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Ask a Clean Person: Dusty Air-Conditioners and Dirty Fans

What is the proper way to clean an air conditioning screen? I kind of just pull it out and rub it lightly so some of the dust pills off, but then now I ran it under some water? It didn’t work all that great, either, but it was mostly clean, and I patted it dry with a paper towel and then put it back in, dampish. Was that horrible?

This is a great question and oh so very timely for those of us sweating and cursing our way through yet another summer of heatwaves.

Okay so! You’re not that far off … the way to clean an AC screen is to take it out of the unit, put it in your kitchen sink (or bathtub if the sink isn’t big enough, though it should be because the screens aren’t that big) and cover it with warm water and a bit of dish soap. Then while it’s submerged, use a sponge to clean the dirt and whatnot off. Things get even easier if you have a hose attachment on your kitchen sink — oooh and one day we really need to talk about replacing the faucet on your kitchen sink so that you can have a hose attachment because hose attachments are the best, and I love mine so much that I sometimes worry my boyfriend is getting jealous — which you can aim at the back of the screen, i.e. the not-dirty side, and force the grime off with just the water pressure.

When you’re done cleaning the screen of dirt, dry it before you put it back in the unit so the water doesn’t get into the machinery. It’s best to use a dishcloth or rag for this task rather than a paper towel, which will get all torn up and stuck to the screen.


While you’re at it, it’s not a bad idea to give the rest of the unit a dusting. If you’ve got a feather duster, great! That will go a long way in getting any dust out from the vents. If not, you can either use a dry cloth or something that you’ve sprayed lightly with an all-purpose cleaner and go over each vent; just wiping down the front of the unit won’t do much, honestly; you really do need to take the time to wipe out each slat. It won’t take that long, though!

If you notice that the innards of the unit have any build-up on them, you can use a dryer sheet rubbed gently over the grimy areas to remove the dirt. You can actually use a dryer sheet to clean the vent slats too. Handy dandy new use!

Also, and this is an important safety note: please turn off the unit AND UNPLUG IT before you go messing about. Just out of an abundance of caution. It’s pretty easy to knock the on button and have the darn thing turn on while you’re futzing, which is why I do want you to take the extra step of unplugging the unit.

How do I clean a dual window fan full of dust and dirt inside the little plastic grid/frame thing? Dirt gets sucked in and it stays there (and probably blows into my apartment), but short of detailing it with a toothbrush and a vacuum, it still doesn’t seem like the most effective way to make this thing spotless, or at least less caked with dirt in 500 separate, tiny hard-to-reach crevices.

There are two ways to clean a fan (and this goes for box fans, dual window fans, and oscillating fans): the proper way and the quick and dirty way. We’ll go through both methods, starting with the proper way.

Unplug your fan and move it to a workspace. You may want to put down a trash bag so you don’t get dirt and grime all over the place, but that’s entirely up to you. Using the appropriate screwdriver, remove the screws holding the front and back covers in place. Set the screws aside in a small dish or cup so you don’t run the risk of losing one. You’ll need those again!

Step 1 is to wash the covers, which you can do by either putting them in the sink and giving ’em a good going over with a soapy sponge and some hot water, or by wiping them down with a rag and an all-purpose cleaning solution. If you’re dealing with a fan cover with a small grid pattern, go ahead and cover the pieces in water and wash them while submerged, or use a hose attachment if you’ve got one. <3 u Hosie! Dry them thoroughly and set aside.

Step 2 is to wipe down the blades, which you can do with either a rag, sponge or paper towels. Depending on how dirty they are, you may want to wipe the dust off with a dry rag and then go over them with a wet rag, or you might just skip directly to the wet rag. Here you can use soap and water or an all-purpose cleaning solution of your choice, but it’s best to wet the rag or sponge you’re using than to spray the blades directly.

Step 3 is to wipe down the outer parts of the unit, including the cord, with a dry cloth. Then you’re ready to reassemble the unit! Not too hard, right? But let’s say you’re terrified of screwdrivers. Or maybe you just don’t own one? (Related: you should own a screwdriver.) If that’s the case then how about my quick and dirty method of leaving the unit intact and spraying the entire thing down with canned air? I KNOW RIGHT?? So genius.

Man, I really love canned air.

Also before I leave you, I would be remiss to not point out that the wonderful and talented folks at geeky brother site The Wirecutter have reviewed both fans and air conditioners, so that they can recommend the very best for you! If you’re still in the market for one or both items, please do check out their picks. And while I’ve got you on the subject of The Wirecutter: are there any cleaning tools or gadgets you’re interested in having them offer advice on? Let me know and I’ll pass the requests on!

Previously: Roaches

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?


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