An extreme heat wave is coming. What to do when your AC won't cool

Up to 200 million people across the US and Canada will be affected, putting pressure on air conditioners.

Alina Bradford CNET Contributor
Alina Bradford has been writing how-tos, tech articles and more for almost two decades. She currently writes for CNET's Smart Home Section, MTVNews' tech section and for Live Science's reference section. Follow her on Twitter.
Alina Bradford
3 min read

Simple fixes can help when you're AC is on the fritz.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

A heat wave is coming, spurring the National Weather Service to issue heat warnings for nine US states and forcing 200 million people in the US and Canada to brace themselves for extreme heat. Besides some serious health dangers caused by spiking temperature, cranking up the AC could strain an overtaxed system, especially if you insist on keeping the indoors icebox-cold. 

If your thermostat is set to 70 but your home feels like 90, there may be a problem with the air conditioner. No need to panic. 

Whether you have central air conditioning or a window unit, there are a few ways you can troubleshoot cooling problems without calling in for a repair. 

Don't worry, these tips don't require you to do anything dangerous or technical. They're simple fixes anyone can try.

Change the filter

Problem: Your room or house takes longer than usual to cool down.

Fix: It's probably time to clean or change the air filter on your air conditioner, depending whether you have a reusable or disposable filter. 

Remove the filter (you may need to check the AC's manual to find it) and hold it up to the light. If you can't see light shining through it, then it's clogged with dust. This inhibits air flow, making your unit work less efficiently.

If you have a disposable filter, simply switch it out with a new one. If it's a washable filter (again, check your manual), fill a tub with a few inches of warm water and a couple drops of mild dishwashing liquid. Let the filter soak for 10 minutes, then rinse it well with clean water. Shake the excess water from the filter, and then let it air dry before reinstalling it.

Create your own air conditioning unit with this summer staple

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See if the unit is frozen

Problem: Your AC unit is blowing air, but it's room temperature or warm and the room won't get cool. 

Fix: Sometimes when an air conditioner runs nonstop to keep up with the heat, the evaporator coil freezes over. Put your hand on the side of the unit near where the filter is. If it feels very cold, then it's probably frozen inside. You may even see ice hanging off the unit. 

Turn off the cooling mode and turn on the fan to let the evaporator coils defrost. While you're at it, be sure that the filter and the coils around the filter are dust-free. Dust can make an AC unit freeze over, too.

Defrosting can take a few hours, so you may want to go out to a movie or head to the mall while you wait. 

Very important: Do not use your air conditioner on the cool setting if you suspect it is frozen over. This can ruin the compressor (an important component), leading to expensive repairs. Again, either turn on the fan only or turn the whole unit off until the ice melts.

Watch this: Beat the summer heat with this DIY air conditioner

Check the vents

Problem: You have central air and one room isn't getting cool, but the others are.

Fix: This may seem obvious, but check the vents in the room, especially if they're on the floor. Debris may have fallen in and blocked the air passage, or a toddler may have stuffed play clay down in vent (it's happened). Either way, unscrew the vent plate and scoop out anything that may block the flow of air. 

Give it a wash

Problem: You've tried all these fixes and the AC still isn't cooling properly.

Fix: The outside vents may be clogged up. Unplug the window unit or shut off the circuit breaker for your outdoor unit. Spray the part of the unit that is outside the window or by your house with a water hose to wash off any dirt, leaves or bug carcasses that may be blocking air flow. You can also use a large cleaning brush to sweep debris from the grates.

Call in the professionals

If none of these solutions are helping, it's time to call in the professionals. You don't want to damage your air conditioner or cause serious, costly issues in an effort to stay cool.