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Is It Bad to Drive with a Dirty Air Filter?

BY: Andrew Giorgi
A car mechanic checks the air filter of a vehicle, which can be covered in your very own Endurance auto protection plan.

As a car owner, you’re probably always looking for ways to increase the performance of your vehicle and reduce the chances of a breakdown. But while you may think you have all the tips and tricks figured out, the truth is that the best way to help protect your vehicle from potential issues is with preventative maintenance.

But while most people know at least the basics about oil changes or rotating your tires, the air filter is one of those parts that can often be overlooked. And while driving with a dirty air filter may seem like no big deal, doing so can negatively impact the health of you and your vehicle.

How Does the Air Filter Work?

Vehicles have air filters to purify air coming into the interior cabin and engine. Here, we’ll focus on the engine air filter, which is there to protect the engine and maximize performance. The engine generates power to run the car by igniting a mixture of air and fuel. Vehicles have an air intake system to draw air in and purify it before using it in this air-fuel mixture. The amount of air in the filter is key to keeping it clean. Air equals performance in this scenario.
The air intake system is positioned behind the grille at the front of the car. Air entering the system tends to contain contaminants such as dirt, sand, worn tire particles, dust, and pollen, so it needs to pass through a clean air filter, which catches these pollutants and allows clean air to pass through to the engine. Before reaching the engine, the filtered air passes through a mass flow meter, which measures how clean the air is and determines the correct air-to-fuel ratio for the mixture to maximize performance and fuel efficiency.

What Happens When the Air Filter Is Dirty?

If contaminants are introduced into the air-fuel mixture, this can have a negative impact on the performance of your vehicle and also cause damage to your engine, including decreased engine performance and potentially even overheating, which is why having a clean air filter is vital. 

But over time, the air filter becomes less effective due to all the dust particles, grease, and other contaminants captured that can build up and clog the filter so much that it blocks the airflow into the engine. And when you’re dealing with a dirty or clogged air filter, your engine doesn’t get enough air; you could be left with a variety of issues, like hearing strange engine noises or noticing a decrease in gas mileage.

Other signs of a dirty air filter or an air filter that needs to be replaced will include:

  • The Check Engine Light Comes On: depending on your vehicle, you might get a check engine light as a result of a dirty air filter.
  • The Engine Misfires or Doesn’t Start: if the air filter becomes completely blocked, your engine can’t get air in to mix with the fuel, so it can’t detonate, causing it to fail to start.
  • Uneven, Hesitant Drive: if your vehicle doesn’t drive smoothly and the engine feels like it’s stuttering when you accelerate or change gear, it could be that your engine is struggling to draw in sufficient air because of a blocked air filter.
  • Sputtering engine: blocked air filters can cause engines to make these sorts of sounds as they fight to get air in.
  • Increased Exhaust Emissions: if your car’s emitting a lot of fumes, specifically carbon monoxide, its air filter is likely dirty and in need of replacing.
  • Poor Fuel Efficiency: if your fuel efficiency drops, it could be a result of a blocked air filter allowing insufficient clean air into the air-fuel mixture.
  • Other Problems: if an air filter becomes damaged and lets air containing too many contaminants through, it could harm your engine.

Regularly replacing the air filter and getting it checked helps reduce the risk of this happening in the near future.

How to Check Your Air Filter

If you suspect you’re dealing with a clogged or dirty air filter, you can take your car to your local mechanic or check yourself. It’s a relatively simple process and can be done in three steps:

  • Open up the hood of your vehicle and identify the air filter. Check the owner’s manual if you’re unsure where it is.
  • Open up the plastic housing it’s in, using a screwdriver if necessary, and pull out the air filter.
  • Inspect the filter against a bright light—if the light isn’t passing through, the filter is probably blocked.

If it needs replacing:

  • Ensure that you’ve purchased a filter that fits your vehicle, which can usually be found at your local auto parts store.
  • Once purchased, insert the air filter replacement in the casing, the same way up as the one you removed. The new air filter must be the right fit or identical to the one you removed. Consult the owner’s manual if in doubt.
  • Close the cover of its housing and refix any screws.

Driving with a dirty or clogged air filter can be damaging to your vehicle. That’s why the best way to help you avoid potentially costly auto repair bills is by regularly checking and cleaning your car’s air filters. It’s also important to stay up-to-date on your car’s other maintenance needs, and the Advantage auto protection plan from Endurance is just the thing to help. That’s because along with providing comprehensive breakdown protection, you’ll also be able to enjoy up to $3,500 in yearly maintenance services, including tire rotations, alignment checks, oil and oil filter changes, and much more.

Frequently Asked Questions: Air Filters

Why Does a Car Engine Need Air?

Engines need air to go into the air and fuel mixture, which erupts in the combustion chamber to generate power. Gas-fueled cars use spark plugs to ignite the mixture, while diesel-fueled cars use high compression. Without any air, this isn’t possible, and without the right amount of clean air, the car’s performance will be suboptimal.

Can Driving with a Dirty Air Filter Damage My Engine?

Yes, it’s possible. If an air filter isn’t functioning as it’s meant to, it could be letting debris, dust particles, and other pollutants into your engine, potentially causing damage.

How Often Should You Change a Car Air Filter?

Consult your owner’s manual for the recommended intervals at which to replace your air filter. They usually require replacing every 10,000 to 20,000 miles, but if you drive a lot, at peak times with heavy traffic, or on surfaces with a lot of dirt or sand, you’ll likely need to replace it more regularly—each time you change the oil, for example.

Filter Out Unwanted Car Repair Costs with Endurance

Protecting yourself from the costs of repairs and maintenance starts with taking out the right extended auto warranty coverage. Not only could it save you thousands on costly repairs, but you’ll gain peace of mind knowing you have a team of experts by your side. That’s why, if you want to get the best coverage for your vehicle, an auto protection plan from Endurance Warranty should be your go-to choice. 

Offering comprehensive coverage that can fit your needs and budget, including coverage starting at just $79/month, you can be certain that you and your vehicle will be protected. You can even help save on your car’s vital maintenance needs, including tire rotations, alignment checks, oil and filter changes, and much more, by getting the Advantage auto protection plan. 

But, better still, no matter what kind of coverage you choose, you’ll have access to 24/7 roadside assistance, substitute transportation, and trip interruption costs for free! Plus, all of your benefits and coverage can be used at any certified mechanic or repair shop, meaning you’re in complete control of who carries out work to your vehicle. You’ll even be able to enjoy a year’s worth of free Endurance Elite Benefits, giving you access to additional perks and savings like tire repairs or replacements, collision discounts and more. 

Get started today by requesting a free, no-obligation quote or by calling the Endurance customer care team at (800) 253-8203. You can also find even more answers to your biggest automotive FAQs, as well as other articles on topics like DIY maintenance tips, vehicle buying guides and more, by visiting the Endurance blog

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