8 Steps to Clean Your Air Conditioner So It Sparkles Inside and Out

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated January 31, 2022
neat bedroom with ac unit
Photo: Evrymmnt / Adobe Stock

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Difficulty: 3/5 Perfect for handy homeowners

Time to complete: 30–60 minutes

Warm weather means your air conditioner is ready to come out of hibernation, and so is all the dust and grime that set up camp inside your unit over the winter. Can you say spring cleaning? Cleaning your air conditioning unit doesn’t just cut airborne allergens, it helps your HVAC system run more efficiently and staves off the type of wear and tear that leads to costly repairs.

While you should hire an HVAC contractor near you to service your air conditioner at the start of the season, you can usually clean it on your own as long as you’re comfortable opening up your unit. How to clean an air conditioner depends on the type of unit. These instructions are for a central AC system, but you can follow a separate guide to clean a portable or window unit.

What You’ll Need:

Tools

  • Spray bottle

  • Mild soap or detergent

  • Flashlight (optional)

  • Garden hose

  • Gloves

  • Cloth

  • Screwdriver

  • Soft brush

  • Plastic bag

  • Fin comb

Supplies

  • No-rinse foaming coil cleaner

  • Replacement filter

Prepping to Clean Your Air Conditioner

Before you can clean your air conditioner, you need to choose the right cleaning materials. This includes a no-rinse coil cleaner that works for both evaporator and condenser coils. Carefully read the fine print. Some coil cleaners are caustic and have too many toxic fumes for indoor use. Always wear gloves when using a coil cleaner.

You’ll also need a spray bottle filled with soapy water. You want to use enough soap or detergent that it’ll bust grime but not so much that it suds, which makes it more difficult to remove debris. Avoid bleach because it’s corrosive to metal.

How to Clean Your Air Conditioner in 8 Steps

Central AC systems usually have two parts: an outdoor condenser unit and an interior evaporator. You can clean both using the following steps.

1. Cut the Power

Before you start, turn off your air conditioning unit. Cleaning a standard HVAC system while it’s running is dangerous—both for you and your air conditioner. There’s usually a shut-off box somewhere near the condenser unit (the portion of the AC system located outside your home). Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s best to switch off the main breaker. Use a flashlight or other light source to see what you’re doing.

2. Clean Debris From the Outdoor Condenser Unit

Outdoor condensers can collect all kinds of debris, from grass clippings to decaying leaves. Peer into the protective grille around your unit and look for debris in the fan (at the top of the unit) and fins (around the unit). Use a garden hose to rinse away the debris or remove it with your hands. You can scrub dirt on the protective grille with a cloth and soapy water. Do not get the electrical box wet under any circumstances.

3. Clean the Condenser Coils

There are two types of air conditioner coils that need cleaning: the condenser coils and the evaporator coils. If rinsing wasn’t enough to remove stubborn debris, clean the condenser coils and fins by hand. Remove the protective grille (or side panels) around your unit using a screwdriver. 

Then, do the following:

  • Gently brush the AC coils and fins using a soft brush.

  • Cover electrical components with a plastic bag to protect them from moisture.

  • Spray no-rinse coil cleaner on the condenser coils. 

  • Use a hose to spray off the cleaner after a few minutes (optional).

Make sure electrical components don’t come into contact with coil cleaner or water. Be careful not to touch the coil cleaner with bare hands since it can cause irritation.

4. Straighten the Fins and Cover Your Condenser

If any fins bend out of shape during the cleaning process, brush them with a fin comb to straighten them out. Put the protective cover back on your AC, and head inside to clean the rest of your HVAC system.

5. Change the Air Conditioner Filter

change air conditioner filter
Photo: Proxima Studio / Adobe Stock

The more you run your system, the more dirt and debris will clog up your filter. Change your air conditioner filter at least every three months. Since dirty air ducts will muck up the cleanest air conditioning units, hire a local air duct cleaner if you notice any signs of dirty ducts, including:

  • A need to change your filter more frequently

  • Debris built up along your air vents

6. Clean the Evaporator Coils

Evaporator coils are located on the indoor portion of your AC system. In a standard HVAC unit, they’re usually in a box attached to the furnace or inside your air conditioner air handler. You can reach the coils through an access panel, which opens using a knob or by unscrewing screws. Once you open the panel:

  • Remove dust from the coil with a soft brush.

  • Spray coil cleaner evenly on the evaporator coils.

  • Remove any remaining grime with a soft brush (optional).

7. Clean the AC Drain Pan 

If your coil cleaner is working, it should be dripping into your air conditioner’s drain pan, taking the dust and grime with it. This means you’ll also need to clean your drain pan. Use a soapy solution and wipe the drain pan down with a cloth. If the pan isn’t draining normally, you may need to call in a professional to remove a clog.

8. Close the Access Panel and Give Your AC a Test Run

man closing ac filter cover
Photo: Ekaterina / Adobe Stock

When you’re done cleaning your unit, close the access panel. Make sure your AC unit has fully dried before turning on the power. If you cleaned your AC unit because of a problem—like poor performance or a weird smell—give it a test run. If the problem persists, consider hiring a local HVAC repair specialist.

DIY Vs. Hiring a Professional

repairman fixing/ cleaning ac unit in home
Photo: goodluz / Adobe Stock

Though handy homeowners may want to clean out their AC unit, it’s not a task for everyone. If you’re not comfortable opening up your AC system, leave it to a professional. Even so, cleaning your own air conditioning unit doesn’t replace professional maintenance. Regular maintenance is key to the longevity of your unit. 

Additional Questions

How often should I clean my air conditioning unit?

Air conditioners need at least an annual cleaning, but you may need to clean your whole HVAC system (including the air ducts) more often. According to the National Air Duct Cleaners Association, the frequency depends on factors like whether you smoke, have pets, or have allergies.

How much does it cost to have my AC coils professionally cleaned?

According to HomeAdvisor, cleaning AC coils cost most homeowners $100 to $400. Cleaning costs less when you wrap it into your annual service visit or have your coils cleaned along with your ducts.

How do I clean a portable window air conditioner?

Portable and window units can be cleaned similar to your indoor evaporator. Always unplug your window unit to ensure it’s off before cleaning.

If I don’t want to replace my air conditioner filter, can I clean it?

You can use a vacuum with a hose attachment to clean your air filter, but you’ll eventually need to replace it once the dust starts to accumulate.

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