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Your air conditioner is full of mold and bugs—here's how to clean it

It can get gross in there

A person holding up two air conditioner filters. The left filter is dirty and the right is clean. Credit: Getty Images / amixstudio

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Wherever you find water, you find life. Unfortunately for you, this life can take the form of mildew, mold, bacteria, and insects in your home. You probably know that you need to clean your shower curtain, your washing machine, and your sponges when they get wet. However, did you know that your air conditioner is a breeding ground for all sorts of nastiness?

Your A/C creates condensation, meaning it can be harboring disease, insects, and mold. Here’s how to keep your window and portable A/C units clean and running more efficiently.

How often should you clean your air conditioner?

A hand reaches into frame to clean the grill on the back of the A/C with a cloth.
Credit: Reviewed / Jonathan Chan

The evaporator coils are found near where the cold air comes out. Wipe them down with a mixture of water and vinegar to kill microbes.

At a minimum, you should clean your A/C unit at the beginning and end of each season. This is to get rid of any mold or mildew that has grown while the unit is inactive or in storage, and then to mitigate that buildup for the next time.

You should also clean your filter whenever your unit starts producing a bad smell. If the odor persists, then you should move to clean the interior.

What you'll need

A box of baking soda sits near the removed A/C filter.
Credit: Reviewed / Jonathan Chan

A combination of baking soda and water can help eliminate odors from the filter.

How to clean your air conditioner

An A/C is sitting on its side, with its casing fully removed and sitting beside it.
Credit: Reviewed / Jonathan Chan

Always unplug the unit before working on it to avoid accidental shocks.

Step 1. Unplug it

Unplug the unit to avoid getting shocked while cleaning.

Step 2. Remove and clean the filter

The filter is located at the front of the unit. Most of the time they just slide or snap off. Gently vacuum the screen to remove dust and debris with your vacuum's dusting brush. If you detect any odor, run a mixture of baking soda and water over the screen. Do not put the filter in the dishwasher: It can damage the fine mesh, and if your A/C uses a carbon filter it'll be completely destroyed.

Step 3. Remove the casing.

Most of the mold and mildew grows inside the air conditioning unit, where it's much less likely to get cleaned away. You'll need to remove the outer casing to access this hiding spot. The casing is typically held together by four or five screws. If you’re hunting down that last screw, try removing the front panel.

Step 4. Mop up any excess water.

After removing the casing, you'll be greeted by a maze of tubes. The place we want to focus on is towards the front of the unit, called the evaporator. This is where any dripping noises come from, because water drains into a pan at the base of the unit. Mop up any standing moisture to help prevent mold from developing, then wipe down the tubes and pan with a mixture of water and vinegar to help kill microbes.

Step 5. Dust off the fans.

Your air conditioner has a fan in the front as well as the back. If either fan collects too much dust, it will have issues circulating the air properly and can reduce the lifespan of your device. A quick dust with a microfiber cloth will do the trick here.

Step 6. Wipe down the condenser coils.

You can use the same vinegar mix to clean that series of tubes in the back of the unit. These are called condenser coils and they help remove heat from the air inside your home. Dust build-up here just means the A/C will be operating at a lower efficiency, which can waste a lot of energy. If you ever feel your A/C just isn't cooling like it used to, it's possible that cleaning the coils is the fix.

Step 7. Put everything back together again.

Turn on the unit for a while to dry everything off. The air coming out should smell fresh and clean.

Now all that's left to do is enjoy your clean, cool air, with all the peace of mind that a confirmed bug-free A/C can offer.

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