How Do You Clean An Air Conditioner Filter?

Written By Lester Mclaughlin
Updated On

Are you wondering how to clean your air conditioner filter?

You’ve come to the right place!

In this Blue National HVAC guide, you’ll learn:

  • When to clean and when to replace your AC filter
  • How to clean your air filter
  • How often and when to clean your air conditioner’s filter
How Do You Clean Your AC Unit's Filter

And much more!

So, if you’re looking for tips on how to clean an air conditioner filter, keep reading our detailed guide below to get answers to all of your questions!

Should You Clean Or Replace Your AC Filter?

Whether you clean or replace your air conditioner’s filter depends on the type of air filter you have and how long it has been installed. If your air filter is disposable, you should throw it out once it becomes saturated with dust and dirt. 

Disposable filters can be identified by their lower cost construction – they typically have cardboard frames and cost less than $5. If you’re using disposable filters in your AC unit, you should buy them in bulk to save money and to ensure you have many on-hand for replacements as needed.

If your air conditioner unit has a permanent filter, you should not replace or throw it away. Instead, you should clean it. Permanent or reusable filters have fiberglass or rigid plastic frames and because of this, they are more expensive upfront but can save you money in the long run. 

The good news is, if you want to upgrade, you can switch to a permanent filter as long as you get the proper size for your AC unit. 

How Do You Clean An Air Conditioner Filter?

Before you set out to clean your dirty air filters, you’ll want to set aside about 2 hours of your time to give them the thorough cleaning they deserve. The first thing you should do before cleaning any air conditioning filter is to turn the air conditioner off. Either unplug, flip the breaker, or set the thermostat to “off.” 

The air filter location and the method required to clean it will vary depending on the AC unit type. So, in this guide, we’ll cover how to clean the filters of air-source heat pumps, central air conditioners, ductless mini-split heat pumps, and window AC units. 

Air-Source Heat Pump And Central AC Filter

The filters in air-source heat pumps and central air conditioning unit are located in the system’s air handler (indoor unit). Usually, there’s a door that either swings open, slides up/down, or requires a screwdriver to remove the cover. 

Once you have the cover removed, slide the air filter out and inspect it. If it looks gray or has visible dust on it, it will need to be cleaned. However, if the filter is damaged (there are holes through it) you will need to replace it with a new one.

If it’s not damaged, though, go ahead and follow the steps to clean it off.

Step 1 – Vacuum the Filter

Use the hose attachment on your vacuum cleaner to suck the trapped dust, hair, and other grime off your filter. If this sufficiently cleans the filter, place it back into the air handler and close the cover. 

If your filter still has a lot of trapped dirt and dust after vacuuming, move onto the next step. 

Step 2 – Use Water To Clean The Filter

If there’s still significant dust and dirt on your filter, take it to your sink, shower, or garden hose to rinse the filter. Run the water through the filter the opposite way of the airflow. With this method, the water can knock the dust and dirt out without pushing the gunk deeper into the filter. 

When you’re finished rinsing out the air filter, let it dry completely before replacing it. 

Step 3 – Replace The Air Filter

Reinsert the air filter back into your AC unit the same way you took it out. Then, verify that the airflow arrows are in the proper orientation. This prevents the filter from being inserted backward. Once you’ve verified that it’s in the proper direction, close the cover and turn your air conditioner back on. 

Step 4 – Set A Monthly Reminder 

To keep up with cleaning your air filter, set a monthly reminder to check the filter’s condition. If needed, you can clean or replace the filter sooner than that if it gets dirty. For instance, in warmer climates, your air conditioner will be running more often and should be checked more frequently. 

Ductless Mini-Split and Window AC Filters

The air filter on ductless mini-split heat pumps is located in the indoor unit, mounted to the wall. To access the filter, you have to flip up the front panel. The panel opens just like the trunk of a car.

With the cover open, you will be able to see the filter. Depending on the size and manufacturer of the system, they are usually black and have snap clips to attach to the indoor unit. 

Remember to turn off the unit before you remove the filter. However, most mini-split systems will have an auto-shutoff when you open the cover.

If the unit is larger, sometimes there will be two filters side by side. Ductless mini-split heat pumps almost always have plastic framed mesh filters that are meant to be cleaned and reused. The steps to clean them are very similar to cleaning other AC filters. 

The same can be said for accessing the filter on a window AC unit which is very similar to the ductless mini-split heat pumps. There is usually a door that swings open, slides up, or snaps off to expose the filter. Window AC unit’s filters are designed to be reused as well.

Once you’ve located the filter, here are the steps you can take to clean it off.

Step 1 – Vacuum the Filter

Lay the filter down onto a flat surface and vacuum the side of the filter that the airflow enters first. Vacuuming this side first will prevent trapped dirt from being sucked deeper into the filter. After vacuuming the front of the filter, flip it over and vacuum the other side.

Step 2 – Spray The Filter With Water

For a deeper clean, rinse the filter in warm water. Spray the water through the filter in the opposite direction of the airflow to knock off dirt and dust. Continue spraying until your filter looks sufficiently clean. Let it dry completely before replacing it in your mini-split unit. 

If there is still excess gunk and dust trapped in your filter, try a water and vinegar mixture.

Step 3 – Soak In Water And Vinegar 

If your filter has stubborn dust caked on, submerge and soak it for 45 minutes to two hours in a 1:1 mixture of water and vinegar.

The vinegar and water will loosen up the trapped dirt. Once the soaking time is up, drain the water and vinegar, then rinse off your filter with warm water. Again, let it dry thoroughly before replacing it in your mini-split system or window AC unit. 

Step 4 – Replace The Filter

Reinsert the air filter back into your ductless mini-split heat pump or window air conditioner the same way you removed it. Ensure the plastic snaps or screws are secure before closing the cover and turning it back on. 

How Often Should AC Filters Be Cleaned?

You should check your AC filter every month to ensure it is not overly saturated with a build-up of dust or pet hair.

Typically, a filter will need cleaning every 1-3 months. If you use disposable filters in your AC unit, replace the thin, 1” filters every 1-3 months. If you have thicker, high-efficiency filters, change those once every 6 to 12 months. 

How Can You Tell If Your AC Filter Needs To Be Cleaned?

A filter cleaning isn’t always necessary each time you inspect the filter. Sometimes your air conditioning unit provides very apparent signals that the filter is clogged and needs cleaning. Other times, there are just subtle clues that your air filter is dirty.

However, don’t only rely on these dirty filter symptoms to determine if it’s dirty. When in doubt, check it out and keep an eye out for these signs!

Visible Layer of Dust

One of the most obvious ways to determine if the filter needs to be cleaned is to inspect it visually. Of course, this requires you to do some work to remove the filter to look it over. However, it is the most accurate way to diagnose a dirty filter and determine if it needs to be cleaned. 

Higher Energy Bills

When an air filter gets very clogged with dust, the amount of airflow that can pass through it will significantly decrease. Therefore, your air conditioner will have to run for a more extended amount of time to cool your home. When it runs longer, it uses more electricity and increases your energy bills

Air Conditioner Struggles To Cool

Along the same lines, when the air filter is clogged, the AC unit will struggle to provide cold air to your home. If you notice that your air conditioner is often running and it is staying warm in your home, check the air filter. The AC unit might be struggling to cool and this could very well be a sign of a dirty air filter. 

Air Conditioner Trips The Breaker

When your air conditioner cannot keep up with the cooling demands of the homeowner because of a blocked, dirty air filter, it could trip the electrical breaker. If your AC unit keeps tripping the breaker, you might have a clogged air filter. 

Stuffy Noses and Allergy Flare-Ups 

Some individuals are more susceptible to allergens than others. If your allergies suddenly flare up unexpectantly, your body could be noticing the increased dust and allergens floating around in your home due to a dirty filter. 

Why Is It Important To Clean AC Filters?

Keeping the AC filters clean is a task all homeowners should schedule into their routines. Clean filters should be considered necessary maintenance and completed every 1-3 months. A clean air filter provides many benefits to your home, your AC unit, and your health

Improved Indoor Air Quality 

If an air filter is dirty, your air conditioner will recirculate dust, pathogens, germs, and allergens every time it runs.

A dirty filter will eventually cause condensation on the evaporator coil as well. Since water condenses on the evaporator coils, moisture will mix in with the dust and create a perfect environment for mildew and mold.

To keep your indoor air quality great, keep your air filter clean and clear! 

Better Efficiency

When an air filter is blocked with dust and dirt, the air conditioning system has to work harder and longer to get enough airflow into your home to cool it. When the air filter is clean, it blocks less airflow and makes the AC system run more efficiently. 

Improved AC Unit Lifespan

AC filters that are blocked with dirt reduce the amount of airflow that can pass through them.

Air conditioners with blocked air filters have to continuously struggle to cool your home. Over time the extra strain can catch up with the AC unit through increased wear and tear on critical components like the blower motor, condenser, and expansion valve. 

Routinely cleaning the AC filter allows longer-term efficient operation leading to overall increase system longevity. 

When To Call An HVAC Specialist

If dusting off and cleaning the air filters of your HVAC system is too much for you, give us a call!

Our team of HVAC professionals can schedule routine visits to clean or replace your AC filters and provide maintenance to your HVAC system to keep it up and running efficiently.

Meet Your HVAC Expert

Lester Mclaughlin

HVAC systems are highly technical and often is the most misunderstood part of the house. From ductwork to heat pumps, I've been exposed to all sorts of issues facing homeowners. It really irks me when a homeowner is given bad advice like refilling freon vs fixing a leak in the system. I'm here to help our website readers with their heating and a/c problems.
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