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Is It Bad to Drive with a Dirty Air Filter?

BY: Andrew Giorgi
Driving With Dirty Air Filter

As drivers, we’re always looking to increase the performance of our vehicles and reduce the chances of a breakdown. With temperatures consistently dropping, vehicles require regular maintenance more often to keep everything in top condition.

Most people know at least the basics about oil and tires, but the air filter is one of those parts that are often overlooked. Driving with a dirty air filter may seem like no big deal, but doing so can negatively impact the health of you and your vehicle.

To avoid this from happening, we’ve put together this expert guide on everything you need to know about the air filter and how to keep it working at its best.

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 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 an 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.

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.

What Happens When the Air Filter Is Dirty?

Over time, the air filter becomes less effective at performing its job. All the dust particles, grease, and other contaminants captured eventually clog the filter up so much that it blocks the flow of clean air into the engine.

If you experience any of the following things, check the air filter to see if it needs replacing.

  • ‘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 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 it, causing it to fail to start.
  • Uneven, hesitant drive—if your vehicle doesn’t drive smooth 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.
  • Spluttering 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 the air filter has become dirty or blocked, 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:

  • Insert the replacement air filter 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.

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Frequently Asked Questions: Air Filters

Why does a car engine need air?

Engines need air to go into the air and fuel mixture, which is 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.

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