How to Clean a Window Air Conditioner without Removing It?

A window AC unit is considerably easier to install than a central heating and air system or even a ceiling fan. Their self-contained nature makes them a popular option to quickly cool a room when summer rolls around, but unless you take it down during the offseason, they can get dirty fast. As removing a window air conditioner is never ideal, it’s good to know how to keep them clean.

While the outside is built to handle inclement weather, the inside and front of your system also needs to be kept clean. The goal of our guide is to show you how to clean a window air conditioner without removing it. It’s knowledge that will save you a lot of time when you need to maintain your system and will save you a considerable amount of money as well.

Window Air Conditioner Parts

While it’s tempting to break out a spray cleaner, rag, or bucket of sudsy water to clean your window AC unit, that could be a major mistake. Most of these units are cleaned in a similar fashion, but it’s a good idea to understand the parts on the inside and outside of your system beforehand.  That said, you won’t have to clean all of these parts, and many are out of sight.

window air conditioner parts

Every AC system that sits in a windowsill will have a filter, and it’s easy to find. It’s not always simple to clean but needs proper attention if you want to keep your unit running at peak efficiency. It lies behind the grill, which also needs to be cleaned on occasion, although a quick visual inspection lets you know when it’s time.

The front of the unit, including the control panel, is another area to pay attention to but will vary from one model to the next. The cabinet is going to take some abuse from the elements outdoors and could need seasonal TLC depending on the conditions where you reside. The only other visible parts that are simple to clean or access on most models are drain plugs and pans.

If you keep your unit clean, you may never encounter any interior parts, but the evaporator coil, fan motor, and blower can also become dirty. It’s typically a problem in the offseason, however, or when your machine has set for a long time without being used. Motors are one of the most expensive parts to replace as well, so it’s not a bad idea to properly store your window air conditioning system if it’s only used seasonally.

If your system is exceptionally dirty, it may not be possible to get it completely clean and up to par without removing it from your window. That said, if you keep the following areas tidy, it will help keep coils and other areas inside your system from becoming gummed up over time.

Cleaning the Filter

To get to the filter, you’ll need to unplug the machine and remove the grill or front panel on your window air conditioner. This shouldn’t require a manual, but do not force the grill if it doesn’t come off easily.  On some models, the filter will slide out from the side, so again, don’t get rough with it as a broken grill is not something that’s simple to replace.

Windows Air Conditioner Clean Filter

Once you have the grill off or have removed the filter, it may be time to check your owner’s manual if you need to pick up a replacement. That’s because there are at least a half-dozen types of window air conditioner filters, and they are nothing like the ones you’ll find in your HVAC system. Mesh filters are the most common, however, and relatively easy to clean.

A vacuum cleaner with a good attachment may be the quickest way to clean the filter in your window air conditioning system if it’s only dusty – not caked in grime. If you have a filthy filter that’s washable, LG, Haier, GE, and others recommend using warm water with a mild detergent. When satisfied, you’ll want to shake the water from the filter and allow it to air dry.

You should never try to dry your filter through excess heat or use “hot” water to clean it; only use warm H20. The filter should be completely dry before you install it back into the window AC unit, and you should never run your system without the filter. It’s recommended that you check in on your filter at least once every 30 days, to make sure it’s not clogged unless you have a unit with a filter reset light.

Cleaning the Grill and Louvers

Whether you had to let you filter dry out in the sun or simply needed to use a vacuum cleaner – now is the time to consider the grill and louvers. If your filter is dirty, there’s a strong chance area where it flows in and out of your system has also gathered a bit of dust and lint.

Window Air Conditioner Grill and Louvers

The dirt and dust may not be visible depending on the color and style of the machine, although a quick swipe with a white rag or damp paper towel will let you know how to proceed. While this can be the easiest area to clean, it can also be the most frustrating, and you won’t find many manuals with cleaning tips for this area.

The easiest way to clean the spaces in a removable grill is to take it outdoors and hose it off. Mild spray cleaners that are safe for plastic are ideal if there’s tough to remove dirt, but soaking it in a sink with detergent is an option as well. Again, you’ll want to let the grill fully dry before putting it back on the machine.

If your window air conditioning unit doesn’t have a removable grill, which is rare, you’ll want to get something soft to work in between the spaces the best you can. Q-tips and cotton balls can come in handy here, but so can a duster if it merely needs a light cleaning to remove dust and lint. Vacuum attachments are incredibly helpful for systems with slide-out filters and fixed grates as well.

Cleaning the Cabinet

Whenever we mention the cabinet on a window AC unit, we’re talking about the housing that keeps the internals safe from the weather. The internal part of the cabinet or trim parts can be cleaned with a damp rag or magic sponge, but you may need a bit more elbow grease if your system hangs in a window for years at a time or for more than one season.

As this is an outdoor job, the first thing you need to do is unplug the machine and then check the length of your water hose. Simply spraying down the exterior of your air conditioner weekly will keep it much cleaner than you think, and prevent gunk from building up throughout the year. For tougher to remove dirt or stains, you’ll need to pick up a scrub brush and can use a mild cleaner.

Cleaning the Condenser Coils

This is an area where 90% of the product manual recommend calling in a professional. Well, that’s not exactly cost-effective, especially if you own a budget-friendly or mid-range window air conditioning system. A service call may cost half as much as the system itself, which is why it’s a good idea to know how to clean the coils.

The condenser coils are located on the outside and covered by a set of fins. The fins in the front are harder to clean without making a mess indoors, but there are a variety of methods you can use to clean the coils on the back. The easiest way is to mix some water with dishwashing liquid into a spray bottle and soak the fins.

You can use a soft bristles nylon brush if they need to be scrubbed but should see an immediate improvement once they are lightly rinsed.  Several homeowners have been able to get a similar effect with a water hose, but using a safe cleaner on the outside can work wonders on coils and other areas, as you’ll see in the video below.

Drains and Pans

Window AC units that have a drain on the back of a pan should be checked out and cleaned if necessary. Both can be areas where much can collect, but mold can also be an issue in drain pans. If your system has a hose connected to the drain port on the back, remove it. You can usually run a rag around the drain hole to remove any dirt, but it’s a good idea to check for blockages in the hole or the hose if you have one.

Window Air Conditioner Cleaning Tools

When your window air conditioner is just a little dusty, you can tidy it up with everyday things lying around your household. If you need to clean the backside of your unit, things get tricky, which is where specialized cleaning products come into play.

The best product to clean up coils and blades on this style of air conditioner is a foaming cleanser. There is no shortage of options to choose from, but Frost King’s ACF19 cleaner is a popular option. You can also mix your own, however, if you prefer a squirt bottle to aerosol spray.

A nylon brush can handle light-duty work on fins, but most household brushes aren’t designed for it. There are a few companies that sell thin metal whisks, but we prefer a traditional condenser fin cleaning brush as they aren’t fancy, but they are highly effective and reusable.

The only other tool that may be of use during maintenance would be a fin comb. Fins on the outside of your home can become damaged, and a set of fin combs can help you straighten them out. You can buy a single tool, but a set has brushes for different fins per inch, which covers a broader range of systems.

Written by

Rene has worked 10 years in the HVAC field and now is the Senior Comfort Specialist for PICKHVAC. He holds an HVAC associate degree and EPA & R-410A Certifications.

2 thoughts on “How to Clean a Window Air Conditioner without Removing It?”

  1. This really helped me understand how to clean my unit w/o taking it out of my window. I’m a disabled elderly lady on limited income and this has truly been a blessing , thank you so much!


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