Air conditioners don't keep secrets. If you or anyone else smoked near the unit once, a telltale cigarette smell may linger in the cooled air for weeks. And if you buy a used window air conditioner from a smoker or move into a new place where a smoker used to live, every hot day becomes a battle: Is it preferable to be sweaty and miserable or smell stale smoke all day? There are a few things you can try to get the cigarette smell out of an air conditioner or at least diminish the problem.
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Prepare the Air Conditioner
If your window air conditioner is the culprit, the best way to clean it is to remove it from the window and take it outdoors. Get a second adult to help hold the air conditioner steady while you remove any screws and other safety latches and gently lift it out of the window sill. You'll also need an adult to help you reinstall the unit once it's clean. If your air conditioner is built into the wall, it may not be possible to remove it; just be sure to unplug it before you get started.
If you have a central HVAC system with air conditioner vents throughout your home, it may be a little trickier to clean because there are a lot of different ways these systems can be set up. Start by familiarizing yourself with the components of your forced-air system. You may have a condenser that's set up outdoors and an indoor unit called the air handler that houses filters to clean the air. You'll want to turn off power to your HVAC system before cleaning it.
Clean and/or Replace Air Filters
Changing or replacing the filter should be a part of your DIY air conditioning maintenance process each year, and it's especially important if you detect smoke odors. Unfortunately, standard air filters aren't able to fully absorb smoke particles and keep them out of your cooled air. But if you're detecting a faint cigarette smoke odor coming from an air conditioner in a non-smoking home, cleaning the filter could help.
Air conditioner filters are designed to be easy to remove. (That said, it can be a little tricky to find and replace the filter for your central HVAC system if you're not sure where to look.) Some are designed to be disposable and are made with a cardboard frame. If that's what you find, buy a replacement filter. Soak a washable filter in a sink with warm, soapy water for 10 minutes and scrub it with a washcloth to clean. Let the filter dry completely before reinstalling it.
Clean Coils and Fins
Your air conditioner's coils absorb heat from the outdoor air. They also absorb odors, so cleaning the coils is an important step in getting rid of the smoke smell. The coils are protected by delicate metal fins that can become clogged with dirt and debris over time. Consult the owner's manual for your specific air conditioner to determine how to access and clean its coils.
Window and wall air conditioners have a set of coils on both the indoor and outdoor sides of the unit. Start by using an air conditioner fin brush to carefully straighten any bent fins; this allows maximum airflow. Spray the coils with compressed air to loosen particles clinging there. You can also buy a no-rinse coil cleaner. Be sure to follow the directions carefully.
If you have central air conditioning, cleaning the coils may be more difficult. Your best bet may be to have an HVAC specialist come clean and service the entire system.
Things to Consider
Keep in mind that any chemicals you spray into an air conditioner may ultimately be blown back into the room for you, your family members and your pets to breathe in. Don't spray cleaning sprays, bleach or any other potentially toxic chemical into the unit. Not only can inhaling these chemicals be dangerous, but they're also not likely to be effective.
Ultimately, a DIY approach to getting rid of cigarette smoke smell may not completely work. The odor is notoriously difficult to eliminate altogether. You may ultimately need to replace the unit if anyone in your home is sensitive to the smell.