How to clean a bathroom fan

With a few simple steps, here’s your DIY guide to cleaning bathroom fans

Key tips to remember

  • Bathroom exhaust fans should be thoroughly cleaned every six months
  • It’s a good idea to get into the habit of dusting them regularly, too
  • With a few common household tools, it’s easy to clean your bathroom fan
  • Make sure you remember to switch off your breaker before working on your fan
  • Be careful not to damage the fan’s delicate blades when cleaning them

If you’re wondering how to clean a bathroom vent, you probably have a dirty exhaust fan. Though it might not be one of the most fun home maintenance tasks, cleaning a bathroom exhaust fan is important because a clean bathroom fan can help prevent mold and mildew. Another added benefit is a less foggy mirror after showers! Luckily, cleaning bathroom exhaust fans is not a particularly difficult task for the average DIYer. Before you go online for terms like “how to clean bathroom fan,” your search ends here. Read on, and we’ll tell you how.

Why clean it anyway?

Good question, but the answer is simple: Your bathroom fan sucks extra moisture and odors from the air and blows them outside your house. If it’s not working well, you’re going to have problems. These problems can range from stinky scents, mildew and mold to full-on rot, which can set into walls and other spaces where moisture builds, even in your fan’s vent. The bathroom fan is easy to overlook and forget about, so it’s a safe bet yours could use a cleaning. Overall, it’s a good idea to clean your bathroom fan at least twice a year to keep it running smoothly. You can easily clean yours in half an hour or less with a few common household tools. One more thing: If you already have a mildew or mold problem, or aren’t sure which, read our post on mildew versus mold, and on how to go about removing bathroom mold.

Grab these tools

If you’re planning on cleaning a bathroom fan, you won’t need anything fancy to do the job. Just make sure you have a vacuum with a brush or crevice attachment, a stepladder, a bucket, a little household cleaner or dish soap, a flashlight or headlamp, a screwdriver, a soft-bristle brush, an old towel, a microfiber cloth and an electrostatic duster, if you have one. If not, no problem. You can also use a can of compressed air and some cotton swabs with alcohol.

Prioritize safety

Make sure your floor is dry and you switch off the breaker controlling the circuit powering your bathroom fan, along with the power switch for the fan in the bathroom itself. If you’ve got a headlamp, strap it on, power it up and have a look at the fan. If not, make sure your flashlight is in hand before you put the stepladder in place to head up for a look. If this already sounds too far outside your comfort zone, retreat to the relative safety of your couch instead and check out what our protection plans can do for you. Otherwise, read on!

Take off the cover

Not every vent design is identical. Some include built-in lights, or even speakers and other features. Removing the fan’s outer housing or cover might require using a screwdriver. It might also involve loosening clips or releasing wires from slots to allow sections of the housing to fall away from the ceiling. If there is a light, you should disconnect its wire.

Clean the cover

Once you remove the housing, your next step is to dust it and probably clean it as well because it’s sure to have attracted its share of debris. You might be surprised at how effectively dust, grime and various insect corpses have gummed up the fan’s cover. You can use a vacuum with a brush or crevice-cleaning attachment to extract most dust bunnies and other debris. After dusting, dunk the plastic fan cover in hot water with a little dish soap, scrub it clean with a soft-bristle brush, rinse it and allow it to air-dry completely. Reassemble any disparate pieces and set it aside. Later, you can dry any remaining stubborn wet spots with that microfiber cloth we mentioned. Now you’re ready to move on to the inside of the fan.

Clean the inside

Some fans are removable. If yours is, go ahead and take it out of the cavity in the bathroom ceiling. Make sure the blades and motor are removed entirely, and are completely free from debris and unobstructed. If the blades, motor or both are removable using screws or tabs, go ahead and pull them out for examination. After removing any remaining dust bunnies, debris or dead insect clusters you might encounter in the motor or blades, here is where more detail-oriented cleaning with a lighter touch comes into play. Be careful not to damage the delicate blades. Work to clean inside these smaller spaces with tools like the can of compressed air and cotton swabs dipped in alcohol. Wipe everything down with the microfiber cloth before moving on to reassembly.

Put it back together

After you’ve worked your way through the entire bathroom fan assembly inside and out and everything is clean and dry, you’re ready to begin reassembling the whole thing. Act in reverse order, replacing everything you’ve unscrewed, unsnapped or removed. Take a moment to gently spin the blades manually with your fingers to verify they spin freely without obstruction. Reconnect any wires you disconnected along the way, and don’t forget to reattach any screws. If the fan was unplugged at any point, go ahead and plug it back in. Once all the interior parts are in place, including the motor, the fan and any wiring, you’re ready to grab the now-clean exterior housing or cover and snap (or screw) it back over the vent and fan assembly.

Give it a test

If everything is clean, dry and back in place, you’re ready to turn the breaker back on, supplying power to the circuit that contains your bathroom fan’s outlet. Once you do this, you can try turning the fan on again at the wall switch. If it comes back on like normal, congratulations! You’ve completed a successful cleaning of your bathroom fan. It’s a safe bet that it’ll work better, and might even sound better too. If you happen to hear something weird like a clicking, it’s possible you inadvertently misaligned the fan blades. You might have to cut power, flip the breaker and get back in there to realign everything. 

Now that you’re all set with a clean fan, you’re well prepared to keep your bathroom fresher and better circulated, with the added bonus of fighting the buildup of mildew and mold with every use.

Preventive maintenance

Going forward, it’s best to disassemble and clean your bathroom fan as we’ve described every six months. In the meantime, you can keep it even cleaner by using an electrostatic duster to remove dust from the cover and vents every week or two. This should only take seconds and will pay off the next time you take the unit apart for a thorough cleaning. We hope this post on how to clean a bathroom fan has been helpful. If so, you might find our guide to bathrooms to be of interest, along with our many other posts on home maintenance and improvement topics. Thanks for stopping by!

The information in this article is intended to provide guidance on the proper maintenance and care of systems and appliances in the home. Not all of the topics mentioned are covered by our home warranty or maintenance plans. Please review your home warranty contract carefully to understand your coverage.

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