A while ago, I had the opportunity to help with hurricane disaster relief efforts, and it was an incredibly eye-opening and humbling experience. The people that we helped had lost everything they owned to floodwaters that were 8 feet high in some areas of the house. To add insult to injury, they were not allowed back in their houses for a few weeks after the storm as they waited for the floodwaters to subside. This extra waiting period caused dangerous mold and bacteria to spawn and spread throughout the house, and the smell was, at times, overpowering.

Car Engine Air Filters Importance

(Pixabay / nastogadka)

Because of the potentially hazardous vapors in the air, all of the volunteers were required to wear facemasks to filter the air that they were breathing. If you’ve ever worked in a rescue environment like that, or on any kind of construction job that has respiratory safety requirements, you know that breathing through a facemask can be challenging. The tightly woven, overlapping fibers do help keep you safe, but over the course of the day as they get dirty, they can make breathing more and more difficult. This can cause people to get worn out more quickly than they would otherwise.

The same goes for your car filter, though it takes more than a day of use before it needs to be changed. Most people use disposable paper air filters that are good for 15,000 to 30,000 miles, depending on the vehicle’s recommended changing interval (found in your owner’s manual).

Just like how the facemask filters out particulates from the air to make it safe for your lungs, a car’s air filter prevents dirt and debris from getting into your engine compartment. During the combustion process, this filtered air is mixed with fuel and ignited in order to power your engine, so it’s vital to keep that air clean.

Signs that Your Air Filter Needs Replacing

If you’re not conscious about your air filter, you could run into some pretty nasty problems. If the filter is exceptionally dirty, your engine has to work harder than it should to pull the same amount of air through the filter. When it’s working that hard, it might even force some particulates through or around the filter, which can cause damage to your engine. You also run the risk of lowering your fuel economy. If you notice that you have a higher RPM than normal, or a harder time accelerating, it’s probably time to replace or clean the filter.

Different Types of Air Filters

There are three main materials for air filters: paper, cotton/gauze, and foam. Depending on the type of vehicle and the conditions in which you drive, one might be better than another for your situation. Most people, however, use the disposable paper filter.

 PaperCotton/GauzeFoam
Cost
$10-50$25-65 + cost of cleaner$8-15 + cost of oil if not already oiled
Pros/ConsPros
- Inexpensive
- Designed to be disposable
- Reliable
- Good airflow
Cons
- Can’t clean or reuse
Pros
- Reusable
- Reliable
- Long-lasting
Cons
- More expensive
- More maintenance
Pros
- Good for high dust/dirt areas
- Inexpensive
Cons
- Most restrictive of airflow
- Least environmentally friendly
- Least effective
ReusableNoYes – if properly cleaned, can be reused up to the life of the engineNot recommended
How Often to Change12,000-30,000 milesShould be cleaned every 5,000 miles or so12,000-30,000 miles
Type of VehicleAll typesAll typesFoam filters are good for vehicles and farm rigs that travel on dusty and dirty roads.

How to Change Your Air Filter

It’s possible that your air filter just needs a good cleaning, so before you buy a new one, take a look at your existing air filter. If it doesn’t look too bad, you can use an air compressor with an air hose attachment to blow away the dust and debris. If it is a cotton or gauze filter, you need to follow the special instructions on your air filter cleaning kit for cleaning and re-oiling. If it looks pretty gnarly, go through the following steps to replace it with a new one.

  1. Buy the filter. You can order your new filter online or go to an auto parts store to make your purchase. Make sure to look up your car’s make, model, and engine size either online or in your owner’s manual before you buy anything, though. The same car can come with different engine sizes, so you don’t want to buy the wrong size air filter for your particular engine.
  2. Look under the hood. You should see a fairly large box that has at least one large hose coming out of it. The filter box is pretty easy to access in most vehicles, but some of the fancier/newer models have this box down underneath other hoses and electrical wiring. If you’re not confident that you can put everything back the way you found it, make sure to go to your trusted mechanic instead of doing it yourself.
  3. Remove and replace. This is probably the easiest step. Open the air filter box, remove the old filter, replace it with the new one, and close the air filter box. Be careful not to unplug any wiring or hoses while you do this.

Keeping your air filter in proper working order isn’t difficult. Just make sure to be vigilant about it to keep your car in tip-top shape.