How to Clean Your Car Air Filter

November 6, 2013

A dirty car air filter is like having no car air filter. Learn about washing and vacuuming car air filters, and the 4 main filter types.

Most people know that they need to replace their car air filter at specific intervals (usually every 15,000 miles). The build up in the filter that causes it to clog doesn't happen all at once. It accumulates gradually, choking off more and more air supply to the engine. This results in a loss of performance and fuel economy. Cleaning your filter between changes is both something you can do and something that will help your car run better and more efficiently.

How to Tell If Your Air Filter Needs Changing >>

Washing vs. Vacuuming
There are a couple of schools of thought on cleaning your air filter. Some people recommend using a cleaning solution. Others swear by vacuuming. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The soap approach might get the filter cleaner. The problem, though, is that it takes a lot more time (you need to make sure the filter is completely dry before replacing it) and has a higher risk level (putting the filter back in wet can damage your engine). Vacuuming might not get as many contaminants, but it is a fast process and you won't do any harm.

Locate and Remove Your Air Filter
If you have the manual for your vehicle, take a look to locate your filter. If not you can check the Internet or ask your mechanic the next time your car is serviced. The filter will usually be fairly easy to access and is in a little canister. Most open either with a wing nut or a couple of clamps that can be easily removed. The filter usually just sits in there and you can simply pull it out.

Clean the Filter
If you choose to use soap, place the filter in a bucket with a soapy water solution. Swish it around and pull it out. Shake the filter to get as much liquid out as you can. Set it down on a towel to dry. Be sure to allow plenty of time to be sure it is completely dry.

For those who prefer the vacuum cleaner approach, run the vacuum over the filter for a minute or so on each side. Look it over again and remove anything that is left on the outside.

Clean the Canister
Whichever method you use to clean the filter, be sure to clean out the canister as well. A soft cloth or paper towel will do a good job. Just be sure not to leave any pieces behind. If you use any thing wet, make sure the canister is completely dry before putting the filter back in. Once again, moisture left behind can cause engine damage.

Replace Your Filter
Put the filter back in. Reverse the process you used to open it. You are done. Remember that rather than paying to have a new filter put in you can save some money by doing it yourself. It's completely the same process - minus cleaning the filter.

Types of Internal Combustion Air Filters

There are four main types of air filters used in cars today:

  • Paper filters. The first type is the widely known and equipped-from-the-factory paper filter. Don't let the word "paper" fool you, it's not the biodegradable paper that we can easily throw away. This paper is of an industrial quality and pleated in an accordion fashion to increase surface area. This means that there's more space for dirt to become trapped. According to tests, these filters decrease fuel efficiency and engine power. Some say that this is not true unless the filter is significantly clogged. These filters are relatively cheap and easy to replace, but replacement must be done more frequently than some other filter types
  • Foam filters. These are an aftermarket filter that can be bought from a wide variety of retailers. This type of air filter is very popular with those who either live in dusty areas and/or partake in sports such as off-roading and rally racing. The foam is a polyurethane soaked in an oil. They come in different grades of foam and can vary in thickness as well. These two factors contribute to the airflow resistance and the dirt capacity
  • High performance filters. High performance filters are typically made of a cotton gauze and are more popular among those who own vehicles such as sports cars, road-rally cars, competition trucks or those who just want to increase their air intake and power of their engine. These filters can be a bit pricier than the others, especially if bought with a cold-air intake system. These are an aftermarket filter that can be bought from specialty dealers. Learn more about the Best Automotive Air Filters here.
  • Oil bath filters. This was what was used in vehicles until the introduction of paper filters in the 1960s. This messy filter consisted of a pan of oil, over which an insert of fiber, paper, mesh or similar material was fitted. Incoming air flows rapidly over and around a serious of turns. The air must take a turn at high velocity over the oil pool where the heavy elements of the air contaminants are unable to make the turn and are captured by the pool of oil. The lighter particles that make it over the oil are captured by the insert. These obviously aren't popular and are considered obsolete because they are a messy hassle to change

Common Air Filter Questions

What Is an Air Filter's Job?
A vehicle's air filter is a replaceable component of the intake system. As a motor runs, air comes in through the air intake and travels through the air cleaner. Gas is added to the air that has passed through the air filter and the air/gas mixture is compressed inside the cylinder. As pressure builds in the cylinder, the spark plug fires, igniting the air/gas mixture, forcing the piston down into the cylinder. The piston turns the motor. So, the air filter provides clean air to the gas. When dirt builds up in the air filter, thus reducing the amount of air for the air/gas mixture, it can choke an engine and reduce gas mileage.

How Often Should I Change My Air Filter?
You should change the filter before the car performance is jeopardized. A dirty air filter will hurt fuel economy, performance and emissions. The factory recommends that the air filter is changed every 30,000 to 60,000 miles, however your everyday driving conditions will make a difference. Obviously you need to change your air filter more often if you live on a rural dirt road. The best advice is to inspect the air filter at every oil change, which should be every 3,000 miles, and replace the filter as needed.

How Do I Know If My Air Filter Needs to Be Changed?
Visual inspection is a sufficient and most common method for determining air filter replacement. You just need to remove the air filter and see whether the air filter is clean or dirty. You can also remove the filter and tap it with a screwdriver. If you see dirt falling from the air cleaner, it needs to be replaced.

How Do I Change My Car's Air Filter?
Every car and vehicle is different. The following advice is for the majority of cars, but always consult your owner's manual for information on how to replace your air filter. Remember to always wear protective eyewear and gloves when repairing a vehicle. First, locate the air filter housing. The air filter housing can be identified by looking for the air intake tube at the engine. The air filter housing typically has retainer clips or screws. Remove the clips or screws and then the air filter housing top. Replace the old filter with a new filter and reassemble.

What Is the Difference Between a Discount Air Filter and a Factory Air Filter?
The difference between a factory air filter or Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and a discount air filter is basically in the specifications, such as the micron count of the material used and filter material surface area. Factory air filters have a small micron count and performance air filters have a higher count.

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