Cleaning your air conditioner yourself is not only achievable by nearly any DIYer, it's also essential in maintaining the efficiency of your air conditioning unit.
Whether you're cleaning a window, portable, split-system, or central unit, many of the tools and items needed are the same. However, the steps for each type of air conditioning unit are a bit specific based on type so this article will break it down by category.
How To Clean a Window Air Conditioning Unit Without Removing It
Removing the window air conditioning unit from the sill would make the parts more accessible for cleaning, but you can still clean your unit without taking it out of the window. After a good scrub, it will look better and run more efficiently.
Start by unplugging the unit and removing the filter. You can place this in some warm, soapy water to soak, or discard it if it's disposable (obviously don't do this unless you have a replacement ready).
Then use a screwdriver to remove the exterior case and any other parts you can easily detach (keep the screws somewhere safe like a plastic container), and vacuum and wipe to clean out any dust inside. Meanwhile, you can soak any parts that look dirty for a more thorough cleaning.
Clean the filter, ideally with a soft brush, and let it dry before you put it back.
Gently clean any accessible coils and fans with a toothbrush. You might also spray some compressed air to nudge out hard-to-reach dust.
Spray and wipe any dirty areas of the interior with a cloth. Wipe down the exterior with a soapy rag. If the grill looks especially grungy, you can remove it and soak it in warm water with soap. Empty and clean any drip receptacles.
If you want, you can apply hydrogen peroxide to any exterior airflow locations to fight potential mold.
Let everything dry thoroughly before you reassemble your unit.
How To Clean and/or Replace Air Filter
Your biggest priority for cleaning a window AC unit is the filter. As the first line of defense against dirt and dust, it is critical for your filter to be clean in order for your unit to run at peak efficiency.
Make sure the unit is unplugged and remove the front panel. While it should come off fairly easily, make sure you don't force the panel off and do damage to it. If you're having trouble, you can simply search the internet for your AC unit make and model and you will likely find assistance for removing your particular panel.
If your filter appears to be just a bit dusty, you can clean it easily with a bristle attachment on a vacuum cleaner. Warm water, a mild detergent, and a soft brush should suffice if you find your filter to be a bit more grimy.
Should there be any mold or mildew, add a small amount of bleach to your warm, soapy water. Simply shake the excess water off the filter and allow it to air dry completely before putting it back in the air conditioning unit.
This is an important time to remind you that, like your furnace filter, you should be checking your air conditioner window unit filter about every thirty days. If your filter(s) appear to be beyond cleaning, it's time to purchase replacement(s).
How To Clean Window AC Side Louvers & Front Grille
Any opening a window air conditioning unit has is an opportunity for dust, dirt, and debris to collect. Side louvers are the accordion-like barriers that expand or contract to cover the open window space not filled by your window AC unit.
These and the front grille can be easily cleaned using a soft bristle attachment to a vacuum cleaner and a quick wipe down with a damp cloth.
Ideally, a removable front grille can be taken outside for a quick spray down from a garden hose or if that's not enough to get the dirt to budge, the same warm water, mild detergent, and soft brush you used on your filter should do the trick.
If your front grille is not removable, a soft implement like an old toothbrush or cotton swab can help loosen stubborn dust for your vacuum to pick up.
How To Clean Window AC Unit Housing
The housing is the rigid cover that protects the internal parts of your window air conditioning unit. Using a screwdriver you can access and assess the interior of the housing and give it a wipe down with a damp rag or sponge.
If your unit sets in a window for long periods of time, it may require a bit more effort and some mild detergent. Routinely spraying the exterior of your a/c unit throughout the seasons can go a long way in preventing dirt and dust build up.
How To Clean Window AC Unit Coils
The condenser coils do the real work of creating cool air. You'll see them behind a set of fins when you remove the housing. There are dozens of products specifically designed to spray on AC coils to assist in cleaning them, but good old warm water, mild detergent, and a scrub brush can do the trick.
A water hose and spray nozzle are helpful, too. Be sure the coils are completely dry before reinstalling the housing.
While the coils are drying is the perfect time to inspect the fins. The fins are in front of the condenser coils. They protect the coils and help keep air moving freely. If you see any bent, damaged or crushed fins, use a butter knife to straighten them out as best you can.
You can purchase a fin comb that aligns them, but a butter knife will save you a trip to the store or a wait for delivery.
How To Clean a Portable Air Conditioner Unit
Portable air conditioning units are a terrific cooling solution when a window unit isn't powerful enough for your space, but a central AC unit is too much or too expensive. Many of the components of a portable AC unit are similar to a window unit, so many of the steps will also seem similar.
Drain the Water
Unplug your portable AC unit and move it somewhere stable so that you won't mind getting wet. Portable AC units not only cool air they also remove water from it. A good portion of that pulled moisture gets collected in the AC unit. Place a bucket or container under the drain on the back of the unit and collect and dispose of the water.
How To Clean or Replace a Portable AC Unit Air Filter
Some models of portable air conditioning units have washable filters, while others are disposable and need to be replaced periodically. Just like with a window air conditioning unit, a replaceable filter in a portable unit can be cleaned using a vacuum cleaner and warm water with a small amount of mild detergent and a brush.
Make sure the filter is completely dry before reinserting it into the unit.
How To Clean the Coils on a Portable AC Unit
As mentioned before, there are special products on the market specifically for coil cleaning, but a soft brush or damp sponge/cloth can do the job. Just be careful, as coils (on any type of air conditioning unit) are as expensive as they are important. You don't want to clean them roughly.
How To Clean the Exterior of a Portable AC Unit
A portable air conditioning unit is usually more visible than a window unit. A quick once over on the exterior with a damp sponge will not only make it more appealing to the eye, but if you're certain to get the vents and other small spaces on the panels, it will keep it running more efficiently, too.
How to Clean an Outside Central Air Conditioning Unit
Unlike a portable unit that's entirely indoors, or a window unit that's partially outdoors and removable if desired, an outside central air unit is outside 365 days a year. With that exposure to the elements comes its own potential for dust, dirt, and damage if ignored.
How to Cut Power to a Central AC Unit
Before you clean your a/c unit, turn it off at the thermostat and also at the electrical disconnect box located near your unit. Flip the circuit breaker switch to the "OFF" position, or if it is a pullout switch, remove the switch and set it aside.
How to Clean and Inspect the Interior of a Central A/C Unit
Remove the cover screws to the top of the air conditioning unit and gently lift the grille and fan motor up and out of the way.
Next, pull out any debris that has accumulated inside the AC unit.
You may want gloves for this as there could be more than a few seasons' worth of leaves, twigs, acorns, etc. accumulated at the bottom of the unit. If it's too nasty, you can also use a wet/dry vac to help with removal.
How To Clean and Inspect Coils and Fins of a Central AC Unit
Using a soft bristle attachment, gently vacuum the condenser fins being careful not to damage them.
Products specifically made to clean air conditioning unit coils are caustic with potential dangers including burns and harmful fumes. If you're not comfortable with that as an option, a garden hose with a sprayer attachment goes a long way in removing built up dust and dirt.
If you are planning on using a coil cleaning product, closely follow the manufacturer's instructions before using it. But generally speaking, you will spray the outside unit with the coil cleaner, then wait at least ten minutes for the cleaner to foam, react, and do its job on the dirt on the coils.
After that, simply rinse the foam cleaner off with a hose.
Straight fins are critical for efficient airflow, so now is the time to inspect them for any bends or other damage. While a 'fin comb' is a fairly inexpensive tool to help straighten bent fins, it isn't necessary to do the job. An old butter knife can be used to gently push the fins back into alignment.
How To Inspect Area Around a Central A/C Unit
Replace and refasten the fan motor/top cage. Now is the time for a close visual inspection of the unit and its surroundings. While outdoor air conditioning units have come a long way aesthetically in the last 10-15 years, many homeowners still prefer to camouflage them from plain view.
This is fine, but HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) experts recommend nothing impede the unit for at least two feet on all sides in order to optimize airflow to the unit.
Decorative hedges, ornamental trees, and perennial grasses all intending to beautify the area and disguise an outdoor air conditioning unit are likely contributing to the dust, dirt, and pollen that can collect on and in the unit, compromising its efficiency.
If some form of vegetation is likely to impede airflow, it's strongly recommended you trim, prune, relocate, or remove it before it becomes a bigger, recurring, and potentially expensive problem.
Now is the time to closely inspect your roofline, gutters, and downspouts for how they align over and near your outside air conditioning unit(s). Leaves, twigs, acorns, and other debris can roll off rooftops onto AC units accumulating in the unit and potentially cause damage.
Gutters, if not properly maintained, can freeze with debris in them during the winter, causing icicles and/or ice dams. Either can potentially break off and do damage to not only your outside air conditioning unit but to the wiring going from the unit to the shutoff switch or the switch itself.
Downspout placement and rainwater runoff are important because too much in the wrong location can compromise how level your outside unit stands. If a condenser unit is left unlevel for too long, it could lead to needed repairs or failure down the road.
An air conditioning unit that is slightly unlevel can be put back with some plastic/weatherproof shims.
How To Clean a Split-System Air Conditioning Unit
Greatly increasing in popularity as a home cooling option are so called 'split-systems.' These are especially popular as a retro-fit option for existing construction as they require less ductwork than conventional central air systems yet are still quite efficient.
They do, however, have interior and exterior components that require regular cleaning in much the same way other systems in this article have highlighted.
How to Clean Air Filter and Exterior of a Split-System Indoor Unit
Access the air filter(s) inside your unit, remove them, and vacuum/wash them with a damp sponge in much the same way we explained previously to do with window and portable air conditioning units.
Make sure the filter(s) are completely dry before reinstalling them into the unit. Filters should be inspected monthly and even more frequently during heavy use.
The exterior of your split-system unit can be simply wiped down with warm water, mild detergent, and a sponge. It's best to avoid harsh cleansers or chemicals.
How to Clean the Outdoor Components of a Split-System Outdoor AC Unit
Much like a central air conditioning unit, a split-system unit has the same considerations and cautions for being outside. Dust, dirt, pollen, twigs, leaves, etcetera can build up around the unit, preventing it from performing efficiently.
Turn off your thermostat and your circuit breaker. Use a garden hose and sprayer attachment to remove leaves, twigs, and other debris. Coils and condenser fins can be cleaned exactly as explained under the Central Air Conditioning section previously in this article.
Also, like central air conditioning units, you'll want to pay close attention to any landscaping, roof lines, gutters, and downspouts that could compromise the performance of your outdoor unit.
Like an extended family, all these air conditioning systems have similarities and differences. While the differences are primarily in how cold air is created and transported to the living space(s), the similarities make them fairly convenient to clean yourself with a handful of tools you likely already have in your home.
Dedicating a little time regularly and a little scheduled attention to filters and filth can keep you and your family comfortable and your air condition unit efficient regardless of which system you're utilizing.