How to Clean Smelly Car Vents? – 2 Effective Methods

Written by

Bruce Sonnier


Marcus Dutton

how to clean smelly car vents

You most likely landed on this page because you were overwhelmed by a bad smell from the car AC/heater vents just when you first turned on the AC or heater. It’s also most likely due to mold and bacteria buildup in the car heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

To help, this article will guide you on how to clean smelly car vents. Don’t worry, as the process isn’t as overwhelming as the stink from the air conditioner.

Ways to Clean Smelly Car Vents

Method 1: Using a Disinfectant Spray


A simple but effective way to get the smell out of car vents is using a disinfectant spray that can kill mold and bacteria.

Step 1: Choose between Commercial vs. DIY Disinfectant Spray

You can either use a commercial aerosol disinfectant spray or a DIY disinfectant spray made with white vinegar.

Although vinegar doesn’t smell pleasant either, it’s a natural mold and bacteria-fighting substance, and its smell will not linger for long.

  • Thoroughly combine one part of white vinegar and three parts of water in a spray bottle.
  • You may add the juice of half a lemon for a more pleasant and long-lasting scent that will help make car vents smell better.

Step 2: Turn off the AC and Your Car


Make sure the AC and your car are off. When turned off, proceed to spray disinfectant.

Step 3: Spray the Disinfectant Into the Vents


To thoroughly get rid of the musty smell in the vents, make sure to spray all the vents in the car.

  • Make sure all doors are closed to ensure that the disinfectant enters and cleans the car AC system.
  • Spray short bursts into the vents by the dashboard, windshield, and back seats’ feet area.

Step 4: Turn on the Car and Set the AC to Max Fan and Recirculate


By turning on the car with the AC set to max fan and recirculating, the air, along with the disinfectant, will be circulated while the disinfectant is kept in the system.

To set the AC to recirculate, press the button with a car that has a u-turn shape arrow.

Step 5: Spray the Disinfectant Into the Intake Duct

The intake duct is usually located near the floor of the passenger’s side. And generously spray the disinfectant into the intake duct.

Step 6: Set the AC to Fresh Air

You have to change the AC setting to fresh air to allow fresh air to come in.

Step 7: Spray Disinfectant Into the Fresh Air Grille


The fresh air grille is usually located by the windshield or under the hood.

You can open the hood if it’s located under the hood. The, spray short bursts of the disinfectant into the grille.

Step 8: Turn off the Car and Open the Doors

After spraying the disinfectant, you’d have to ventilate the car interior by turning off the car and opening the doors.

Method 2: Cleaning or Replacing the Cabin Air Filter


If the car AC smells bad still, even after your attempt to deodorize car vents with a disinfectant spray, you’d need to clean or replace the cabin air filter.

Step 1: See Information About the Cabin Air Filter in the Car Owner’s Manual

The first thing to do is to find out where the cabin air filter is located and whether it’s the washable or replaceable type.

  • Location

The location of the cabin air filter differs among different cars. They can be in either of these places:

    • The back of the glove box
    • Underneath the hood
    • The back of the dashboard – either at the passenger’s side, over or underneath the glove box, or driver’s side

You can see in the manual exactly where the filter is and how it can be removed.

  • Type

There are two types of cabin air filters: washable and disposable. You can also find the filter’s type in the manual.

If it’s washable, follow the steps for cleaning in this article. If it’s disposable, then you’d have to replace it.

Step 2: Vacuum Clean the Air Filter

An air filter accumulates big debris in its folds. So vacuum them out first.

Don’t press the vacuum cleaner too hard on the filter to avoid damaging it.

Make sure to remove all the debris between each of the filter’s folds. Or you can tap them out of the filter.

Step 3: Wash the Air Filter


Once the filter is free of big debris, proceed to wash it to eliminate the weird smell in the AC system.

  • Prepare a bucket of water with a little laundry detergent for washing. Stir it to make suddy cleaner.
  • Then, gently swirl the filter around to dislodge the contaminants. If it’s very dirty, then you’d need to scrub it. Scrub gently with a toothbrush and avoid harsh tools, such as a wire brush, to not damage it.
  • You can use a garden hose to gently dislodge the contaminants.
  • Leave it to soak for 15 minutes.
  • Afterward, take it out and shake off excess moisture. Then, rinse with running water.

Step 4: Kill Bacteria With a Vinegar Spray

A final touch of vinegar spray will help kill bacteria in the filter.

  • In a spray bottle, thoroughly combine equal parts of vinegar and water.
  • Spray the filter on both sides.
  • Let the vinegar solution sit for 10 minutes.
  • Rinse with running water.

Step 5: Dry the Air Filter


Make sure the filter is thoroughly dried before putting it back, as moisture is the main cause of the car ventilation smell to begin with.

Lay the filter on a towel to air dry for several hours. and make sure to avoid using a hairdryer or any other drying tool, as that can damage the filter.


Driving or riding in a car with a foul smell coming from the vents can be very uncomfortable. Thankfully, it can easily be solved with the aforementioned steps on how to clean smelly car vents. By carefully following these steps, the air in your car will improve in quality and no longer smell.

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