A clogged AC (air conditioner) condensate drain line can cause water damage in the home. Or trigger a safety switch, which will cause the AC system not to work.
We recommend having an HVAC technician clean the AC drain lines during HVAC maintenance. Or during HVAC service. Cleaning the AC condensate drain line removes clogs in the pipes. And helps avoid problems with the air conditioning system.
In this guide, we talk about why an AC drain line gets clogged. And the signs to look for that may indicate a clogged condensate drain line. Then we will walk you through three step-by-step processes. Explaining how to clean and unclog the AC drain lines.
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What is an AC Drain Line
An air conditioner drain line is a PVC drain pipe attached to the condensate pan of the HVAC unit. When properly connected, it has a slight downward slope. The slope allows gravity to take the water down the drain and make its way out of the home.
The PVC drain pipe has a drain trap, also known as a P-trap. The P-trap is like those under a sink or toilet. One purpose of the P-trap is to separate the PVC drain line from the external environment. It does this by trapping water in the drain pipe, which creates the barrier. The barrier prevents spiders or insects from entering the AC system. And helps control odors. When the drain line is dry, spiders and insects can enter through the drain line.
The air conditioner generates condensation while it's on. The purpose of the AC drain lines is to allow the condensation to drain out of the system.
Signs the AC Drain Line is Clogged (And What Happens When it Gets Clogged)
If you have a clogged AC condensate drain line, you must fix it as soon as possible. Not fixing a clogged condensate drain line can cause water damage. And can also prevent the HVAC system from working.
You can know if an AC drain line is clogged by looking for two common signs of a clog. The first is if the AC system isn't working. The other is clear signs of water around the furnace, air handler, or ceiling.
If the air conditioner isn't working because of a clogged AC condensate line. It can be because the system has a "safe-t-switch." When water doesn't drain from the system, it can trigger the safe-t-switch. This disconnects power to the air conditioning unit and, in some cases, the thermostat.
Not all systems have a "Safe-T" switch, but we recommend installing one to prevent water damage in the home. And a triggered safe-t-switch can sometimes have similar symptoms to a faulty AC capacitor. Be sure to not confuse the two.
When there are signs of water around the HVAC unit or on the ceiling, it is a sign the condensate drain line is clogged. And the drain pan is overflowing. This causes water to leak from the HVAC unit and water damage in more severe cases.
Why the AC Drain Line Gets Clogged
The AC condensate drain line can clog for a few reasons. The most common reasons are dust and debris or spiders and insects.
Bad filtration or dirty filters can cause dust to build up on the evaporator coil. When the air conditioner runs, the evaporator coil generates condensation. The condensation washes away dust and debris from the evaporator coil into the AC drain line. And clogging it.
Also, debris from around the furnace or indoor air handler can make its way to the drain pan and the drain line. Causing it to clog.
Aside from dust and debris, the AC condensate drain line can clog from spiders and insects. During the off-season, the P-trap in the condensate line dries up when the air conditioner is not in use. Spiders and insects often find their way into the pipe and build webs or lay eggs that clog the drain line.
So, clean and unclog the condensate line at least once a year before the cooling season. You can learn how to do it yourself below. Or connect with an HVAC pro about doing it as part of a preventative maintenance service.
How to Clean and Unclog the AC Drain Line
There are three common ways to clean the AC condensate line. One is with a wet-dry vacuum. And the other two ways involve cutting the PVC piping for a more thorough cleaning.
Unclogging the AC Drain Line with a Wet-Dry Vacuum
Cleaning your AC drain line with a wet-rated vacuum is easy. But you need a wet-dry vacuum. And you need to locate the end of the AC condensate drain line. There are some companies that make AC drain line cleaner vacuums. However, a regular wet-dry vacuum will work as well.
Finding the end of the drain line can take time and effort. In most cases, it is located outside the house. Draining into a rain gutter. And in other cases, it won't be accessible if it drains into a drain pipe within the home's walls.
To clean the AC drain line with a vacuum, follow these steps:
Turn off the air conditioning unit
Connect the wet-rated vacuum to the end of the AC drain line piping
Ensure a tight seal between the wet-dry vacuum and the PVC piping. (You can wrap the PVC piping with a paper towel to ensure this).
Run the wet vacuum for about 1-2 minutes or until there is no more water draining from the line
Cleaning the AC Drain Line (w/cutting PVC Pipe)
The following two methods of cleaning the AC drain line involve cutting. And are more technical. Nonetheless, you should be fine if you are a handy DIY person.
Cleaning AC Drain line with a brush
Cleaning the AC drain line with a cleaning brush is effective if done right. You want to follow the steps. And be sure you are flushing out the debris in the correct direction (not back into the HVAC system).
What you will need:
PVC pipe cutter
One gallon of water
Two hose clamps
Rubber tubing (usually one inch and a quarter, depending on the size of the PVC piping)
Pipe cleaning brush
The steps to unclog the AC drain line are straightforward.
Place the bucket under where you are going to cut the PVC piping
Cut the PVC piping after the drain trap (farther away from the HVAC system)
Let the water drain into the bucket
Push the pipe cleaning brush into the PVC piping. This is to clear any blockage (the blockage occurs in the drain trap).
Be careful not to push the debris into the system (The debris should end up in the bucket).
Attach the rubber tubing and reconnect the cut PVC piping
Use the hose clamps to attach the rubber tubing or glue the PVC pipes back together
Pour the gallon of water into the drain to flush out any excess debris and ensure it flows freely.
If you attempt to do this yourself, follow the instructions. Plan out your steps before you proceed. And if you are unsure about something, contact an HVAC technician.
Thorough Cleaning With a Nitrogen Shot
It is possible to clean the AC drain line with a high-pressure nitrogen shot. In fact, most HVAC technicians use this method. A nitrogen shot is small and effective. Making it easy for HVAC professionals to carry them in their cars.
Using a nitrogen shot to clean and unclog the AC drain line is similar to using a pipe-cleaning brush. But there are a few minor changes. First is when you cut the AC drain line. You must cut it before the drain trap (closer to the HVAC unit). That way, when you shoot the nitrogen down the line, it clears the whole line, including the drain trap. Ensure to shoot the nitrogen away from the system, not towards it.
You will also need a nitrogen gun to release the high-pressure gas at a high velocity into the drain line. The nitrogen gun allows you to load a nitrogen or CO2 cartridge. And a trigger helps release spurts of high-pressure gas in a controlled way—that way, the nitrogen cylinder can be used many times.
After the pipe is cut, insert the nozzle of the nitrogen gun into the PVC pipe. Ensure a tight fit seal. And shoot the AC drain line with the nitrogen. This process can be repeated until the pipe is clear.
Once the drain is clear, connect the PVC piping again with a coupling. The PVC can be glued to avoid leakage. The AC drain line is a low-pressure line, so leakage is rare (However, in most locations, local city code requires the PVC pipe to be glued). If you decide not to glue the pipe, it will allow for easy access in the future.
Ensure there is no leakage and that the AC drain line is clean by pouring about a gallon of water into the drain pan. And ensure everything is flowing.
A clogged drain line is no fun. And it can be why the air conditioner isn't working on a hot summer day. This guide went over the signs of clogged AC drain lines. So you can catch them early. We talked about why an AC condensate drain line gets clogged and dirty. And we discussed three methods to clean and unclog the AC drain line.
If you are a DIY person, you can try any of the methods mentioned. We advise that you proceed cautiously to avoid damage to the HVAC system or home. And ensure you leave the system in compliance with local city codes.
If you are stuck or need help, you can always call or contact an HVAC professional.
You can help prevent a dirty or clogged AC drain line by replacing the HVAC filters regularly. And scheduling regular HVAC maintenance. This is the best way to ensure the HVAC system runs all year round.