Do Air Conditioners Filter Smoke? (Removing from Wildfires)

Smoky air inside the home can be uncomfortable, not to mention dangerous. During the summer or hot weather, most of us rely on our air conditioning unit to keep us cool, but can they help filter smoke from the air?

Health Risks of Breathing Smoky Air

The biggest problem with smoke inhalation is the microscopic particles that smoke contains.

You may be surprised to know that smoke is made up of tiny pieces of matter that can aggravate your lungs when inhaled. These particles can cause irritation, leading to more serious issues, such as breathing problems or allergies like asthma.

Health Effects of Breathing Smoky Air:

  • Eye and throat irritation
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Labored breathing

Long Term effects can include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Lung Disease
  • Aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases
  • Exposure to pollutants can also lead to premature death
air purifier for smoke

Do Air Conditioners Filter Out Smoke from Wildfires?

Most of us are concerned about air quality when wildfires occur and whether or not we can turn on our A/C unit.

Air conditioners were initially designed to cool the air inside an enclosed area, but many air conditioning units have a filtering system to remove harmful particles from the air. While they do an adequate job of doing so, they are more adept at filtering dust and pollen than wildfire smoke.

If your home is located near a wildfire, the best advice is to evacuate. However, if the wildfire is located far away, but smoke is visible in your area, or if you can smell it, it is better to stay indoors.

Smoke can still get inside your home through:

  • Small openings and cracks
  • Open windows
  • Ventilation units or HVAC system

If a wildfire has broken out in your area but not threatening your home, you may be asking yourself, ‘is it safe to turn on the air conditioner?’

Well, it depends on your A/C unit.

  • If you own a central HVAC system, find out if your unit has a fresh air intake. If you have one, close it or switch to recirculate mode. This will prevent your A/C from taking outside air and prevent contaminants from coming inside your home. Consider upgrading to a MERV 13 or higher rated filter if possible.
  • Portable air conditioners are generally safe to operate during a wildfire since they cool and recirculate air inside the room. They have a built-in filter that can be washed and reused. However, the filter is not built to filter smoke. Do your best to get rid of the smoke indoors first before using a portable A/C indoors during a wildfire.
  • Window-type air conditioning units can prevent outdoor air from coming inside by closing the outdoor air damper. If your unit’s damper cannot be closed, find other ways of cooling the house instead of turning on the A/C.
  • Do not turn on your portable air conditioners if they use a single hose and a window to vent. Use other cooling methods instead.

Do AC Units Filter Cigarette Smoke?

Typical air conditioning units have filters designed to remove dust and pollen. While they can filter out cigarette smoke, the fine particles within cigarette smoke can easily block and significantly decrease your filter’s lifespan. This means that you will need to change your filter regularly to maintain good air quality and protect your air conditioning unit.

The particulates in cigarette smoke mix with other substances in the air like dust, pollen, and other pollutants. The increase in substances in the air means that your filter is picking up more than it is designed to. Therefore, failure to change filters leads to a decrease in air quality indoors, which can be detrimental to the whole family’s health.

You also need to remember that not all particles are captured by your filter. Some of them can make their way to the air conditioning unit itself and settle there. Nicotine and tar are sticky substances and can attract dust.

The build-up can coat the machinery and cause it to heat up and work less efficiently. Even if you change your filters regularly, dirt build-up in the unit itself can cause breakdowns and shorten its lifespan.

How to Remove Wildfire Smoke in Your House

Removing the smoky smell from your house can be time-consuming. However, knowing what to do can significantly increase your comfort levels.

Here are some tips on how you can remove wildfire smoke in your home.

  • Fill bowls with baking soda and place them around your house. The baking soda will help absorb the smoky smell. Activated carbon is a good alternative.
  • Wash clothing in 1 cup of vinegar in addition to your usual laundry detergent. Wash again immediately if the smoky smell remains.
  • Power wash outdoor surfaces like driveway, windows, sidings, and sidewalks.
  • Use mild soap or cleaning products to get rid of the smoky smell on indoor surfaces.
  • If you have the correct equipment, clean your carpet, mattresses, or upholstery. You can also call a professional to get them serviced.
  • Call the pros to clean your HVAC, furnace, and ducts.
  • Use a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter to clean the air.
  • Avoid using air fresheners to mask the smell.

How to Remove Cigarette Smoke in Your House

You should avoid smoking indoors as much as possible.  Luckily, there are some simple ways to remove cigarette smoke in your home.

  • Use a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air Filter) filter for your A/C. This type of filter is more efficient and can reportedly trap 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles. It won’t be able to remove all tobacco pollutants, but it will be able to capture most of them.
  • There are certain types of houseplants that can improve air quality. The snake plant, for example, is a popular choice for people who want a natural indoor air filter. Chrysanthemums, Gerbera Daisies, and rubber plants are also good examples.
  • Cigarette smoke can be tough to get rid of, especially if you continue smoking indoors. Aside from changing the filter of your A/C, you should also consider buying an air purifier with a HEPA filter to get rid of the smoky smell faster.
  • Open a window or two to help with circulation. Opening a window can disperse smoke and unwanted smells faster.
  • Regular maintenance of your A/C unit will extend its lifespan and ensure that it remains efficient at its job.

HEPA Filters in AC Units & Air Purifiers

HEPA filters in AC units & even cheaper, small air purifiers can significantly improve indoor air quality.

HEPA filters can trap 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and pollutants in the air. This is very helpful if you suffer from allergies or asthma. It can also visibly remove the smoky haze caused by cigarette smoke and help to reduce the smell.

During a wildfire, it is important to check if your filter is still clean, as wildfires can push a large number of pollutants into the air. Make it a habit to change HEPA filters regularly or to change them during wildfire season.

Air purifiers can also come in handy, especially in cities with high pollution levels. High pollution has been linked to premature death. According to research, high pollution has shortened the average global lifespan by 3 years.

Air purifiers can help remove allergens and pollutants in the air. It can also eliminate odors (something a HEPA filter can’t do) and relieve asthma symptoms.

HEPA filters and air purifiers will not eliminate 100% of pollutants, particles, and chemical components in the air but can dramatically reduce their numbers.

How HEPA Filter Works

Related Article Best Air Purifier For Smoke

People Also Ask (FAQ)

What are some tips for reducing exposure to smoke in the home?

Here are some things you can do:

  1. Close windows and seal any leaks to prevent smoke from coming inside your home.
  2. Stay indoors as much as possible and use a fan to ventilate areas.
  3. Avoid using your A/C unit.
  4. Consider using an N95 mask when going outside.
  5. Check the local news for air quality through your city’s air quality index.
  6. Use an A/C with a HEPA filter or an air purifier.

How Do I Check The Air Quality Levels?

Air Quality Index or AQI is like a thermometer that goes from 0 to 500. Breezometer and AirVisual are some of the most popular AQI monitors.

What Absorbs the Smell of Smoke?

The following are effective against eliminating the smell of smoke (especially cigarette smoke) at home:

  1. Coffee grounds
  2. Citrus peel
  3. Vinegar – place a bowl in rooms where you smoke often
  4. Baking soda
  5. Activated Charcoal


Smoke from wildfire and cigarettes pose a serious health threat. In these days of climate change and increased pollution, we all need to protect ourselves from these dangers by using air conditioners and air purifiers.

But before you buy the first A/C unit or air purifier you see, make sure that it uses HEPA filters. While this type of filter is not perfect, it can still eliminate a significant number of airborne particles so that you can reduce the risk for you and your family.

Josh Mitchell

Josh Mitchell

My name is Josh and I am obsessed with DIY and improving my family home. HVAC topics can be tricky for homeowners so I decided to share my knowledge on the subject. When I am not working on DIY projects, you can find me at the beach or my local coffee shop.