How to get rid of dirty sock syndrome in ac

When the warmer months come, most people look forward to the refreshing scent of air filled with fresh flower blooms. Unfortunately, this also means that you will be dealing with that unpleasant smell coming from your AC unit that reminds you not of flowers but dirty socks discarded inside the locker room.

So, what is dirty sock syndrome in an air conditioner and how do you get rid of this odorous problem?

What is dirty sock syndrome in an air conditioner?

Dirty sock syndrome is the phrase used to refer to the condition that occurs when an air conditioning unit produces that unpleasant musty and dank smell similar to that of dirty socks.

For milder problems, this odor is the same as the dusty odor produced once the system is turned on for the first time after it has been left sitting unused for quite some time. This can be most noticeable once the unit turns on or if the heat pump has gone into defrost cycle.

What causes dirty sock syndrome?

Now, this problem may sound like a nightmarish story conceived by frustrated homeowners. Unfortunately, dirty sock syndrome is also how HVAC professionals refer to this issue. Not surprisingly, the cause is the exact same reason behind the funky smell of long-forgotten dirty socks, none other than the buildup of bacterial slime and mold.

This problem begins during the air conditioning season with the indoor evaporator coil being damp and cool which allows the microbes to grow and thrive there. The microbial slime will dry out once you switch to heating during the fall season. When the weather gets colder, there will come a point when the HVAC unit will run the defrost cycle in between the heating periods.

It is this back and forth switching between cooling and heating that makes the bacterial slime and mold give off a foul smell. This can also occur during spring as you switch between heating during the late evening and morning and cooling once afternoon comes.

You will notice the odor going away if the unit is run on only cooling or only heating for an extended period of time. However, it doesn’t mean that the issue is solved. Meanwhile, if your HVAC unit gives off unpleasant smells all the time, particularly in heating mode, the issue might not be dirty sock syndrome.

The issue may occur in any kind of cooling and heating system that makes use of an evaporator coil although this is most common in heat pump systems. The heat produced in the gas furnace systems is often intense enough for killing off microorganisms.

The dirty sock syndrome can more often occur in newer HVAC units. There are HVAC experts who came up with the theory that manufacturers use more porous aluminum for the evaporator coils that were made for the past 10 years or so. The more porous surface offers more microscopic crannies and nooks where bacteria and mold can grow and thrive. The presence of dust in the unit can worsen odor issues further as it can provide food that the bacteria can feed on. 

The good news is that nothing is wrong with your unit.  Most of the time, all it needs is better maintenance and good cleaning in the future.

How to fix dirty sock syndrome in your AC

Dirty sock syndrome is not only a funky-smelling nuisance as this can also be harmful to the indoor air quality of your home. If you let mold and bacteria circulate through your home’s indoor air, you or your family members with allergies or sensitivity to mold may start suffering from symptoms of their conditions.  

Thankfully, dirty sock syndrome has a rather straightforward solution. Since dirty sock syndrome is due to a dirty evaporator coil, you will need to get in touch with a reliable HVAC contractor to schedule an air conditioner repair.

The AC repair service will involve either replacing or cleaning ac evaporator coil and this will depend on how dirty the unit’s evaporator coil was. For AC units that are still under warranty, it may cover the process of installing a new evaporator coil.

Now, your job doesn’t just stop when the evaporator coil of your AC unit goes back to its proper working order. You also need to take some preventive measures to ensure that you will not deal with the dirty sock syndrome ever again in the near future.

Below are some of the steps you can take to free yourself from this smelly problem:

  • Check and clean your aircon filters on a regular basis
  • Schedule regular maintenance of your air conditioner
  • Hire professionals to clean your ductwork
  • Upgrade to high performance air filter

Will dirty sock syndrome disappear by itself?

Most homeowners often wonder if dirty sock syndrome will disappear all by itself. Here’s the thing. Even if you notice that there is no longer a musty smell coming from your air conditioning unit as spring months turn into warmer summer days, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is already gone like magic.

All that build-up will still stay on the evaporator coil. Given the right conditions, it is likely that your home will start smelling like dirty socks all over again. To ensure that you can say goodbye to this issue for good, it is best to call a good aircon servicing professional who can fix the issue as early as today to save yourself from more troubles, headaches, and possibly more expensive repair costs in the future.

The Bottom Line

While there is nothing pleasant about discovering that your AC unit is filling your home with the smell of stinky gym socks, this problem is not really serious. Many cases of dirty sock syndrome are easy to solve through thorough and proper cleaning.

Addressing the issue at the soonest time possible can stop the microbes from spreading all over your unit where they may thrive and grow to a bigger and more serious problem. When the smell is gone, be sure to take the necessary steps to stop future bacteria and mold growth in your unit.

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