How to Clean Your Air Conditioner So It Runs Like New All Summer

Blasting the air? Cleaning your unit from coil to filter and following these AC maintenance tips will save you money and keep you cool.

Air conditioner
Photo: Mbbirdy/Getty Images

With summer in full swing, scorching hot days have become the norm—which means your air conditioner has been working overtime. Of course, for some air conditioning systems (like central AC), it's best to have a professional come and inspect the unit, check the ductwork, and make sure it's operating efficiently. But if you have a portable or window AC unit you can definitely clean and repair it yourself without spending money on repairs or a new system.

"Companies like ours should come out and do the heavy maintenance on it, but in between, there are air conditioning maintenance tips people can follow themselves," says Dave Mejean, HVAC manager at B&W Plumbing and Heating Co., Inc., an Angi vendor. "It's like a car: You have to have your mechanic tune it up, but there are still things you can do to make sure it's running too."

Whether you have central air or a window unit, check out these air conditioning maintenance tips and tricks you can easily do to protect yourself from the summer heat.

How Often to Clean a Window AC Unit

There are two primary areas to focus on when it comes to cleaning a window AC unit: filters and coils. Filters remove the dust from the air and when they're clogged, they force your AC unit to work harder and use up more energy to cool your home—that costs more for you without delivering results. Coils help move the hot and cold air, so make sure they're not clogged with dirt and dust.

"I would recommend cleaning every two weeks," says Giacomo Calzavara, Managing Director of JMATEK North America, a licensee of Honeywell portable cooling products.

What You'll Need

  • Screwdriver
  • Cloth
  • Soft brush
  • Spray bottle

How to Clean a Window AC Unit

  1. Turn off the unit. For safety purposes, it's always a good idea to turn off the power and unplug the cord before working on an electrical unit.
  2. Remove and clean the front cover. Depending on your unit, there will be a front cover that is fastened with tabs, knobs, or screws. Consult your air conditioner's manual to confirm how to remove the front cover and open your unit.
  3. Remove the filter. The filter is typically located in the front of the unit, but check your manual if you're struggling to find it.
  4. Clean the filter. Dust the filter with a cloth, then rinse it with lukewarm water and mild soap. Let the filter dry completely before placing it back in the unit.
  5. Locate the coils. Most window AC units will have two sets of coils: the evaporator coils in front (inside) and the condenser coils in the back (outside).
  6. Clean the coils. Brush away dirt from the coils with a soft brush or cloth. Then clean away any additional dirt with a spray bottle filled with slightly soapy water.
  7. Replace the front cover. Make sure all parts of the unit are dry before replacing the front cover.

Tip: Try putting a little bit of mild detergent or dish soap in the bottle if the debris is hard to remove—but not so much soap that it gets too sudsy.

How Often to Clean a Central AC Unit

For central AC units, Mejean recommends checking the filter every 30 to 60 days to see if it's dirty or dusty—lifestyle makes a big difference, since people who have kids or pets might have to change it every month, while those who don't have too many visitors or animals might only need to swap it out every two to three months.

According to a recent survey by American Standard Heating & Air Conditioning of 2,000 American homeowners, only 36% of homeowners swap out their air filters. "We often tell our clients that simple preventative measures like this can take just minutes to do but can help ensure your system is working efficiently and can help save money in the long run," Brian Kleinschmidt, home improvement expert and American Standard Heating & Air Conditioning partner, says.

Cleaning the condenser unit outside is another important part of central AC maintenance. This typically only needs to be done once a year, but may need to be done more often depending on the location of your unit, and if it is prone to lots of debris. " It's important to keep the area surrounding [your condenser unit] clean and debris-free," Mika Kleinschmidt, home improvement expert and American Standard Heating & Air Conditioning partner, says. "A good rule of thumb is to not let any plants or other wildlife grow within a 2-foot radius of your air conditioner."

What You'll Need

  • Screwdriver
  • Cloth
  • Vacuum
  • Hose

How to Clean a Central AC Unit

  1. Turn off your AC. Again, this is an important safety protocol.
  2. Locate the vent. Depending on the construction of your home, your central AC vent may be located on the walls, under windows, in the ceiling, or on the floor.
  3. Remove the vent cover. Depending on how your vent cover is secured, you may need to use a screwdriver to unscrew the cover or simply use push tabs to open it.
  4. Remove the filter. You should find the filter right behind the vent cover.
  5. Clean the filter. If you have a washable filter in your AC vent, follow the steps above (under How to Clean a Window AC Unit) to clean it.
  6. Replace the filter. If you don't have a reusable filter, simply swap out the old filter for a new one, making sure any arrows on the filter are facing the right direction.
  7. Turn off the outdoor unit. Find the breaker switch outside—which is usually located under a flip-up lid near the condenser unit—and turn it off.
  8. Remove the top of the condenser unit. Check your manual to confirm how to remove the top of your unit.
  9. Remove debris. Use a vacuum to remove any leaves, grass, dirt, or other debris in or around the unit.
  10. Spray down the unit. Carefully spray down the unit to remove the remaining dirt, making sure not to get the electrical box wet. (Use a hose, not a power washer—as it can damage the fins.)
  11. Let dry. Make sure to let the condenser unit dry completely before turning it back on.

More AC Unit Maintenance Tips

Make sure nothing is blocking the unit. "Airflow is so critical to cooling systems, so make sure there aren't any beds, dressers, clothes, books, or other items blocking the unit vents," Mejean says. For your central air conditioner's outdoor unit, Mejean suggests leaving at least a 12-inch clearance around it.

Constantly check for common problems. Weak airflow, icy coils, and leakages in all types of units could indicate either a blockage in your air conditioner or a clogged filter.

Know when to call a professional. "If your air conditioner or other HVAC system can't maintain consistent temperatures, a technician is the best person to investigate the issue," Brian Kleinschmidt says. "If your utility bills increase but your overall usage remains the same, one or more components of your system may not be working as they should."

Mika Kleinschmidt also suggests listening closely for any strange noises when your system starts. "If you hear any, call a technician to inspect the problem more closely," she says.

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