Keep Cool by Maintaining Your AC: How to Clean Your Air Conditioner

Keeping your air conditioner working efficiently couldn’t be easier. Take an hour or so this weekend and perform a deep clean.

By Tina Jepson


If you live anywhere remotely warm, there’s a mighty good chance you’ve already started cranking your air conditioner to combat the uncomfortable (yet inevitable) summer heat.


Here in North Carolina, we’ve been dealing with 90-degree days for a couple of months already and the summer solstice hasn’t even occurred yet. The loud, consistent hum of AC units is strikingly evident every time I muster up the courage to venture outside for a quick walk or to check the progress of my backyard garden.


But, as we all know, running your AC isn’t always as simple as switching on the thermostat at the beginning of the season and calling it a day. No way! Our AC units need a ton of love, involving regular cleaning twice a year.




Cleaning your AC unit isn’t just a good idea, it’s essential if you want to keep your unit living a long and healthy life.  Here’s how to get the job done right.


Switch Off the Power

Since you’re going to be spraying the inside of your unit with water and it’s better to be safe than sorry, begin by switching off the power to your AC unit. First, turn off your thermostat and then head to the AC pullout disconnect box (found outside) and switch the breaker to the “off” position by removing the AC pullout.




Clear the Area

Tall grass and hostas surround my AC unit, so when the time comes to mow the lawn or trim back my landscaping, debris quickly winds up caked in the unit.


Since you want to work with a clean slate, at the very least clear your surroundings of anything that may get in the way of your AC compressor’s efficiency. Take out your hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, and weed eaters and get to work!


Remove the Top of the Unit

Next, use a socket wrench to remove the top of the AC condenser unit. You may have to dig around to find the right one because each unit has a different size screw to remove. (There’s no universal size.)




As you lift it up, be mindful of the fan and any wires that may be connected.  


In some cases, removing the lid is hard and potentially impossible, as was the case with my 20-year-old unit. To remedy, I removed the fan cage and worked with the inch or so available to me.




Clean the Fan

Now that the top of your unit it off (if you’re lucky), you can easily see the fan blades. These blades get remarkably dirty, so dampen a clean rag with warm water and thoroughly wipe down the top, bottom, and sides of each fan blade.




Focus on the Fins

Condenser fins are those long, vertical slats that surround the unit. When they’re clean and straight, they help to improve the efficiency of your unit. If by any chance, they get damaged (which is quite easy to do, actually) then your unit runs the risk of not operating as well as it should. As you can see in the pictures below, these fins need regular TLC.




Even if your condenser fins look new, it’s always good to give them a solid scrub-down. Using a hose with a strong spray nozzle, spray the fins from the inside, allowing the stream to pass through the fins toward the outside of the unit. Then, allow the unit to dry.


Consider purchasing some foaming fin cleaner, which helps to remove some of the deeply embedded dirt.


Don’t worry if your fins are crooked, or worse, completely bent. Fins get “wonky” over time. If yours aren’t looking their best, fix them by using a special condenser fin comb, a flathead screwdriver, a butter knife or a strong fingernail. They’re really easy to put back into place.




Get Ready for Cooler Air

Your AC unit is now cleaner and bound to run more efficiently than before, but before you start it back up again you have to put it back together.


Carefully place the cover back over the unit and secure using the special hex screwdriver. Then, head over to the AC pullout disconnect and put it back into place.  Finally, turn on your thermostat.




Now, you can rest easy knowing that your AC condenser unit is in tip-top shape.


Images used with permission, courtesy of Tina Jepson

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