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Best Methods for Cleaning a Bathroom Exhaust Fan

Bathroom exhaust fans are essential to a healthy home, as they extract humidity, odors, cleaning-agent fumes, and airborne contaminants from the confines of your bathroom. So, how do you keep your exhaust fan clean? Follow our step-by-step guide on cleaning a bathroom exhaust fan to keep yours operating at its best.

A hand opening up a dirty bathroom exhaust fan iStock

Moisture can cause paint to peel, metal to rust, wood to warp, and, worst-case scenario, it can cause mildew and mold to flourish. When powered on before you shower or bathe and kept on for 20 to 30 minutes afterward, the bathroom exhaust fan can be a powerhouse of an appliance, venting moisture outside the house and preventing damage inside.

But to function optimally, a bathroom fan must be free of dust and dirt. Generally, it should be cleaned every six months to a year, depending on how much use the bathroom gets and how quickly the cover becomes visibly dirty. (When you see dust gathering on the cover, it’s cleaning time.) A heavy enough buildup of dust and dirt can cause the fan’s motor to burn out—a hazard that should be easily prevented by regular cleaning.

How to Clean a Bathroom Exhaust Fan

You’ll need some readily available tools and materials to get the job done:

Step 1: Turn the power off at the circuit breaker

Before starting to clean, ensure that the fan is turned off and powered down at the circuit breaker. (And if your fan is plugged into a wall outlet, unplug it.)

Step 2: Vacuum the vent cover if necessary

If the vent cover is full of visible dirt, use your vacuum’s dusting brush attachment to extract any particles that might otherwise break loose when you remove the cover.

Step 3: Remove the vent cover

Exhaust fan covers are typically spring-loaded with mounting wires or held in place by a center screw. If yours is spring-loaded, grip the edges and pull the cover away from the surface. Located on the inside will be a set of clips that you then squeeze to release the cover. For the center-screw version, remove the screw and pull the vent cover away from the wall or ceiling.

Step 4: Vacuum and wash the entire vent cover

Once the cover has been removed, vacuum both sides using the brush attachment. Then, to remove stuck-on dirt, submerge the cover in warm, soapy water (dish soap like Dawn works best). Scrub with a soft sponge or cloth, then rinse and air dry. Note: If your vent cover has a light in it, do not submerge it in water. Instead, vacuum or dust it with a microfiber cloth or paintbrush and wipe it clean with a soft, damp cloth.

Step 5: Remove the motor assembly unit

First, unplug the connector that powers the motor. Then carefully remove the mounting screws that hold the motor assembly in place; use one hand to remove the last screw and the other to support the motor to prevent it from falling. Some motors and fans can simply be twisted out for easy removal. Or, if it appears these parts cannot be removed, skip to Step 7.

Step 6: Clean the motor assembly unit

Vacuum the motor to remove as much dust as possible. For stubborn, stuck-on dirt, try cleaning the unit with a paintbrush or other soft-bristled brush or microfiber cloth.

For hard-to-reach areas, use compressed air (best to do this outside, so you’re not blowing dust around inside the house). If necessary, use cotton swabs to clean between the blades. Follow up with another round of vacuuming or compressed air to remove any newly loosened dirt.

Step 7: Clean the fan’s housing

If you were unable to remove the fan and motor, use your vacuum’s brush attachment to extract any accumulated dust on and around the unit. If you need to get into hard-to-reach spaces, use your vacuum’s crevice tool attachment—but work carefully so you don’t accidentally dislodge wires or damage other small parts. (As an alternative to a vacuum, you can try a paintbrush or microfiber cloth.)

If you are able to remove the fan and motor, use the same tools (brush and crevice attachment and/or paintbrush and microfiber cloth) to clean the housing, removing as much built-up dust and dirt as possible from the surfaces and edges and around the entry to the ducting.

Step 8: Reinstall the motor and vent cover

Once the motor assembly and vent cover are clean, reinstall both by reversing the steps you used to remove them. Turn the circuit breaker on, and you’re ready to power up your bathroom exhaust fan.