Has your home’s HVAC system been giving you grief? Maybe the air has begun to smell musty. Possibly your rooms aren’t heating well or cooling down as quickly as they should. When things like this begin to happen, it’s easy to think of calling a repairman to put things back in order. However, the problem may be far simpler than that. You might just need to clean or change your air filter.

Although it may be something you rarely think about, your HVAC system’s air filter serves several vital purposes. Chief among them is its ability to remove contaminants from the air. Never desirable and often microscopic, such impurities as dust, pollen, lint, pet dander, spores and fabric fibers can float through the air unseen and sicken or cause allergic reactions in people who visit or live in your home. It’s the air filter’s job to trap these things before they reach the air in your living space.

Air filters do more than just protect your family. By stopping things like fiberglass insulation from reaching the inside of your unit and possibly catching fire, they also ensure the well-being of your HVAC system itself. Unfortunately, one thing can impede your unit’s air filter from doing its job. It’s dirt, and when it builds up to a certain point, it restricts your unit’s airflow. Luckily, there’s something you can do. Once every month or so, you can take a few minutes to clean or change the device yourself.

If your filter is the reusable kind, a simple cleaning can solve the problem for you. After removing the filter from your unit:

1. Use your vacuum cleaner’s dust attachment to suction out the dirt.

2. If any stubborn gook remains behind, wash the filter in the sink with warm water and a gentle detergent, then rinse it well.

4. To cancel out any odors that might remain, sprinkle the filter with baking soda and let it sit for several minutes. Now, rinse thoroughly and let the filter dry completely before you reinstall it.

Not all filters will stand up to a monthly cleaning. Some require a regular replacement, and even your permanent variety can give up the ghost after a time and need to be swapped for a new one.

To change the air filter on a central air conditioning unit:

1. Turn off the system and disconnect it from the power source.

2. Remove the filter from the system following the manufacturer’s instructions.

3. Hold it up to a sunny window to check how dirty it really is. If a good amount of light shines through, you may not need to replace it yet. Otherwise, it might be time to purchase a new one.

4. Your new filter should contain a printed or embossed arrow. This indicates the direction in which the air must flow, and it needs to point away from the return duct and toward the air handler. Check the manufacturer’s instructions to be sure.

To clean the air filter on a window air conditioner:

1. Turn the switch to the off position and unplug the unit.

2. Remove any screws that might be holding the filter, then slide it gently out.

3. The majority of window air conditioners come equipped with washable filters. Just vacuum yours off, wash and deodorize with baking soda if needed, then let it dry completely.

4. Slide the filter back into place and reinsert any screws that you may have removed.

5. Replace the unit’s cover.

How Often Should You Change Your Filter?

While some people wash or change their filters every month, others undertake the task no more than once a year, normally at the beginning of a heating or cooling season. Is either course of action the right one to take?

The truth may lie somewhere in between. The real frequency with which you need to clean or change your air filter will depend on such things as:

– The type of filter in question. The various brands and models have distinct and separate life spans.
– Any pets that may share your living space.
– The number of individuals living in the house.
– The quality of air in your neighborhood.
– Whether any resident children suffer from allergies or frequent upper respiratory infections.

Numerous factors will combine to tell you when your air filter has come due for a cleaning or replacement. Every house and living situation is different, and sometimes, just the quality of your indoor air will be all it takes to let you know it’s time.