Picture this – it’s a hot and steamy day. You jump in your car and want to get the air conditioning cranking fast so you can cool down. You turn the AC on and are blasted with funky smelling moldy air. Mold in a car is a common problem, especially those with a few miles on the odometer. More often than not water has found its way into your car and has become a breeding ground for the foul smelling mold you wish to remove. There are several ways water can find its way inside the cabin of your vehicle. Leaky sunroof seals, leaky window seals, leaky convertible tops, clogged sunroof drain lines, or clogged air conditioning drain lines, to name just a few. Also, things that can create moldy smells are old and clogged cabin filters, spills under a seat, dead rodents that have nested under the hood, organic material tracked in and ground into the carpet, etc. All of these potential sources of mold smells make solving the problem difficult. The best way to resolve moldy odors is to identify the source of the problem and fix it. Once it’s fixed you can then clean up the mess and hopefully have a clean smelling vehicle. In this article we’ll cover the most common sources and solutions. Hopefully one of these will be able to solve the specific problem you’re experiencing.
Often the smell that you’re suffering from is coming directly from within the vents of your air conditioner or heater. Many times your evaporator core will create the perfect environment for mold to grow. One solution would be to replace your heater core. This likely isn’t something you’ll want to do since it can be expensive and you may not even be certain it’ll cure the foul odor. A simpler way to tackle it is to use a spray from BG Products called Frigi-Fresh. This is a spray that will kill mold and bacteria that can be growing on your evaporator core. The easiest way to spray this into your AC system is to find the air intake for the system and spray in through there. Usually the air intake is located just in front of the windshield. There is also usually an air filter for this intake vent so you’ll need to remove that prior to spraying. Once you’ve found the intake and removed the cabin filter, start the car and turn on the air conditioning to high. Also ensure that recirculation is turned off so that it is drawing in fresh are through the air intake. Spray the Fridge-Fresh into the air intake while the car is running. This should allow the spray to get onto the condenser and kill off mold, fungus, and bacteria that cause the funk.
A more powerful solution is also from BG Products and is called Frigi-Clean. Frigi-Clean is a foam that is sprayed into the housing around the condenser and will thoroughly clean it as well as kill any mold or bacteria. While this is a more effective solution it requires locating the housing of your evaporator under your dashboard, drilling a hole into the housing, and spraying the foam directly into the housing. This may be more than some will want to attempt. If this is the case you can go to your local mechanic and ask them to do the job for you.
As mentioned in the previous solution, there is an air filter usually in the fresh air intake for the cabin of your vehicle. This filter us referred to as the cabin filter. This filter unfortunately gets forgotten about frequently and rarely changed for a fresh one. A really old cabin filter can actually be the source of your problem if your mostly noticing smells coming from the air vents. If you’re going to try using Frigi-Fresh on your car you should also swing by your local car dealership and pick up a cabin filter for your car or truck. If you were going to skip Frigi-Fresh but plan on changing your cabin filter we highly recommend picking up a can since you’ll be under the hood and removing the filter anyhow. While you’re under the hood and poking around inspect the area around the cabin filter for animal nests and such. If you find anything clean it out thoroughly.
The older your car is the more likely your carpet and floor mats have ground in organic matter. Leaves, dirt, food, and more can decay and create some terrible odors. Thoroughly cleaning your carpet and floor mats can potentially solve your problem. Start by using a powerful shop vac to get up as much dirt and debris as you can from the floorboard of your car or truck. Especially get as much as you can from under your seats. All sorts of things can collect under there. Once you’ve thoroughly vacuumed your carpet and floor mats you should use a good quality automotive carpet shampoo. You’ll want to use a good carpet brush to thoroughly work the shampoo into the carpet and allow it to release all of the dirt and grime stuck in the carpet. Once the carpet and floor mats have been well shampooed you can be assured that your carpets aren’t the source of the problem. One additional note, keep an eye out for wet spots on your floorboard while your vacuuming. If you find a wet spot it can be the source of your problem and knowing where the moisture is collecting can help a mechanic locate the source of the problem.
Upholstery is like your carpet and can have ground in food, body sweat, and other organics absorbed into it. Thoroughly clean your seats being sure to get deep down into crevices and remove anything that may be wedged down there. Vacuum all surfaces well and shampoo with a good quality upholstery shampoo. Also, just as we suggested with your carpet you’ll need to use a good upholstery brush for the shampooing to be most effective.
The surface of your leather seats can get quite filthy. While they’re far less likely to be the source of smells you’ll still want to clean out any deep crevices and vacuum out creases. Once that’s done you’ll want to use a good leather cleaner and a gentle leather upholstery brush to lift away dirt and body oils that invariably stick to the surface of leather seats. Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned the leather it will need to be conditioned with a good leather conditioner to prevent them from drying out.
Ozone is a powerful odor attacker. An ozone generator is a secret weapon used by professional detailers to deal with strong odors in cars. You can rent an ozone machine and place it in your car to disinfect the interior. Start your car and run your AC with recirculate turned on for quite an hour or so. You may want to repeat the process. Do your best to seal the car with the ozone generator inside. Alternatively, if your ozone generator comes with a hose you can run the hose in through a window and try to seal up the window opening around the hose. Once you’re done with treating the interior with ozone you should open the doors and allow the ozone to dissipate. Don’t inhale the ozone as it is harmful to humans.
Doing your best to find the source of the odor is going to be the best thing you can do to resolve the problem. If you can specifically address a leak or a particular problem you can much more confidently get rid of the smell. If you don’t know where it is you can just try several approaches in hopes that it will fix the problem. In the case of a leak or some other recurring problem you may resolve it temporarily and have it come back weeks or months later. Spend some time trying to find water stains in your headliner or wet spots on your carpet. Check your trunk for leaks too. You may want to check at different times such as after a rainy day driving around to see if you can spot any wetness anywhere.
Also, wipe down all surfaces in the car for good measure. Removing as much dirt, dust, and debris as you can is always a good idea as they can not only be the cause of some odors but could hold in odors emitted from elsewhere.
Moldy odors in a car can unfortunately be a bit elusive to solve. There are several potential sources of the problem. We’ve outlined several sources and solutions to them. Searching for the source of the problem and dealing with it head on is the best route to go if you can find what is causing it. If you can’t find the source there’s a very good chance that going through all of the potential solutions outlined above may eliminate the smell. Don’t forget that a mechanic may be able to solve the problem for you by addressing issues that either allow water to collect in your car or more directly resolve mildew, mold, and more. Good luck getting your car or truck back to smelling fresh and clean.