How to Clean Air Conditioner Filters for Healthier Climate Control

Caroline Nixon Caroline Nixon
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Regular cleaning of the air conditioner filters is essential for maintaining high-quality air within your home. The filters are removable inserts designed to catch dust, dirt and pollutants, including bacteria, before they circulate through the treated air. Without regular cleaning, the filters can clog up with these contaminants, and the air conditioner actually spreads them throughout the home. Healthline reports that using air conditioning with dirty air filters can cause respiratory issues like pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis, and asthma. Plus, there are other symptoms to look out for, including:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Watery eyes

It's not the air conditioning itself that causes sickness, but the low quality of unfiltered air.

Blocked air filters also reduce the performance of your air conditioner. The harder a system works to cool or heat the home, the more energy is consumed, which results in higher energy bills.

The good news is that filters are easy to clean, and by following this simple guide, you can ensure the family keeps breathing quality, clean air. Here's what you need to know:

Air Filter Cleaning Schedule

HVAC technicians recommended that wall-mounted split systems and window air conditioner filters be cleaned every three months, but the more often, the better. Energy Star reports that a central air conditioner filter should be cleaned at least once per month during periods of heavy use. For split systems and window air conditioners, the filters are located just behind the front of the unit. If you rely on a ducted central air conditioner, the filters are found behind the cover at the return vent.

Beyond the filters, the AC unit itself, including the louvers, should be cleaned every six months as dust and grime buildup may inhibit performance. Plus, the outdoors compressor wants cleaning at least once every 12 months to remove the dirt and leaves that tend to cluster around the unit.

Metropolitan Air Conditioning recommends having the air conditioner serviced by a professional once a year. This service is comparable to the car's tune-up. A licensed technician will go beyond the filters to thoroughly clean the condenser and evaporator coils. They will flush the drains, reseal any leaks, top-up refrigerants and test all circuitry. Having a professional service your air conditioner once every 12 months can improve the system's performance and extend its lifespan.

How to Clean an Air Conditioner Filter

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The air conditioner's instruction manual will provide manufacturer's directions for the specific system in use. Always refer to your manual, as each system is different. If that booklet is long gone, try the manufacturer's website to locate a copy.

What you'll need:

  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Gloves
  • Face mask
  • Safety glasses
  • Cleaning cloth
  • Soap/detergent
  • Warm water
  • Step ladder

Before you do anything, make sure the power is switched off at the wall.

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Step 1: Remove the Filter of the Filters

The way you access the air filters will differ between systems, but the cleaning method will be the same.

Split systems and window air conditioners require you to lift the front panel from the bottom and slide out the filters.

For ducted air conditioning, the filters are found at the return vent located within a wall or the roof and can require a step ladder to reach. Unscrew or slide open the panel and then lift the filter out. There can be a lot of dust falling from overhead, so wear a mask and goggles.

Step 2: Vacuum Dust Buildup

Cleaning the clogged air filters can be achieved in many ways, although the vacuum is the easiest and the least messy. First, gently run the vacuum over the filter, sucking up all surface material. These reusable filters are delicate, so be gentle with the vacuum.

Alternatively, you can carry the filters outside and brush off the dust over a waste bin.

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Step 3: Rinse in Warm Soapy Water

Fill a sink or tub with warm, soapy water and wash the filters. A simple detergent works fine.

As filters can be delicate, it's advised that you use a cleaning cloth in place of a coarse brush or scouring pad. Once the filters are clean, leave them in a safe space to dry completely.

When required, replacement air filters can be sourced from the manufacturer.

Step 4: Clean the AC Unit

Gently vacuum around the space reserved for filters to remove any dust left behind. Wipe the surroundings with a damp cloth as required. Once the filters and AC unit are both completely dry, slide them back in, close the cover and switch the power back on.

How to Clean the Outdoor Unit

The outdoor unit requires a similar level of TLC. Start by sweeping or blowing the surrounding leaves, as they can reduce air circulating around the internal coils. Next, wipe down the unit removing dirt buildup and excessive grime.

Running a vacuum or dustbuster over the air intake can help clear dust that's made its way inside. However, it's not advised to remove the covers yourself. This could damage the unit and void the warranty. Instead, leave the outdoor unit to a professional who will clean the internal components as part of an annual service.

Now, your heating and cooling is good to go! A little maintenance and regular cleanings go a long way towards extending the life of an air conditioning unit and helps you save money in the long run. But, of course, fresh air is the priority and cleaning the filter ensures constant healthy breathing.

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