Don't blast the air before cleaning your AC unit from coil to filter.

By Sarah Yang and Maggie Seaver
Updated June 04, 2019
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With summer on the horizon, you know scorching hot days aren’t far behind—which means your air conditioner needs to be in top form to keep you cool all season. Of course, for some air conditioning systems (like central AC), it’s best to have a professional to 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 Angie’s List 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 five air conditioning maintenance tips and tricks you can easily do to prep for the summer heat.

How to Change the Filters

"Cleaning and/or changing filters is the number one thing," Mejean says. "Every air conditioner has an air filter, and if you don’t change or clean it, the airflow will be weak and ineffective." Clogged filters (and coils, which we'll get to in a minute) force your AC unit to work harder and use up more energy to cool your home—that costs more for you without delivering results.

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. Mejean recommends pleated filters which trap dirt and dust more efficiently.

For a window, wall-mounted, or portable air conditioner, open the air conditioner according to the manufacturer’s instructions and remove the filter to clean. "I would recommend cleaning every two weeks," says Giacomo Calzavara, Managing Director of JMATEK North America, a licensee of Honeywell portable cooling products. To clean: "Dust off the filter, rinse it with lukewarm, soapy water. After letting the filter dry completely, place it back in the unit."

How to Clean the Coils

Coils help move the hot and cold air, so make sure they’re not clogged with dirt and dust. In a central air conditioning system, you can easily clean the outdoor condenser unit before hiring a professional to inspect the rest of the parts. "Take a look at the unit and see if there’s any dirt, grass clippings, or other debris blocking the exterior fins," Mejean says. “Turn off the unit and carefully spray it down with a hose, making sure not to get the electrical box wet.” Let it dry completely before turning it back on.

For window and portable units, open up the air conditioner to get to the coils inside. "Brush away any dirt from the air conditioner coils with a soft brush or cloth, then clean away any additional dirt with a spray bottle filled with slightly soapy water." 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. Window units also have outside fins in the back that you can clean in the same way.

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. Leaks in a central air conditioner could also suggest its pumps and tubes might be damaged or blocked, which will mean it’s time to call in a pro. "Freon does not wear out and will last forever, so if the Freon levels are low, it’s leaking out," Mejean says. "If that’s the case, you’ll need to have a professional come in and inspect the cause of the leak in the central or window air conditioning unit."