A/C Update: Troubleshooting Smells

A/C Update: Troubleshooting Smells

If your customer complains to you that his or her vehicles’ air conditioner blows out air that smells like the inside of old gym sneaker when the A/C is turned on, they are not alone. Literally.

The cause – microbes that getting a free ride while growing on the A/C evaporator.

Molds like damp, dark places and various bacteria can also thrive under these conditions. But besides smelling bad, these organisms can be unhealthy to breathe.

To get rid of the unwanted organisms, various chemicals can be sprayed on the evaporator directly or through the blower ducts or air intake.

Some of these chemicals are designed to be applied by DIYers. However, shops that provide A/C service can offer some of these de-smelling solutions, especially as the A/C season is starting up for many parts of the country.

The following is a service procedure to eliminate a Toyota A/C evaporator odor:
A musty odor may be emitted from the air conditioning system of some vehicles that are usually operated in areas with high temperature and humidity. It’s most noticeable when the air conditioner is first turned on after the vehicle has been parked for several hours.

The odor could result from one or more of the following conditions:

  1. Blockage of the evaporator housing drain pipe, resulting in a buildup of condensation.

  2. Microbial growth in the evaporator, arising from dampness in the evaporator housing where the cooling airflow is dehumidified.

To address excessive air conditioning evaporator odor, check the evaporator housing drain pipe for blockage. If no problems are found, the evaporator and housing should be cleaned and disinfected using the following service procedure.

While this procedure may be used on any Toyota vehicle, specific details for the 1997-and-older SXV/VCV10 Camry follow.

CAUTION: Wear safety glasses, protective mask and gloves while working with the freshener.

Service Procedure:

  1. Parts removal.

    a. Pull down the carpet from the center console as indicated by the bigger arrow in Figure 1.

    b. Remove the plate on the side of the heater unit using steps (1) and (2), indicated with bigger arrows to show direction in Figure 2.

    Caution: Do not bend the cable; the plate will be reused.

    c. Remove the blower resistor.

  2. To clean the evaporator, follow the general procedures at the beginning of this bulletin. Also see Figure 3.

  3. Parts reinstallation.

    a. Reinstall the plate on the side of the heater unit using steps (1) and (2), indicated with bigger arrows to show direction in Figure 4.

    Caution: Confirm that the plate is secure.

    b. Restore the carpet to its original position, taking care not to bend the cable.

    Technical service bulletin courtesy of ALLDATA.

Fighting A/C Odor By Frank Walker

Air conditioner odor complaints seem to keep coming back no matter what treatment your customers try, right? The reason is that most odor treatments are short-term, while the source of A/C odor is a combination of factors, including airborne microorganisms, that naturally repeat over time. Many products that are offered to control odor, such as disinfectants, may have a relatively effective initial application. Unfortunately, even the strongest disinfectant leaves no long-term, residual protection against the inevitable repeat odor infestation.

Causes of A/C Odor
Air conditioning odors typically result from uncontrolled growth of bacteria and other microorganisms in the evaporator. Research by independent laboratories has found fungi such as Aspergillus, Cladesporium, Penicillium and others growing on cooling coils and other A/C system areas.

How do these microorganisms get there? They are naturally present in outdoor air, and are drawn into the evaporator during air conditioner operation.

Moisture also contributes to A/C odor formation. Most of the moisture that condenses on cold surfaces inside the system drains harmlessly over time.

However, some moisture continues to cling to coil surfaces after the A/C shuts down. Microbial contaminants in the air combine with this lingering moisture in the evaporator. The warm, dark, and moist conditions in the evaporator provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and mildew to grow and generate musty odors.

Downsized Evaporators Trap More Moisture
As vehicles were downsized while also increasing their glass content, A/C system manufacturers reduced evaporator size while simultaneously increasing fin count. These densely packed evaporators trap and hold more moisture.

To see this for yourself, dip your hand into a glass of water. As you remove your hand from the water, quickly spread your fingers apart. No water will bridge the gap between your fingers. Dip and remove your fingers again, this time spreading them slowly to only a fraction of an inch apart. Water will bridge the smaller gap between your fingers, and remain far longer than if you open your fingers wide.

Ways to Reduce A/C Odor
Some odor treatments are merely feeble attempts to cover up odor. Almost all odor treatment products fail to provide a long-term residual effect that can reduce the reoccurrence of odor. Here is a brief description of the performance capabilities of various odor treatments by product type.

  • Perfumes/Fragrances: Are designed to cover up odor with another, more acceptable scent. Can be time-release agents. Cover-up perfumes and fragrances cannot eliminate odor-causing microorganisms.

  • Disinfectants: Destroy odor-causing microorganisms on contact. The typical liquid disinfectant quickly evaporates or washes out of the system along with the condensation that forms during A/C use. The next time airborne bacteria enters the system, odor can begin again. For this reason, disinfectants can require frequent repeat application to control odor.

  • Smoke/Mist Application: Smoke and mist products combine a liquid disinfectant with a fine spray application technology. The spray is directed toward air intake vents inside the passenger compartment, so it reaches down into the air conditioning evaporator, where odor-causing microorganisms colonize and grow. Ease of application is a plus, but again, the disinfectant quickly drains from the system, leaving no long term protection against odor recurrence.

  • Air Filters: Catch and absorb particulates and some gases as they pass through ducts to the passenger compartment. Many filters use activated charcoal. Filters become saturated or their active ingredient loses effectiveness over time, and must be replaced. Some filters cannot catch gaseous odor molecules, which can be small. Filters do not eliminate the source of odor-causing microorganisms.

  • Baking Soda/Absorbents: Help absorb moisture, which is needed by microorganisms in order to grow. Lack of moisture reduces the ability of microorganisms to multiply and cause odor. Absorbents become saturated quickly and allow odor to return, thus requiring repeat application.

  • Chemical Reactants: Reduce odor by combining with molecules of the odor-causing microorganism. The new, combined molecules must then be removed (wiped up with a dry towel, washed away in a liquid, etc.) to complete the odor treatment. Like liquid disinfectants, chemical reactants provide only a short-term treatment, and can allow odors to return quickly.

  • Antimicrobial agents: Have a wide range of successful microbial control applications, from inhibiting fungal growth on boat hulls to preventing mold and mildew growth in carpet and wall coverings. One unique antimicrobial product used on mobile air conditioner odor combines its active ingredient with an acrylic resin that is sprayed into the evaporator. The acrylic resin dries onto the evaporator coils, forming a coating that sheds moisture better than uncoated coil surfaces. The antimicrobial agent remains embedded in the coating, where it kills or inhibits the growth of any microorganisms that attempt to settle on the coated surface. Together, the antimicrobial and acrylic resin coating last in the A/C system for up to three years, protecting against moisture buildup and the growth of odor-causing microorganisms.

Information provided courtesy of AirSept, Inc.

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