloves, Trouble light and Goggles

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • 1/2-in. self-tapping sheet metal screws
  • 3/8-in. self-tapping sheet metal screws
  • 4-in. aluminum duct (straight and elbow)
  • 4-in. flexible insulated duct
  • Adjustable clamps
  • Caulk
  • Roof cap
  • Roof cement
  • Vent fan
  • Wire connectors