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How to Clean & Change Your AC Filter

changing ac filter

We may not realize it, but the air conditioner is one of the necessities of modern life. Your AC unit is essential for keeping your home comfortable in the hot summer months, and it can literally mean the difference between life and death during heat waves. But in order to keep your AC working in optimal condition, you need a clean air conditioner filter.

AC filters work by trapping dirt, pollen, pet dander, and dust so that the air in your room remains clean and safe to breathe. Over time, these particles start to build up in the filter. This can potentially allow harmful particulates and allergens into your indoor air.

A clogged filter can also greatly affect the performance of your AC unit, causing it to be less efficient and reducing its operational lifespan. Dust and debris blocking the filter cause the fan to have to work harder to pull air into the unit. Routine cleaning is critical to ensure the efficiency and long life of your AC unit. 

In this guide, we discuss how often you need to clean your air conditioner filter, how to properly clean it, as well as how to tell if your AC filter needs to be replaced and how to do it.

Image of dirty air conditioner filter and how to clean it. You can clean your AC filters by rinsing in the sink, or by using a vacuum.
Infographic by THS Heating & Cooling Expert Mickey Luongo

The 2 Types of AC Filters

Your AC filters should be cleaned or replaced at least once a month, depending on how often you use your unit. But how do you know if your AC filter needs to be washed or replaced?

There are two different types of AC filters: washable and disposable. 

Washable filters

Washable AC filters can be easily cleaned and reused as needed. Since they are reusable, they cost a bit more than disposable ones, but are usually more effective at cleaning particles provided they are cleared regularly. 

Disposable filters

Disposable AC filters require less maintenance and are less expensive than reusable / washable ones. However, they carry a shorter life cycle. 

Check your owner’s manual to see if your AC uses washable or disposable filters — that way, you’ll have a better idea of what to do when your filter gets dirty.

How to Remove the AC Filter for Cleaning

  1. Make sure the air conditioner is turned off.
  2. Unplug the AC from the wall socket (if applicable).
  3. Most AC filters are designed to be accessible from the front. Take off the front panel of the AC unit. If you don’t know how, consult your owner’s manual.
  4. Remove the AC filter. This is usually a thin membrane surrounded by a plastic frame. It is removed by either unclipping it from the AC, or sliding it up from its holding slot.

How to Clean AC Filter

With a Vacuum

  1. Remove the air filter.
  2. Use your vacuum’s hose or crevice tool to vacuum debris from the filter.
  3. Once most of the debris is removed, rinse the filter in running water (hot or cold).
  4. Air dry the filter.
  5. Repeat if necessary.

In the Sink

  1. Remove the air filter.
  2. Soak the air filter in warm, soapy water. 
  3. If your filter is particularly dirty, you can try a solution of one part water and one part white vinegar. Let it soak for at least an hour.
  4. Air dry the filter. Make sure it is completely dry before putting it back in the AC.
  5. Repeat if necessary.

With a Hose

If the AC filter is too big to fit in the sink, or if you’d rather not clean it in your kitchen, you can opt to hose it off in the garden.

  1. Position the filter in an area of the yard or garden where the washed off dirt can be hosed away cleanly. Avoid white walls or delicate plants.
  2. Make sure the hose isn’t pressurized to avoid tearing a hole in the filter.
  3. Hose off the filter. Do multiple passes as necessary.
  4. Allow the filter to air dry. Avoid direct sunlight to minimize UV damage to the membrane or plastic frame.

AC Filter Lifespan

The lifespan of your AC filters will depend on the manufacturer and how often you use your AC unit. Manufacturers typically list product lifespan on the packaging, however, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends checking your AC filters every month or two during the summer season for excessive dirt buildup. 

This is because the AC unit tends to be used more often during the summer months. In addition, the warmer weather also causes dust and dirt to waft up and circulate with the hot air, instead of settling on the ground during the cold season.

There are also situations where the AC filter should be cleaned or replaced more frequently, including:

  • If you have family members who are prone to allergies
  • If there are any pets in the house, since animal hair and dander tend to clog filters more often
  • If any family members suffer from respiratory illnesses, which makes them more vulnerable
  • If you live in a hot and humid climate with excess moisture or excessive humidity 
Image of window AC unit. Replacing your air conditioner filter is easier than you think.

Changing Your AC Filter: When & How

Whether you have a disposable air conditioner filter or a washable AC filter, at some point all air conditioner filters need to be replaced. But replacing your AC filter doesn’t have to be a difficult task — we’ll walk you through how to tell if your AC filter needs to be replaced and how to replace it.

As we’ve mentioned, the lifespan of your AC filter depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the filter, how often you use your AC unit, and whether or not your home is especially susceptible to contaminants such as pet dander or dust. But how can you be sure if your AC filter needs replacing?

In a nutshell: if it’s really dirty, replace it. If you have a washable AC filter and washing just isn’t doing the trick anymore, it’s time for a new AC filter. If you have a disposable AC filter and it’s looking exceptionally filthy, you need a replacement.

In addition, if you notice any rips, tears, or holes in your AC filter, you should replace it with a new one. Worn AC filters do nothing to improve your air quality and can affect the overall performance of your AC system.

How to Replace Your Air Conditioner Filter

The steps for replacing your air conditioner filter will depend on the type of AC unit you have in your home.

If you have a central air conditioning:

  1. Shut off your AC system.
  2. Locate the air filter.
  3. Check the dimensions on the air filter – this will tell you what size replacement AC filter you need.
  4. Remove the old filter.
  5. Replace with a new filter. The filter should snap or slide right in place.

If you have a mini split AC unit:

  1. Shut off your AC unit.
  2. Open the indoor AC unit’s front housing.
  3. Remove the old filter.
  4. Make sure your new filter is the correct size. Mini split air filters are specific to the model you have. 
  5. Install new filter. The filter should snap right in place.

If you have a window AC unit:

  1. Shut off your AC unit.
  2. Remove the front housing.
  3. Remove the old filter.
  4. Make sure your new filter is the correct size. Window AC filters are specific to the model you have. 
  5. Install new filter. The filter should snap right in place.

AC Filters & Air Quality

As we’ve discussed, a high-quality and clean AC filter will do wonders to improve the air quality in your home and ensure your AC unit stays in good working condition for years. When paired with a quality air purifier, a clean AC filter will help put you on the path to a happier and healthier home. An added bonus? Regularly cleaning and replacing your AC filter can help you save money and energy — in fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that regular maintenance can reduce your energy consumption by about 5 to 15 percent.

After cleaning or changing your AC filter, you may also want to check out our guide to maintaining all the other types of appliance filters in your home.

Mickey Luongo

Mickey is the resident heating and air conditioning expert with over 15 years of experience in the industry.

6 thoughts on “How to Clean & Change Your AC Filter”

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