How to Clean an AC Unit? A Detailed Guide

how to clean an ac

Living without air conditioning is a brutal experience. The heat will get to you as your home becomes an uncomfortable sweatbox.

If your thermostat keeps going up then it’s time to take a look at your AC unit.

You could have a comfy, cool home with a touch of maintenance and clean-up. This guide shares how to clean an AC so it’s running 100 percent. So, follow along if you’re seeking relief from the hot, unbearable home temperatures.

Why You Should Clean Your AC Unit

Comfort is the first thing that comes to mind when fixing an AC unit. There are a bunch of great benefits of doing cleanings besides comfort though.

Why should you clean your AC unit? Consider these benefits:

  • Lower Energy Costs — An central AC is nearly half of a home’s energy consumption. A clean, functional AC is running efficiently. This means you’ll spend less on its operation, seeing a lower electric bill each month.
  • Better Air Quality — The AC filter blocks a lot of dust and debris but you’ll still get some circulating through the home. A clean AC means clean air quality, not having these particles passing through the home (as much).
  • Longevity — Regular maintenance keeps the unit in tip-top shape. This means fewer service calls and less of an impact on your wallet. You’ll experience better comfort throughout the lifespan of the unit, too.

Keeping that sweet spot of comfort and affordability is the big selling point of cleaning your AC. But, as you can see, there are plenty of other benefits of doing so.

Now — let’s get into the process of cleaning your AC unit.

Tools Needed for A/C Cleaning

The tools needed to clean an A/C are likely already in your home! If not then you can likely find them cheap at a local hardware store.

Your main tools include:

  • A vacuum with hose attachments
  • A plastic bristle brush
  • A screwdriver
  • Paper towels/shammy cloth
  • Gloves

Optional items include:

  • Goggles/glasses (in case of flying debris)
  • Canned air (for blasting out the hard to reach spots)
  • Vinegar (a simple, DIY cleaner for the drain line)
  • Garden hose (to spray the unit and condenser coils)
  • Cleaning detergent (for a deeper clean)

You’ll find plenty of AC cleaning products at a hardware store. They pretty much do the same thing and aren’t really necessary for our purpose.

The only specialty tool you may want to invest in as a ‘fin tool’. This tool has teeth designed for AC cooling fins. It does a combo of cleaning and realigning cooling fins that may have bent during operation.

How to Clean an AC Unit and System

Cleaning an AC unit isn’t difficult or even messy. It’s more of an annoyance that needs to be done every once in a while. The task shouldn’t take longer than an hour once you’re ready to put in the work.

Let’s divide this into two parts:

  • Inside
  • Outside

First, we’ll begin with cleaning the components of your AC system inside. Then, we’ll head outside to give external components a proper scrub down.

The Internal Components

Start by locating the HVAC system (heat pump) in your home. This is usually tucked in a side closet-type space or in the basement.

Power off the unit using the home’s breaker box — then do the following:

  1. Remove the HVAC unit’s filter
  2. Use the vacuum to suck up crud in and around the filter’s area
  3. Use the brush or fin tool to clean the gunk from the fins
  4. Airblast or vacuum fins to remove any loose crud
  5. Apply a foam cleaner or light detergent mix and scrub the fins
  6. Allow the unit to dry
  7. Replace the filter

You can now power the unit back on and check airflow. This is also a good time to use that DIY vinegar mix to sanitize and freshen circulating air.

As for the vents:

  • Wipe down and dust vent openings to ensure full airflow
  • Pull off floor vent covers and vacuum the crud and gunk

You could spritz the vent/ducts at this time for an added touch of fragrance.

That about wraps up what you’ll do for the internal components to the system. These actions ensure the intake part of the system is working efficiently. Next, you’ll clean up the external A/C condenser and other external components.

The External Components

The air from the home is sucked into the HVAC unit in your home. This is then cooled through the A/C condenser unit that’s rumbling and rattling outside.

As expected, the condenser unit is as the will of nature — it can get dirty.

Keeping the external components clean lets the unit work efficiently. Like what you did for the internal components, you’ll do the same for the external parts.

Follow this procedure:

  1. Turn off the condenser via the shut-off (switch to ‘off’ or remove the block)
  2. Rake and pick away larger debris in and around the unit
  3. Use the vacuum and hose attachments to clean the exterior fins
  4. Use a dull knife or the fin tool to straighten the condenser fins
  5. Brush off debris and crud using the bristle brush, and vacuum leftovers
  6. Pop off the fan by removing its screws, setting the fan to the side
  7. Apply foam cleaner or detergent mix to the fins
  8. Blast the fins with water until the cleaning solution is sprayed off
  9. Reattach the fan and screw it back into place
  10. Power up the unit and confirm it’s working

Set your thermostat and see how well the system performs. Is it running well and cooling the home? Great! You’ve successfully cleaned your AC unit!

When to Call the HVAC Professionals

Cleaning your AC unit is a good practice. But, there may be a time when being the home handyperson doesn’t resolve heating and cooling problems.

  • A/C not turning on?
  • Is it blowing hot air?
  • Do you hear weird sounds?

These are all signs you’ll need an AC repair company.

Have local AC pros come out for a service call and tell them your needs. They’ll check the HVAC system and offer a service quote. If it looks acceptable on your end then they’ll get to work having your home nice and cool again.

A Comfier, Cleaner Home Environment

Did you ever think you’d be so engaged with learning how to clean an AC? Well, now you’ve got all the knowledge needed to stay cool all summer long!

A bit of DIY can go a long way in improving your quality of life. What other DIY home projects could you do to increase comfiness? Check out the other home and living guides here on the site!


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