How often to clean car air filter

One of the most common issues you’ll come across when you need to change the engine air filter is a decrease in your gas mileage. The engine requires good airflow to work properly. When the air filter is dirty, it’s harder to get the air in, and the engine has to work harder. Your gas mileage won’t suffer too badly at first, but after a while, you’ll notice the numbers drop quickly. If you’ve noticed recently that you have to fill up the gas tank more often than usual, it’s probably time to get the air filter checked.

Ignition Problems

When your engine air filter is dirty, the air can’t get through the filter to the engine, which affects the entire emission control system of the car. This, in turn, can gunk up the spark plugs, preventing them from sparking properly. Because of this, you may experience ignition problems. When you try to start the car, does it roll over sluggishly or not at all? Consider checking the filters to see if this is the problem.

Replacement Time

Check your owner’s manual; it should tell you when your air filter should be replaced. This is generally every 12,000 to 15,000 miles, depending on your vehicle. If you have driven more than that since the last time you replaced the air filter, it’s probably time to get it changed.

Keep in mind that if you drive in a sandy or dusty area, your filter will likely need to be changed more often than the recommended time frame for your vehicle. If your owner’s manual says that it’s time to replace the filter, it’s best to take care of the replacement, rather than wait until you start seeing other problems.

Visual Check

New air filters are usually either white or off white. You can visually check your engine air filter to see if it’s looking dirty or if it’s full of debris. Keep in mind that sometimes an air filter can get clogged with particles that are too small to see. However, if you notice that the filter is gray or full of particles, it’s certainly time to replace it. The location of the air filter varies by vehicle, so check your owner’s manual to find out exactly where the filter is located.

Getting the air filter changed is generally not an expensive repair. It’s basic maintenance that you need to take care of regularly to keep your car running great. Make sure to keep an eye on your air filter and replace it when you start noticing signs that it is clogged, and keep your car in great shape for as long as possible.

Cleaning your car’s air filter is probably one of the easiest jobs you can undertake and a fantastic introduction to DIY auto maintenance. My father ran his own auto repair business and as a kid, cleaning the air filter was one of my areas of expertise.

Cleaning and reusing a car’s air filter is an acceptable practice. Performance air filters are durable and are designed to be reused. Although standard air filters may be cleaned, they aren’t durable and will need to be replaced at the next service.

In this article, you’ll learn the importance of cleaning your car’s air filter, how to clean it correctly and when to change it out.

What Happens When Car Air Filter Is Dirty?

How often to clean car air filter
How often to clean car air filter

Your car’s air filter, made from plastic, paper, and foam may seem like a trivial component, after all, it’s pretty unimpressive to look at. But let’s take a moment to consider what the filter actually does.

A car’s standard air filter is cleverly designed, it’s constructed with pleated paper. We describe them as paper filters but it’s a highly engineered media. It’s a resin-treated paper mixed with synthetic fibers that can filter fine particulars as small as 5 microns.

The pleated media configuration makes a difference too, the pleats increase the surface area which increases air intake capacity, important when the engine is moving with the throttle wide open.

Your car’s air filter has two main tasks, filter the air and settle the air.

Filter the air

Our environment is filled with silica, they’re fine particulates of rock basically. The fine grains have the ability to destroy your engine, not at once, but over a period of a year. If not for the air filter, the constant blast of fine grit sucked into the engine, would erode the throttle body, intake system, valves, and cylinders.

In addition, many modern cars are fitted with turbochargers. The turbo helps power output and efficiency. The turbos impeller spins in excess of 250,000 rpm, grit hitting the turbo’s impeller at these speeds will wear the impeller away in jig time.

How often to clean car air filter
How often to clean car air filter

I am a mechanic and I’ve worked on seen the damage this causes. Some environments have higher levels of silica and under these conditions, the damage can happen surprisingly quickly. This type of damage can be expensive to repair.

Settles the air

You know your cars use computers to balance the delicate ratio of gas to air. The measurement is important, an engine won’t run well if it’s getting too much air or not enough.

A sensor inside the air filter tubing is mission-critical. It’s known as a Mass Air Flow sensor or MAF. Its function is to measure incoming airflow and signal the PCM (Power-train Control Module). The PCM then calculates how much fuel to add, this is a continuous operation.

Airflow moving around a car tends to be erratic and therefore uneven. Allowing large chunks of air to enter the engine would cause the sensor and PCM to make erratic calculations, not helpful for smooth running.

Adding a pleated air filter slows down, uniforms, and stabilizes the airflow.

Can You Clean A Car Air Filter With Soap And Water?

Some performance air filters may be cleaned using soap and water. However, these type filters will resemble a sponge-type material. Standard pleated paper-type filters should not be washed in soap and water, this will affect how air flows through the filter.

Washing tends to damage the fibers and prevent airflow, this will result in poor, rough, or no running. Black smoke, engine light on, and misfiring are all possible symptoms of a washed air filter.

Can I Vacuum My Air Filter?

Vacuuming your car’s air filter is absolutely fine. However vacuum from the direction of airflow, otherwise, you’ll be trying to suck the grit through the media. Obviously, if the filter is thick with dirt and grit it needs to be replaced.

How To Clean The Air Filter Like A Pro

Cleaning your car’s air filter is as you know an acceptable practice, but isn’t a substitute for replacement. Your air filter should ideally be cleaned every 15,000 miles and most service intervals will recommend a change every 30,000 miles.

If your environment is dusty, driving on unsealed roads during the summer season, for example, will obviously cause a ton of grit inside the air filter. In dusty conditions check and clean the air filter once a month.

Cleaning your filter is easy, follow these tips:

How often to clean car air filter
How often to clean car air filter
MAF Sensor

  • Remove the air filter cover – On most cars this won’t require any tools, but some may require unplugging the MAF sensor.
  • Remove and examine filter – Holes, replace filter.
  • Clean filter – Tapping the filter on on a floor will cause the grit to drop off. Tap from direction of airflow. Use a vacuum or soft bristle brush to remove any remnants.
  • Check filter – Hold the filter to the light, if light doesn’t pass through the filter, it’s time to replace it.
  • Clean the housing – Remove grit from the air box, use a damp cloth to trap the dust and grit.
  • Clean the MAF – Spray some contact cleaner on the mass sensor.
  • Reassemble – Cleaning the filter great, but do replace the filter once per year, especially important if your car is turbo charged.

How Much Does It Cost To Replace A Car’s Air Filter?

How often to clean car air filter
How often to clean car air filter
Cleaning MAF Sensor

Air filters aren’t expensive, you can buy most filters between $25 and $50, and you can usually add the cost of the filter again for labor to fit. But you can easily fit the filter yourself, in many cases most cars use a tool-less air filter housing.

I would advise fitting it yourself and using the savings to buy an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) filter from the dealer and some electrical contact cleaner for the MAF sensor.

You can check out the MAF cleaner I use here on the Consumables page.

When Should I Change The Air Filter?

A vehicle’s air filter should be cleaned every 15,000 miles and then replaced every 30,000 miles. For most cars, a new air filter once per year is about right.

However, if your vehicle operates in dusty conditions, you need to check and clean it once a month. Clean air is especially important to turbo-charged gas and diesel engines alike.

Failing to clean the air filter will result in premature turbocharger failure, and that’s quite spendy.

Does Changing Air Filter Improve Gas Mileage

A dirty filter does affect gas mileage. The clogged filter prevents airflow and that chokes the engine. Limited performance means the engine needs to work even harder to get the job done and that takes more gas.

Replacing a dirty filter for a clean free-flowing filter will make a difference to your performance and consequently your gas mileage.

Does Changing Air Filter Improve Performance

How often to clean car air filter
How often to clean car air filter

A neglected dirty air filter will allow dirt to contaminate the throttle body. Your throttle body is responsible for controlling airflow to the engine. A dirty throttle plate is common, cleaning is a simple job that makes a world of difference to how your vehicle performs.

Spraying the throttle body with throttle body cleaner removed grit, dirt, oil, and carbon deposits.

A clean throttle plate results in smoother idling, crisper response, and more fuel efficient. Check out the throttle body cleaner I use here on the Consumables page.

A dirty filter restricts airflow and that restricts performance. The engine can’t make power without oxygen. Any restriction in the oxygen-rich airflow will hamper power output.

Some common restrictions include:

  • Dirty air filter
  • Kinked air intake duct
  • Loose turbo charger hose
  • Leaking inter-cooler
  • High altitudes
  • Extreme ambient temperatures

Cleaning, changing, or fitting a performance filter will improve airflow, power, and gas mileage.

Does an air filter make a car louder? Some performance air filters will necessitate the elimination of the engine’s standard air filter housing. This increases airflow, performance, and also engine noise.

What happens if you don't clean your car's air filter?

When the air filter gets too dirty, it will get clogged and the engine won't be able to suck up enough air to the combustion chamber. When this happens, the engine will use more gas and less air, which will result in poorer performance and a drop in fuel efficiency.

How often do air filters in cars need to be changed?

You should change the air filters at least once a year or every 12,000-15,000 miles, whichever comes first. If you drive in dusty/dirty conditions, you may be required to change your filter more often. Some filters are marked with a service life indicator that changes color when it's time to be replaced.

How do I know if my air filter needs cleaning?

A filter that is clogged with dirt is an obvious sign of a dirty air filter. Performing a visual inspection is an easy way to know if your air filter needs to be changed. A brand new air filter is white or off-white in color, while a dirty air filter will appear darker with the dirt and debris visible.

How often do air filters need to be cleaned?

As a general rule, you should clean your air conditioner filters within the indoor unit every two weeks. In more dusty or polluted environments you should clean your filters more regularly.