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How to clean a charcoal filter

Updated February 21, 2017

Charcoal filters, sometimes known as activated carbon charcoal filters, absorb and trap particles, chemicals, and other debris from dirty air or water. Charcoal filters—whether dry or wet—aren’t long-term, reusable filters. Once all of the pores in the charcoal completely absorb pollutants, you must replace the filter. As a result, cleaning a charcoal filter only requires that between replacements you remove accumulated debris from the surface of the filter that can block air or water from flowing through the entire filter and clean the filter housing.

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  1. Remove the charcoal filter from its filter housing.

  2. Slide a crevice tool attachment onto the hose of your vacuum and vacuum one side of the filter to remove dust and dirt using a side-to-side, horizontal motion. Start at the top of the filter and work your way to the bottom. Repeat on the other side.

  3. Vacuum the filter housing. If the filter housing has an intake or outgoing air grate, grille and/or vent, wipe all surfaces with a damp, lint-free microfiber cloth and dry thoroughly with another cloth.

  4. Return the filter to the filter housing.

  5. Remove the charcoal filter from the filter housing.

  6. Place the filter in a container of cool distilled water or aquarium water, if dealing with an aquarium, soak for five minutes and then swish the filter around in the water for three to five minutes to dislodge any debris from the filter surface.

  7. Pour out the dirty water and run fresh distilled or aquarium water over the filter for 30 seconds.

  8. Return your charcoal filter to the filter housing.

  9. Tip

    If a dry charcoal filter’s housing or cover or grille has any type of greasy build-up or stains, wash the surfaces with a slightly soapy cloth, rinse with a damp cloth until you’ve removed all soap residues, grease, dirt or other debris and then wipe dry.


    Always replace a charcoal filter when it’s time to do so as recommended by the appliance or filter manufacturer. Attempting to re-use the filter long-term can result in poor air or water quality or damage to the appliance or system that houses the filter. Never wash a charcoal filter with soap and water as this negates the charcoal’s ability to filter air or water. Rinsing the filter with hot water does the same as well as helps release any absorbed pollutants into the air. Washing a wet charcoal filter’s housing with chemicals or abrasive cleaners, soap or tap water can permanently damage the filter housing or leave behind chemical residues that can contaminate the water (for example, drinking or aquarium water).

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Things You'll Need

  • Vacuum
  • Water (optional)
  • Lint-free microfiber cloths
  • Container
  • Distilled water
  • Aquarium water (optional)
  • Mild detergent (optional)

About the Author

Based in Southern Pennsylvania, Irene A. Blake has been writing on a wide range of topics for over a decade. Her work has appeared in projects by The National Network for Artist Placement, the-phone-book Limited and GateHouse Media. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Shippensburg University.

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