Q: There's been a mysterious, slightly moldy smell in my home all summer, and this morning, when our window air conditioner kicked on, I noticed that the odor unmistakably came from the unit. I know it's unhealthy to breathe air that contains mold spores but I'd rather not buy a new AC if I can remedy the problem myself. Is there any way to remove mold from an air conditioner?
A: Mold does have a tendency to grow inside air conditioners that sit unused for a while. It's likely that mold developed in the unit over the winter and you didn't notice it until you turned on your AC unit this summer. And you're right to be concerned about the health issues this can cause: Mold spores produce allergens that can lead to sore throats, headaches, and various respiratory symptoms. While odds are the mold in your AC unit is not the scary black mold (Stachybotrys chartarum) that you've heard about, inhaling mold spores of any type can result in respiratory disorders.
Successfully banishing mold from an AC depends on where it's located. If the mold is accessible, you may well be able to remove it; but if it's growing in an area that's difficult to access, you'll probably have to replace the unit. Read on for the sleuthing tips and cleaning steps you need to bring clean, safe, cool air into your home again.
Turn off your air conditioner to prevent further mold spores from entering your home. If you suspect that mold is in your AC unit, the US Environmental Protection Agency recommends turning it off so no more mold spores can circulate and contaminate your home.
Inspect the unit to determine the extent of the problem. Unplug the unit, remove the front grille cover (most snap off but some are held in place by screws), and then pull out the filter beneath the grill. Grab a flashlight and inspect the inside of the unit for the signs of mold growth, which may appear as streaks or clusters of brown, black, or greenish stains, some of which may appear fuzzy. Mildew, a common type of mold, produces powdery gray or white stains. If you find just a few traces of mold on the hard surfaces inside the unit, proceed with cleaning. If it's filled with heavy mold growth, indicated by mold and mildew deposits that cover one-third or more of the surface area of the case and the internal workings, it's probably time to replace the unit (see below for the problems associated with heavy mold growth).
Clean small amounts of mold from inside the cabinet and/or the grille. AC units vary in the way they are assembled, so check your owner's manual to determine how to identify and disassemble the exterior cabinet so that you can access the interior. Before you start, assemble your tools and materials and then don a dust mask, goggles, and gloves.
MATERIALS AND TOOLS Available on Amazon
- Wet/dry vacuum with a nozzle attachment
- Commercial AC coil cleaner
- Garden hose
- Dish soap
- Large plastic bucket
- Scrubbing sponge
STEP 1: Remove the unit from the window, using a screwdriver to remove the frame that secures it. AC units are heavy, so recruit someone to help you take it to your yard or driveway and place it on a concrete surface or on a large piece of plywood.
STEP 2: Remove the grille and the filter from the front of the unit. Soak the filter soak in a sink with hot soapy water to which you've added approximately 1/2 cup of bleach.
STEP 3: Remove the top and the back of the cabinet, following the directions in your owner's manual.
STEP 4: Vacuum out dust and debris from the inside of the air conditioner. Use a nozzle attachment to get out as much as possible.
STEP 5: Spray the coils (U-shaped metal tubes near the front and the back of the unit) with commercial coil cleaner and let the product dwell as directed by the manufacturer to dissolve anything that's collected on AC coils. Cleaning the gunk on the coils is crucial because it provides a breeding ground for mold.
STEP 6: Spray the coils with a garden hose to remove the coil cleaner solution. It will have dissolved the gunk and it should spray right off. While window AC units are fairly waterproof, avoid spraying the controls and the spot where the electrical cord is attached.
STEP 7: Fill a plastic bucket with a few gallons of hot water and about 1/2 cup of household bleach.
STEP 8: Saturate a scrubbing sponge in the bleach solution and use it to wipe the inside surfaces of the AC unit, removing all traces of visible mold. The bleach will kill residual mold spores.
STEP 9: Spray the filter that's been soaking in the sink with the hose to remove all debris.
STEP 10: Allow the unit to air-dry completely, which could take up to 24 hours, before reassembling the unit and reinstalling it in your window.
Take precautions to prevent future mold growth. Once you've had mold in the air conditioner unit, there's an increased risk that it will develop again despite your cleaning efforts. This is because mold spores could remain within the inner workings of the unit that you were unable to reach. The presence of dust in the unit helps mold spores adhere and grow, so make it a practice to remove the grille and filter every few weeks and vacuum the interior of the unit to keep dust from settling.
In addition, don't shut off your AC if you won't be using it for a few days or longer during hot weather. This is a common practice when people go on vacation, but when the weather is warm and humid, mold is more likely to get a foothold in the AC unit. The air movement that occurs when the unit is running helps prevent mold growth. If you want to save on cooling costs when you're gone, set the thermostat on your air conditioner to a higher-than-normal temperature. For example, if you usually set the temperature to 75 degrees Fahrenheit when you're home, set it 10 degrees warmer to 85 degrees Fahrenheit before you leave. That way, the AC will not run as often, but it will still cycle on occasionally when the temp in the house rises. This will allow air to circulate through the unit and reduce the risk of mold growing while you're gone.
Replace a window AC unit that's filled with heavy mold. If upon your initial inspection, you discover rampant mold and mildew in the air conditioner, do not attempt to clean it. Visible heavy mold indicates that more mold is flourishing in places you cannot see or easily reach, such as within the fan motor casing. Alternately, you could call a mold remediation specialist to inspect the unit to see if it can be professionally cleaned, but the consultation could cost as much as purchasing a new air conditioner. Bottom line: It's unhealthy to breathe air contaminated with mold spores, so if you can't effectively clean the unit, it should be replaced.