How to Clean an AC Filter in a Car — Keepin’ It Cool, Safe, and Clean

I drive a car. You drive a car. Heck, in an average lifetime, it is said we will spend more than 37,000 hours in the car. 

That’s HUGE! So, you have to make your ride clean, comfortable, and safe for yourself as well as other passengers that might spend time in your car. 

One way to do this is to keep the AC filter in the car clean. It’s easy to neglect-after all, it’s out of sight and thus out of mind. 

I will show you an easy way to keep the filter clean, so you can breathe easy and stay cool. 

How to clean an AC filter in your car.

How Does the AC Filter Get Clogged?

Let’s talk about how this happens and what the symptoms are. For starters, the AC filter, which is also sometimes called the cabin filter, has a very special purpose inside your car.

Its job is to remove any undesirable contaminants from the air that is released through the air conditioning mechanism in your vehicle.

The filter is just one way that your cabin is kept as comfortable as can be as you ride along by getting rid of pollutants like dirt, allergens, and more.

You might even compare this to an engine air filter in that it too becomes dirty and stopped up with repeated use, and we periodically have to replace them. There are a few signs to watch out for-paying attention to these will let you know when that is.

  • Do you notice that the air doesn’t seem as strong? A reduced flow of air is just one signal that it is time for a new AC filter. Less air comes out of your system’s vents, and this is thanks to the dirty air filter that does not allow the air to pass through it. Another “con” to this is the AC system’s reduced efficiency: It has to work a lot harder to keep the air cool and thus makes your engine work harder, reducing THAT efficiency also.
  • Engine output not great? This could be the higher amount of electricity the AC system is demanding for its blower motor. This additional strain sometimes gets so bad that you can actually notice the reduction in power when you turn on your air conditioning

Other Signs to Watch

  • Do you notice more dust and allergens in the cabin? Are you allergic and sneezing more often than normal? A clogged filter cannot clean up the air properly, and you may be breathing air that aggravates your allergy symptoms or otherwise makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • The solution may be to replace the cabin air filter entirely, which a mechanic can assist you with, or to clean it up yourself. The focus of this article is to clean the filter-however, please understand that in some cases you may simply have to replace it altogether.

How to Clean Your Car’s AC Filter

Some of you may be wondering, “How often do I have to do this?” The answer is to do it before the summer arrives-this can vary depending on where you live-and then at least twice each month you are using it. 

For those of you that require AC on a constant basis, you should clean the filters once or twice per month

The first step is to turn off the car and remove the cover of the air conditioner. Your car may have tabs that simply pop out the air conditioner, or you may have to unscrew them. Put the cover off to the side and pull out the filter gently. You may have to unhook the clips that hold it steady. 

Next, double check the filter is able to be washed, and not disposed of. Disposable filters cannot be washed and replaced. You may have to head to an auto parts store or repair shop to have it replaced. Check the manual of your car, if available to see what your filter is. 

After this, use a shop-vac to suck out any dust, so it does not spread around. It is a good idea to do this outside if possible so you can breathe easy-you may even want to wear a mask. Don’t press too hard on that as you work, as the filter could damage. 

Next, take a bucket and fill it with some lukewarm water. Add some safe liquid detergent to the mix. Create suds and fully submerge the filter. Move it around, so it gets soaped up by the detergent mix. 

Do not scrub the filter using harsh tools like a wire brush, as this could lead to damage. Allow it to soak in the water for about 15 minutes before you remove it.

Finish It Up

You can also hose off the filter using a gentle garden hose to clean off all the dust and dirt until the water runs clean. 

Let’s now finish up the process by making a mix of vinegar and water. Put equal parts of this into a spray bottle and spray each side of the filter. Allow it to sit for ten minutes so all bacteria are killed off before you rinse it under running water. 

Now put down some old newspapers or paper bags on a clean spot on the ground. Prop up the filter against a wall and allow it to dry out completely before you put it back inside the vehicle and close up the cover. 

Lastly, enjoy the clean air that comes out of your AC vents.

Why Should I Do This?

You probably already figured out some pretty good reasons why you should clean this filter out every now and again. Let’s take this chance to do a “roundup” of all the reasons why. 

  • Health Issues – Having a cabin air filter that keeps the vehicle pollutant-free is important for every passenger’s good health. If you or somebody in your family has breathing trouble or allergies, keeping the cabin filter clean is critical. Keep it clean so you can drive and breathe easier. 
  • Poorly Functioning HVAC system: If you leave a cabin filter in long after it was time to clean it, the HVAC system (namely, that air conditioning blower motor we talked about earlier) will have to work a lot harder and thus be less efficient.
  • Fog Clearing – This presents perhaps the greatest danger of all. If you drive but are unable to clearly see the road thanks to the foggy windshield, you could be putting yourself, your family, and other motorists in serious danger. Prevent this from happening by A) Waiting until the windshield has cleared before driving and B) Making sure your AC filter is clean. Poor air quality that comes from a poorly maintained cabin filter will promote the formation of condensation on the glass. 
  • Unsavory Smells – You might try to write this off as a dead animal on the side of the road, an abandoned bag full of trash or a car with really bad exhaust that just drove by you. But alas, it’s not anything you just drove by. Those dirty AC filters produce a smell that is musty and dusty, making your ride unpleasant and possibly causing you to roll the windows down at inappropriate times, such as during dusty road construction or when it is raining.

How Much Will This Cost?

Supposing you are not able to clean the filter, and you have to replace it, we can offer you a ballpark figure on how much you will have to pay. It will, of course, vary from mechanic to mechanic, so keep that in mind. 

However, you can expect to pay about $15 to $50 to purchase the actual filter and the cost of labor that your mechanic charges to put it in. My local mechanic, for instance, charges $90 per hour for labor. Supposing it takes him 15 minutes to change it out for me, that’s $22.50 in labor I will pay. 

That being said, you may wish to do it yourself if you can or ask a friend to put it in for you and also teach you how to do it properly. 

Do not attempt this unless you feel confident in your ability. After all, the clips or tabs that hold this filter in place are very important. Damaging them in any way will result in greater problems, so only do this if you are able. 

Wrap-Up

You absolutely need to make it a priority to clean up your air filter or replace it regularly. Many vehicle makers suggest that 12,000 to 30,000 miles is appropriate, but this will depend on your vehicle. Read the manual or ask the manufacturer if your manual is not available. 

If you reside in an area that is heavily polluted, suffer from allergies or problems with the respiratory system, or drive in dusty areas (some country roads are not paved, for instance), it is a good idea to check on it even sooner than the recommended mileage. After all, it’s a matter of your good health, safety, and passenger comfort!

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