How to Clean a Portable Air Conditioner [Quick, Full Clean]

Written by: Paul Cathro

Updated on: December 23, 2022

Cleaning a portable air conditioner

Portable air conditioners need cleaning to run correctly, which isn’t surprising given they suck in so much dirty air and produce so much moisture. 

Bacteria thrive inside portable air conditioners and can create musty and cheesy smells from the AC. It also doesn’t take long for air filters to clog and tanks and tubes to grow mold, which can contaminate the system. 

The good news is that cleaning a portable air conditioner isn’t rocket science and will only take around ten minutes of your time. 

Here’s how to clean a portable air conditioner properly.

Preparation is Key: Get Your Portable AC Ready for Cleaning

Before you jump into cleaning your portable AC, a little prep makes life much easier, especially if you haven’t cleaned it in a while. 

1. Get the Right Tools

First, gather the tools you need to disassemble and clean your portable air conditioner. We recommend collecting the following tools:

  • Tin of compressed air
  • Foam/cotton swabs 
  • Small Phillips screwdriver
  • Small flathead screwdriver
  • Damp microfiber cleaning cloth
  • Dry microfiber cleaning cloth 
  • No-rinse cleaning spray 
  • Bleach (to flush the drainage hose)
  • Bucket or shallow pan 
  • New air filter (if the old one isn’t cleanable).

2. Prepare the Unit  

Once you have the tools you need, you can prepare your portable AC for cleaning: 

  • Unplug the unit from the wall so it has no power
  • Press the start button on the portable AC to drain excess power
  • Wheel or lift the unit onto a level surface (be careful moving it too forcefully, or else you might damage the internal components)
  • Unscrew the back panel to gain access to the internal components. 

3. Drain the Water

While some portable air conditioners have free access to the drainage pan, others require you to unscrew the back panel to access it.  

You can drain the water from the drain pan by removing the drain plug on the unit - the plug might be on the side or back. 

Place a bucket or shallow pan underneath the drain plug and remove it, letting water in the drainage pan flow into the bucket. 

In the future, you can install a drainage hose, which automatically removes water from the drainage pan.

You can feed a drainage hose to a sink or outside to eliminate the need to drain the condensate tank manually. 

4. Clean the Drainage Tray and Hoses

With the drainage tank empty, you can clean it and any hoses connected to the system (most portable air conditioners feed the tank with a hose). 

For tanks that are not removable, the best way to clean them is by pouring in a mild bleach solution, which will destroy bacteria and mold in minutes. 

If the tank is removable, you can scrub it with a non-abrasive sponge or soft-bristled brush with a mold spray or mild bleach detergent. 

The drainage hose is cleanable with a mild bleach solution – run the solution through the hose and cap the end, so it stays in there for five minutes. 

Deodorizing Options

If your portable air conditioner smells musty or your room has musty odors it recycles, you can spray the fan blower with essential oils or a deodorizing spray. 

A few drops of essential oils on the fan blades will fill your space with scented air, or you can use a scented disinfectant if it’s the unit that smells. 

Remember, though, that these will not eliminate the source of musty smells – you will need to eradicate the source for optimal results. 

You can see how to pinpoint the sources of these old and musty smells in our guide.

Clean the Filters

Some portable air conditioners have cleanable air filters, allowing water and air to pass through them to carry away dirt and grime. 

If the air filter is cleanable, remove it from the housing and blast it with compressed air outside to remove as much dust as possible.

Then soak it in soapy water for 10 minutes and remove the dissolved grime with a soft brush. 

Ensure the filter is dry before installing it into the machine – this may require drying it overnight. Don’t place it near a heat source to speed up the drying cycle, or else you might damage the layers inside the filter. 

If your air filter is disposable, replace it with a new one. 

We've got a more detailed guide about cleaning AC filters here at Tiny House, Huge Ideas.

5. Check the Coils

Portable air conditioner coils collect dirt over time, including dust, dead skin, and other nasties. When ice builds and melts on the coils, all that dirt turns into grime, which can become mold and damage the metal fins. 

The best way to clean portable AC coils is with a no-rinse cleansing spray and a soft-bristled brush (a toothbrush is ideal). Keep the fins nice and wet, and let the bristles do all the work to remove dirt inside the coils. 

You can pick up a specialist coil cleaning solution online, but any no-rinse cleansing spray will do the job perfectly. After cleaning the coils, let them dry before switching the unit on so the cleaning spray doesn’t freeze onto the coils. 

6. Clean the Exterior

Wipe down your portable AC with a damp, lint-free cloth every few days. Use the corner of a damp cloth to get between air vents and gaps in the casing, but don’t spray it with a wet solution – this could seep into the casing and damage electronics. 

If you spill anything on the unit, switch it off, wipe it dry immediately, and inspect gaps in the casing for possible liquid intrusion. 

7. Store Your Portable AC Properly

When your portable air conditioner isn’t in use – such as during the off-season – you can store it in the original packaging or inside a sealable plastic bag so that dust doesn’t collect on it. 

However, you must eliminate all moisture inside the unit before storing it away. Here’s how to get rid of moisture for storage:

  • Open the casing to expose the coils and filter
  • Drain the tank and remove the drainage hose
  • Spray components with antibacterial spray
  • Press a dry microfiber cloth between the coils
  • Let the portable AC sit in a warm, dry place for 48 hours

Spraying the internal components with the antibacterial spray will prevent mold and other nasties from taking hold during storage. 

However, avoid storing your portable air conditioner in a basement or damp environment because it will grow mold. 

How Often Should You Clean Your Portable Air Conditioner?

It’s good practice to clean your portable air conditioner once per month or every two weeks if you live in a humid climate because the more humid your house is, the more likely mold and odors will develop. 

Some air conditioners bleep when the filter needs changing, but you shouldn’t rely on the machine to tell you when to clean. Inspect your portable AC weekly for signs of dirt and grime, and act when you need to. 

Remember that safety comes first – when using wet cleaning products, always let the unit dry thoroughly before switching it back on. It’s also a good idea to wear disposable gloves and eye protection when handling chemicals. 

Some portable AC manufacturers also recommend specific cleaning products; if so, stick to these to preserve your warranty. 

About the Author Paul Cathro

Paul is an ex-HVAC engineer with 5 years 'in the trade'.

He acquired in 2022 and aims to make it the internet's most comprehensive HVAC resource for small homes in the next few years.

You can learn more about Paul's story here.

Browse his published work on the website here.

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