How to clean your tent air conditioner

How to clean your tent air conditioner

Adding a tent air conditioner to your camping setup can be a gamechanger, especially if you’re regularly setting up in hot or humid environments. They’re bulky, require a power source (although it won't break the bank to run one), and need some extra maintenance, but you’ll thank yourself for buying one when you can finally get a night of restful sleep. 

Maintaining the unit isn’t all that hard either, and knowing how to do it will keep your unit working efficiently and your tent cool.

Why you need to clean your tent air conditioner

An air conditioner works in two stages: in the first, a refrigerant chemical is compressed, creating heat that needs to be removed by an exhaust fan. In the second stage, air is pulled into the unit and run over a set of cooling coils filled with the compressed refrigerant, removing heat from the air before it’s blown back into the living space. 

Both stages require a lot of air movement and that air, especially when you’re camping, contains dust, debris, and moisture that must be cleaned out for the unit to work efficiently to the expected level of BTU. Fortunately, cleaning a tent air conditioner isn’t all that different from cleaning the AC unit that cools your house.

Cleaning the drain

When air runs over the cooling coils it releases more than just heat; cold air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, which is why all air conditioners need a way to drain off the water that precipitates out of the cold air. 

Your home air conditioner and many tent air conditioners have a hole in the corner of the unit, perhaps with a tube attached, where water can drain out. Other units have a drip pan that needs to be periodically emptied. In either case, the drip pan or the drain can get clogged with algae, which naturally grows in such a moist environment. 

When this happens the unit might start dripping from areas other than the drain, and that makes for a very wet tent floor. To prevent this, it’s important to check the drip pan and drainage system after every outing. If algae growth is present, you can remove it with a commercial algaecide or hydrogen peroxide. 

It probably goes without saying, but the first step in removing the algae is to unplug the unit; this will be true for any cleaning steps. If you don’t feel like taking the unit’s cover off for a deep clean, you can just spray hydrogen peroxide onto the intake vent, then turn the unit on to circulate it. 

However, a small bottle brush is helpful for cleaning out stubborn tubing and is a necessity if any debris or insects have crawled insider. To prevent algae from growing in the first place, make sure the unit is level or tilted in the direction of the drain; this should eliminate standing water.  

Some air conditioners have self-evaporative technology, which mixes the collected moisture with the exhaust air. This eliminates the need for emptying a drip pan or cleaning the drainage system, but it means you’ll have to watch out for moisture in the exhaust hose.

Filter maintenance

Most tent air conditioners come with a built-in filter that prevents airborne dirt from entering the unit where it could form a sludge with the moisture on the cooling coils. These filters are usually right behind the face panel and are accessible after removing a few screws. 

Once you have the filter out, rinse it with cold water and let it dry before reinserting it into the unit. If you notice any tears or holes in the filter, replace it immediately. Tent air conditioner filters are designed to go a month or so of daily use before the filter needs cleaning, so for most users, this step need only be done once a season.

Getting the grime out of the fins

When you had the filter off, you probably noticed a panel of aluminum fins behind it; this is the exchanger that transfers heat from the air to the cooling coils. Even with the filter, these fins collect dust that should be removed to exchange heat efficiently. The easiest way to clean them is with a vacuum cleaner and a can of compressed air.

You’ll want to wear a dust mask when you do this as the fine particles can be very irritating to your lungs. This method is great for regular maintenance, but if you’ve noticed that the unit isn’t cooling as well as it once was, a deeper cleaning may be in order. 

To get it really clean, grab a bucket of water with a few drops of dish soap added to it and take the unit outside (this will get messy). Using an old sponge and soapy water, lightly scrub the fins to remove caked on dirt. You’ll end up with muddy water on the bottom of the unit, so it’s helpful to have a hose ready to rinse it out. Let it dry in the sun for a few hours before you attach the filters and faceplate.

Ready to go?

Failing to clean your tent air conditioner will result in poor performance, dirty air, and a premature breakdown. Doing it yourself isn’t hard and uses cleaning products that you most likely have in your kitchen, so there’s really no reason not to. Most of these cleaning steps only need to be done once a year and won’t take up too much of your time.

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