Bathroom exhaust fans are unsung household heroes, running unnoticed in the background, unfogging bathroom mirrors, and helping to keep our houses fresh and airy. We don’t notice them until there is a problem, which can lead to some real inconveniences. With these simple tips for maintaining bathroom exhaust fans, you can keep your fans running efficiently and safely, reducing humidity and improving indoor air quality. In addition to reducing odors, a well-maintained bathroom ventilation fan can also keep mold away and protect your decor.

Bathroom fans should be cleaned every six months. Dust and other debris, such as lint and hair, can accumulate on the fan blades and inside the vent, reducing the fan’s efficiency. When that happens, the fan works less effectively, leading to the build-up of moisture in the bathroom, which can lead to mold.

A good place to start is with the fan user manual. The manufacturer will provide a suggested schedule for cleaning and inspecting the fan. If your fan requires lubrication, the manual will supply specific instructions on how to do this. Likewise, if your fan has a filter, the instruction manual will supply the necessary details on when and how to replace it.

Generally speaking, maintaining a bathroom fan is straightforward.

Basic bathroom exhaust fan maintenance checklist: 

  • Clean the fan every six months. Dust and debris can accumulate on the exterior housing, fan blades, and inside the vent.
  • Check the fan’s vent. Inspect the vent leading outside to make sure it is not blocked by a build-up of debris, bird nests, or other obstructions. A blocked vent can not only reduce the fan’s efficiency, it can also be a fire hazard.
  • Inspect the fan for damage: Keep an eye out for any signs of wear and tear when cleaning the fan, and notice if the fan is noisier than usual–this can be an indicator that some parts are loose or that the motor is beginning to fail.

How to clean a bathroom exhaust fan 

Cleaning a bathroom vent fan starts with removing and cleaning the cover, and then cleaning the fan itself. Removing the fan motor is not necessary, but doing so allows you to clean more thoroughly.

First, gather the tools and materials needed for the job.

What you’ll need: 

  • A sturdy step stool, if the fan is overhead or out of easy reach
  • A screwdriver, ideally with a magnetic tip to help prevent dropping and losing screws
  • A vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment. A crevice tool is also useful if you have one.
  • Microfiber or other lint-free cleaning cloths
  • Compressed air and soft brush (if you plan to remove and clean the motor)
  • Extra rags or towels, to project surfaces and dry the parts after cleaning

Whether or not the fan has a light will make a difference in the cleaning process. Fan covers that do not include lights can be submerged in water and scrubbed clean. Bathroom exhaust fans with lights, Bluetooth speakers, sensors, or other features should never be submerged in water.

How to clean a bathroom exhaust fan, in five easy steps:

  1. Turn the fan off. For extra safety, turn off the power to the fan at the circuit breaker.
  2. Remove the fan cover. If the fan does not have a light, this is easy. Gently pull down on the cover, and with your fingers, feel around for the mounting tabs or wires on either side. If you can feel tabs, push them inward to release the cover. If your fixture has wires, squeeze them together and you should feel the cover come loose. For fans with lights, you will also need to disconnect the wires at this point.
  3. Clean the cover. Covers with no lights can be easily cleaned in a sink of warm water and a couple drops of dishwashing soap. Be sure to rinse the cover thoroughly, and then set it aside to completely dry. As we mentioned earlier, fans that include lights or other electric features should never be submerged. To clean those, use a damp microfiber cloth to wipe the surfaces clean.
  4. Vacuum the fan without removing the motor. Using the brush attachment, vacuum everything you can see – the fan itself and the housing around the motor. Be gentle when vacuuming the fan blades. Be thorough and remove as much dust and grime as you can. If you have a crevice tool, use it to get into the corners and areas the larger brush cannot reach.
  5. Dust the fan and housing areas you can reach with a dry microfiber cloth. This extra step removes dust particles the vacuum leaves behind.

You also have the option to remove the motor. According to Family Handyman magazine’s article on how to clean bathroom fans, removing the motor is straightforward. Most fan motors are simply held in place with two or three screws. Start by unplugging the plug or connector powering the fan and then remove the screws. A magnetic screwdriver is extra helpful for this task, and do not forget to keep hold of the unit as you remove the last screws.

You can vacuum the motor inside your home, using the brush attachment, or take the unit outside, and use compressed air to blow the dust out of the motor. Vacuum the fan housing in the ceiling from which you removed the vacuum, and finish by using a dry microfiber cloth to dust all the parts you can reach.

Replacing the motor (if you have removed it) is as simple as returning the motor to the housing, reconnecting the power source, and replacing the screws. Be sure to keep hold of the motor until all the screws are in place and tight. Then, check the cover to be sure it is completely dry, and if it is, simply push it back into place, being sure to properly align the tabs or wires with their slots. Be sure to reconnect the power to the light, if your fixture has one, before you secure the cover.

Once the fan cover is back in place, turn the power to the fan back on, and then turn on the fan to ensure all is working as it should.

Other tips for maintaining bathroom exhaust fans 

Most bathroom ventilation fans today are designed to be no-maintenance, with motors that do not need lubrication and no other care required other than cleaning the fan and its cover every six months.

However, ensuring the fan’s ventilation is unobstructed is crucial. Inside the house, this means keeping the area around the fan clear, so it can operate unimpeded. It is important to also keep an eye on the ventilation ducts on the outside of the home. Birds and small mammals sometimes try to build nests or escape the elements in exterior fan ducts, creating blockages. If either the air intake or exhaust vents are blocked, the fan will not work as efficiently.  Blockages can also stress the motor and potentially decrease the lifespan of the fan.

When it comes to maintaining bathroom exhaust fans, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. Following the simple checklist and cleaning steps above should help you keep your home clean and healthy, and your bathroom fan running for years.