I recently bought a multi-story house with a 4 zone HVAC and only one of the zones works (it just heats/cools the entire house as one zone, and the one working zone is for a small foyer which is totally useless). I basically need to re-map all the zones and move the dampers around to the right places - figure out why the one other working damper doesn't seem to do anything, and add 2 missing dampers to the 2 remaining zones.

At this point, the blueprints seem to differ in some ways from what was actually installed and I'd like to map all the flows so I can know where to install or move the dampers to. However, I'd like to avoid cutting into the walls where the ductwork is.

Are there any simple tricks I can use to map the ducts from the basement to the respective vents on the upper floors? I saw a tip about putting scented oils into the ducts in the basement and then following the scent to the vent. Another one is to use a thermographic camera to see hot/cold vents through the walls. Do these suggestions work? What would a professional do?

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2 Answers 2


A thermal camera may be helpful if there are significant duct leaks, but if things are sealed up well, the wall/floor/ceiling surface temperatures shouldn't reveal the duct locations.

Inductive reasoning will carry you far. Think about how the structure is built. Because air ducts are usually large they seldom cross inside floor joists or wall studs. The ducts run parallel to these in the spaces between. Homes are often rectangles and floor joists normally run parallel to the short side of the rectangle. You can confirm with a stud finder or by looking for the nails and screws that hold the drywall on the ceiling (visually by looking at reflected light at a sharp angle if the taping job wasn't top-notch, or use magnets to find the nail and screw heads).

Where ducts must cross floor joists there is almost always a dropped-down ceiling. Look for a room or hall whose ceiling is lower than surrounding ceilings, look for a drywall soffit/box at the ceiling along one wall of a room, etc.

Duct trunks between floors won't fit into a 2x4 wall. Look for missing floor area in the core of the building -- a closet that isn't as wide as the space that surrounds it may have vertical ducts running along one side, for instance.

Rigid ducts could be probed with a semi-rigid tool like an electrical fish tape or push rod/fish rod/glow rod. Remove the register at a duct outlet and feed the rod in until it stops. That's the location of the first sharp bend (unless it's hung up at a joint in the duct -- attach a ping-pong ball, big wad of tape, etc to help the end hop over obstructions like this). Mark the rod and pull it out; use it as a measuring stick to help mark the position. Often this will be the location where a branch meets the trunk.

Finally, you can go for an inside view. There are very small USB and wireless borescopes or endoscopes available at the usual online markets. I have a USB model with a 30 foot cable. I view the camera with an app on my phone while feeding the camera into a space using push rods. You won't be able to get around the bend to follow trunk lines, but you can measure the length of a branch back to an elbow or trunk and visualize bends or turns along the way.


If you have fancy tools like an RC Duct Crawler you can just walk it though the system and track the location as you go. However, I don't have anything fancy so I just use logic and simple tools. Remove vents and look at the general direction of the tube behind them. Use a tape measure inside the pipe behind the vent to measure length of the straight portions that you can reach. Use painter's tape to draw the pipes on your walls and ceilings while you are mapping. Do the same starting from the HVAC unit. Check for visible ducts in the attic and basement. Look at where the tape has gaps. What would be the most logical connection paths? Consider low ceilings were probably installed to cover ductwork. Also extra wide walls or narrow spots in rooms were also made to cover ducts, wires or pipes. If you still have unknown route sections, try using magnets or stud finders to narrow it down. Worst case, you can make a small hole to visually check the routing. If you do this, smaller is better and start close to the last know location along the most likely route to minimize the number of holes you have to patch. Before you start making holes, consider if you can afford to by an inspection camera that may help identify the routing without making holes or at leas allow you to use very small holes.

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