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Why Does My Air Conditioner Smell Like Vinegar?

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You turn your A/C on to escape the unbearable heat of a hot summer day, but the smell that comes out almost makes you want to turn it off again? Don’t worry; you’re just a quick cleaning away from getting your comfort back.

If your air conditioner smells like vinegar, it is most likely due to an accumulation of organic material in your vent or on your air filter. Mold and bacterias, if left unchecked, can grow there and create a sour smell that can quickly infect your home or your car and affect your comfort.

Luckily, this is a well-documented problem and is actually fairly easy to solve once you know what you are dealing with. There are plenty of ways to get rid of the smell and prevent it from ever coming back. 

What Causes Air Conditioners to Smell Like Vinegar?

The main cause behind such a smell is an accumulation of mold and bacterias. An infestation can happen very quickly and can be a pain to deal with. Furthermore, it can also affect your quality of life by affecting your health and those close to you. 

However, I’ve dealt with the exact same situation in the past. If you know what you are up against, the situation is easily manageable. Let’s start by understanding what causes this horrible smell. 

Mold and Bacterias

Air Conditioning Units can create a lot of condensation as they work to make your life more comfortable. Unfortunately, it also means that they provide a warm and moist environment, perfect for mold and bacterias to grow and thrive

By far the most common culprit, mold tends to gather in the air ducts of your A/C and feeds on the dirt, the dust, and the dead skin cells that accumulate in the ducts if they are not cleaned regularly. Once it has occupied a place, a mold colony can be a bit tricky to remove and is a risk to the people that stay in contact with it. 

While the odor is often the most noticeable symptom, it’s important to remember that you breathe the air passing through your Air Conditioning Unit, and mold and bacterias can pose a threat to your health if not taken care of quickly. Below is a list of signs that can help determine if they are the origin of the smell.

How to Recognize a Mold Infestation

  • Unexplainable headaches 
  • Allergic Reactions (Coughing or sneezing)
  • Stuffy Nose
  • Dizziness or fatigue

If you present any of these symptoms, and especially if they seem to disappear when you leave your house or car, I recommend that you immediately take action. Further in the article, I’ll share a few tricks and products that helped me and that I am confident will help you too.

How to Get Rid of the Smell

Now that you know why your car or your home smells the way it does, it’s time to talk about how you can fix your Air Conditioner and go back to enjoying perfect temperatures no matter the weather! Below, I’ll share the best steps to take to solve the issue once and for all. 

  1. Clean Your Air Filter 

It might seem obvious, but the first thing you should concern yourself with is the cleanliness of your air filter. A clogged air filter is the main reason behind most mold infections and learning how to clean it yourself will give you long-term tools to avoid a repeat of your current situation. 

This youtube video explains in details how to do it yourself: 

  1. Get Rid of the Moisture

Your second step is to create an environment as hostile as possible for the mold. You can do so by turning off the A/C and letting the fan blow. The goal here is to make your Air Conditioner as dry as possible. As we said earlier, mold and bacterias have a much easier time developing in areas with a lot of humidity. 

Let the fan do its work for about 2-3 minutes. Until the smell disappears, you should repeat that process every time you leave your car or your home. 

  1. Clean the Vents 

Time to get dirty! Grab a brush and try to clean as much of the mold as you can reach. Don’t be afraid to really reach in. If you can, the more you get, the less you’ll have to worry about it coming back. 

To truly be efficient in your cleaning, I strongly suggest you use an anti-bacterial spray. It will kill any residual bacterias and decrease the chances of them coming back in a few weeks. I personally recommend using Lysol’s All-Purpose Cleaner. It did a fantastic job on my own vehicle and can be used for a large number of other purposes. 

  1. Change Your Air Filter

Finally, if you want to really be safe, I suggest that you replace your air filter. Keep in mind that you should do so every two years if you want to avoid any more issues. You should try to find a filter that is either easy to clean and maintain or one that can be changed more frequently, at a lower cost. For a good balance between those two options, I chose the K&N Premium Cabin Air Filter and am very satisfied with it. 

How to Prevent the Smell From Coming Back

If everything went according to plan, you shouldn’t smell vinegar in your house or car anymore. However, I think it’s safe to assume that this isn’t a problem you’d want to deal with again in the future. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to lower the risks of mold infections in your Air Conditioner.

  1. Good A/C Habits

Condensation is the main factor you should focus on. This is what creates the environment that allowed mold to accumulate in the vents in the first place. To avoid further excess condensation from happening, you should use your A/C often to let the airflow and naturally dry the machine but avoid setting it too high; it would have the opposite effect.

Furthermore, if the problem was with your car, you should avoid using the re-circulate mode too often. The fresh air mode, which uses air from outside the vehicle, has shown to be more efficient in repelling bacterias. 

  1. Dehumidify 

Suppose the problem comes from the A/C inside your home. A good dehumidifier will avoid having excess moisture in your home, making it harder for colonies of bacterias to settle there. I’ve personally had a great experience with the Kesnos Dehumidifiers for Home and Basements. It covers a large area, and installing it in your basement will keep your entire house covered for years.

  1. Keep It Clean

Last but not least. Keeping your car and house clean is the best thing you can do for yourself. Make sure to clean the floor mats in your car regularly, as they are nests for bacterias. Overall, proper hygiene is still our best defense against parasites. 

Final Thoughts

To conclude this article, I’d like to add that I understand how a bad smell can affect your quality of life. I hope the article helped you understand exactly what is happening and how to deal with it. If you remember those two things:

  • Keep it dry!
  • Keep it clean!

I can assure you that the smell of vinegar will be a thing of the past for you.