The Exact Right Way to Clean Your Air Conditioner–and Why You Should

At the start of summer you may have forgotten to do one teeny tiny thing before plugging in your air conditioning unit and turning your apartment into an arctic cave. We’re guessing you probably didn’t clean out or change your A/C filter. Before you give us a major eye roll, know this: Maintaining the cleanliness of the filter is actually crucial to the functioning of your air conditioner–and your health.

Let’s break it down: The air in your room gets sucked into your air conditioner, cooled down, and then blown back into the room without all the extra debris, thanks to filters. These dust blockers essentially provide your home with cleaner, cooler air. Magic, right?

But if you’ve never replaced the filter in your A/C unit (or don’t even know where to find it—hey, it happens), you could be facing a problem, because the air conditioner filter affects the efficiency of your appliance, its life cycle, and your health. It’s definitely worth cleaning or replacing filters to not only keep energy costs down, but to reduce the amount of allergens in the air. More savings and a less sniffly night sleep? Score.

We asked an expert to weigh in on why we need to be cleaning our air conditioners and how to do exactly that. Good news? It’s so much easier than you think.

How dirty air conditioner filters affect your home and health

By not cleaning or replacing the air conditioner filter regularly, your unit has to work a lot harder to push out clean, cool air. Healthy homes are those with good ventilation, and dust-clad filters decrease the amount of air being circulated in your home. “A dirty filter will obstruct airflow and can even lead to burning out the fan on your furnace or air conditioner if you never clean it,” says Louisville-based James Sublett, MD, past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Plus, it can lead to a higher electric bill (woof).

Many HVAC systems have flimsy, inexpensive filters that can get loaded up with dust and debris and flat out collapse. Dr. Sublett says he once visited a home where he discovered the filter—weighed down with gunk—had gotten sucked up inside the air conditioner duct itself. When this happens, the stray filter becomes a source for allergens and contamination, since all the sludge of the filter is then being distributed into the air of your home.

And that’s not doing any favors to your respiratory health. Routinely cleaning or replacing your A/C filter can minimize organic material that builds up, like mold. The presence of mold can cause chronic cough, stuffiness, wheezing, and eye and skin irritation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just another reason you’ll want to clean the filter.

Simple tips for cleaning your A/C filter

If you have a window air conditioning unit with a reusable filter, Dr. Sublett recommends cleaning it at least once a month during spring and summer. Pull the filter out, and inspect it for any damage. If torn, throw it out and replace it with a new, fresh filter. If there’s no damage, let the filter soak in the sink or bathtub in a diluted solution of Clorox or Lysol to help kill any mold spores. Gently scrub the filter with a soft-bristled brush to rid the mesh paneling of any lurking grime, then allow the filter to dry thoroughly. Before snapping it back into the unit, sweep over it with a handheld vacuum to grab any remaining dust particles.

Letting it dry thoroughly is key, Dr. Sublett emphasizes. Otherwise, he says, “you can wind up leaving a damp environment for mold to grow.”

That’s one of the reasons why he argues for replacing filters instead of washing them. The other? Cleaning filters may not completely remove all the allergens that could be trapped there. Although it depends on your A/C use (a resident of Florida will pump out cool air for an extended amount of time compared to someone residing in New York, for example), Dr. Sublett suggests tossing your filter and replacing it every month. These customizable cut-to-fit filters ($42; are great for any size air conditioner, and since they come six to a pack, you’ll have enough to get you through the year.

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For central HVAC systems, use a high efficiency filter and replace it every three months (think: when the season changes). You can purchase a box with several filters ($36; so that you have one on hand when it’s time for that seasonal change. Be sure to schedule routine HVAC checkups with a professional in springtime to have your unit serviced before the cooling season kicks in. Maintenance is key to prolonging the life of your unit, conserving energy, and keeping your home healthy.

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