Skip to main content

Why Cleaning Your Car Air Filter is Important

Female holding her nose from bad smell in her car

What if you could take a simple DIY step that may save you thousands of dollars down the line? 

That’s what happens when you clean the engine air filter in your vehicle on a regular basis. Your engine needs clean air to be its most efficient.  

In a worst case scenario, leaving it dirty can affect critical items by allowing grime and other foreign objects from the environment to infiltrate the system through the air intake. This can damage the pistons and carburetor. A trip to the repair shop due to your neglect is an expensive proposition and one that won’t be covered by car insurance

Less expensive issues caused by neglecting this component could mean the dust, pebbles and dirt may cause your engine to work harder and decrease your gas mileage. Cleaning it yourself is rated as an easy car maintenance task. Keep in mind that the drying portion of this takes up to 24 hours, so plan this project for when your vehicle will be parked for that long. Let’s take a look. 

Remember: Always check your owner’s manual before starting any type of work on your vehicle. 

What is a Car Air Filter? 

They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, but they all have one function: To keep the engine free of potentially dangerous debris. 

Your ride is an amazing and complex collection of parts that all have one function: to get you from point A to Point B. One of the most humble parts is the air filter. It’s function is to ensure clean air moves through the system, benefitting the automobile itself, as well as the people inside. That’s why cleaning it is important. 

Early versions were paper filters. These are still available, as well as ones made from cotton, foam and cotton soaked in oils. This is why you may hear people refer to them as either “oiled” or “dry”. There is a difference in how these are handled when it comes to your DIY cleaning.  

All are mounted on a frame, which also may come in a variety of materials, such as plastic or rubber or, in some cases, metal. Plastic and rubber frames are designed to produce a seal so the owner doesn’t need to purchase or install separate gaskets or seals. 

Mechanic hand holding an old and dirty car air filter to replace with a new filter.

When to Change and/or Clean 

Here are some guidelines for changing and cleaning based on material. In between recommended changes, cleaning should be done for enhanced performance. 

  • Dry filters: These days you’ll find these are mostly foam and should be cleaned or replaced every 15,000 miles. You can increase those cleaning intervals if you live in a dusty area or more polluted areas, such as a large city. Dry ones can be cleaned with soap and water. 
  • Oiled filters: These come in brands such as K&N and only need cleaning roughly every 50,000 miles or when you can no longer see parts of the screen. You’ll need to use something other than soap and water on these. There are specialty cleaning solutions for oil coated filters and they should be re-coated with specialty oil. 

Never use a petroleum based product, or solvents or kerosene, to clean these screens. These can damage it. 

Disposable or Reusable? 

Car owners have a choice of installing disposable or reusable. Manufacturers of reusable lines claim they last much longer although some experts claim the difference is negligible and they cost significantly more. Disposables are cheaper and, as long as both are clean, they provide approximately the same service. 

The keywords here being both need to be kept clean in order to do their job efficiently. 

What is the Difference Between All the Filters? 

There are 4 primary screens in your vehicle and all have an important function. Here’s a look. 

  • Cabin: This acts as a buffer between the people in the vehicle and the air coming through the heating and air conditioning system. This helps clean dust, pollen and other matter before it gets to you. 
  • Fuel: Works to keep impurities out of the fuel and helps to maintain the performance and longevity of the equipment. 
  • Oil: An important part of the system since it keeps particulates from polluting the oil, which keeps the engine running smoothly. 
  • Air: The one we are concerned with in this article. It helps provide clean oxygen for the combustion process your engine needs to start. 

How Much Does it Cost to Clean a Car Air Filter? 

The only cost associated with this process is your time and the negligible amount of soap you use. If you are replacing it, you can expect to spend anywhere from $15 to $25. If you choose to take it to a repair shop, a mechanic may charge you anywhere from $20 to $40 to change it out. You may also choose to buy a kit, which typically costs between $15 and $25. 

4 Steps to Clean the Car Air Filter 

If you are not in the least bit mechanically inclined or just don’t want to mess with it, take your auto to a mechanic to have regular maintenance, such as installing a clean one. Many people do this when they get their oil changed. 

However, if you don’t mind tinkering under the hood a little, washing it is really pretty simple. It only takes 4 steps. Some things you’ll need are a bucket and some dish soap, cloth, screwdriver and a vacuum cleaner. 

Make sure your vehicle is parked on a level surface with the parking brake engaged and the engine is cold. 

Man replacing the car air filter with a clean one

1. Locate and Remove the Filter 

Typically, it is a black plastic box either side of or on top of the engine. The housing may be fastened with screws, clips, clamps or wing nuts. Open the box and remove the dirty filter. Wipe down the housing with a damp cloth. 

2. Prior to Washing 

Gently tap it to remove any larger pieces of dirt and debris. Next, vacuum it to remove anything between the pleats (don’t vacuum so hard that you tear it). Some vacuums come with a special hose attachment for this purpose. 

3. Wash, Rinse and Dry 

Mix warm water and dish soap in a bucket and submerge the filter. Gently swish it around for a few minutes. If possible, rinse it in a sink so you can control the water pressure. Shake off excess water.  

It’s critical that you do not install a wet one back in so you’ll need at least 24 hours for it to completely dry. The best way is to lay it in the sun to dry. 

4. Reinstall 

Place it back in the housing and ensure all fasteners are tightened or clipped. And that’s it! 

What are the Signs I Need to Clean the Air Filter? 

Just like with most vehicle issues, your automobile will let you know if you’ve dropped the ball on some part of necessary maintenance. Luckily, you should see signs long before it becomes an expensive repair at the shop. Here are some common signs. 

  • Engine performance issues: These could take the form of a loss of normal power, such as when accelerating. You might hear strange noises or smell an unusual odor. This could include stalling, which is a serious sign you need to take action. Your check engine light may come on. 
  • Black smoke from the tailpipe: Black smoke from the exhaust signals a problem with the fuel/air mixture. This is a sign that your vehicle is in trouble and you need to take action. 
  • Gas mileage decrease: If you’ve noticed you are visiting the service station to put gas in your auto more often, it could be a signal something is wrong. 

In situations where your ride is trying to tell you something, it’s best to pay attention. If you don’t attend it now, you surely will later. This is one reason why it’s important to get service history records from any previous owners. And if you are a car owner who may sell your vehicle in the future, keep your service history, whether you do it yourself or take it to a shop. 

Keep in mind, also, that if your automobile develops a problem while still under warranty, you may not be able to get it fixed for free if you cannot prove you have kept up with all recommended maintenance. 

Protect Your Auto with Affordable Insurance Too 

At Freeway Insurance, we are invested in making sure your auto is protected while on the road. Keeping it maintained is one way you can extend the life, and in addition, finding affordable insurance is another way to protect it. Get a fast and free quote online, call us at (800) 777-5620 or visit us today. 

Ready to Get a Quick Quote?