How to Clean Your Car’s Engine Air Filter

A mechanic changing a car's engine air filter.

Following a proper preventative maintenance calendar can help you avoid unexpected breakdowns and potentially costly repairs as a car owner. Some tasks such as oil changes, tire rotations, checking your tire pressure, and car washes can all help extend your vehicle’s life.

However, one task that many car new and experienced owners can often forget is cleaning and changing their car’s engine air filter. Without proper care, a dirty or missing air filter could cause your engine to suffer serious damages that your auto insurance provider may not cover, leaving you to pay out of pocket to fix your vehicle.

Avoid costly repair bills and your vehicle running for longer by learning how to clean your car’s engine air filter.

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What Is an Air Filter?

When discussing air filters within a vehicle, there are two main types to reference an engine air filter and a cabin air filter. Despite these filters playing two different roles, their functionality is relatively similar. The main difference is that a cabin air filter primarily works to filter out pollutants such as pollen and dust that pass through your vehicle’s air conditioner, similar to a filter used in a home’s air conditioning system.

An engine air filter follows the same concept. Often found at the end of your vehicle’s air intake tubing, an engine air filter captures dust, dirt, and other debris from entering your vehicle’s engine when in use. As with your home’s air filter, both your engine and cabin filters are made out of a paper-like material that will need to be replaced over time, though at a different schedule.

While a functioning cabin filter is important for a comfortable ride, issues with your vehicle engine air filter can lead to potentially serious and costly repairs. Protect your vehicle’s most vital components from unexpected breakdowns and repair bills with EnduranceAdvantage™. Offering up to $3,500 in other regular and essential maintenance coverage, you can worry less about sticking to your vehicle’s maintenance calendar with services such as oil changes, tire rotations, and alignment checks included at no cost to you.

What Are the Signs of a Dirty Engine Air Filter?

There are several ways to determine if your vehicle has a dirty engine air filter. Depending on the climate of where you drive your vehicle, your air filter may need to be inspected more often than others. It is recommended to follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. However, some manufacturers recommend checking your filter more frequently if you live in areas with warmer climates and unpaved or dusty driving conditions.

Once your air filter becomes dirty, it will be unable to filter as much debris as before, resulting in potential engine issues such as:

  • Decreased Engine Power
  • Misfired Engine or Ignition Problems
  • Weird Engine Noises
  • Decreased Fuel Economy

How to Clean Your Car’s Engine Air Filter

Depending on what type of engine air filter you have, you can either clean or replace it when needed. First, you will need to visually inspect your air filter to see how dirty it is before deciding whether to replace or clean it. One of the simplest ways to do this is by checking to see the filter’s color, as vehicles with paper filters will often be a shade of white or another lighter color when they are new. 

Over time, these filters will begin to turn darker as the filter picks up the dirt and debris from the air entering your vehicle’s engine. To check your engine air filter, simply:

  1. Open the hood of your vehicle and locate the air filter
  2. Next, open the plastic housing covering the filter. 
  3. Remove the filter and inspect it. 

If it’s a darker shade of grey, it’s time to replace or clean the filter if you are able. However, if your filter has a small amount of discoloring, you may be able to gently spread apart the filter fins and shake out the excess debris. Using compressed air to blow out leaves, twigs, or other small debris can also be a great way to get into tight places. Whichever method you choose, be sure not to damage the filter as it can be delicate, and a replacement filter can cost between $20 and $40.

If you have a reusable/washable air filter, you will need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to clean your air filter. Some filters, such as K&N, can be washed out with clean water, set out to dry, and then re-oiled with their specific filter oil. This allows for a lifetime of use of your air filter with the correct maintenance schedule. If you are unsure if your vehicle has a reusable filter, or if you are unsure where your vehicle’s engine air filter is, your owner’s manual can help.

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When Should You Replace Your Engine Air Filter?

Replacing an air filter should be done at the correct intervals as stated in your owner’s manual, as different models such as Ford, Chevrolet, and Jeep can all have different recommendations. AAA also states that for vehicles primarily in suburban or city driving environments free of heavy dust or debris, their air filters can potentially last up to 20,000 or more miles. However, if you inspect your air filter and notice that it is beginning to show signs of severe discoloration, it is best to replace it as soon as possible. 

As the only protection your engine has against contaminants, it is always recommended never to drive your vehicle without an engine air filter. Without this barrier, dust, leaves, and other small particles can enter the combustion chamber, causing potentially costly damages.

Keeping Your Vehicle Running Longer With Endurance

Staying up to date on regular maintenance services can keep your vehicle running for years to come. Along with frequent oil changes, car washes, and other minor services, replacing your engine air filter is a quick and cheap task that you should incorporate into any maintenance routine. 

Save even more on essential maintenance with EnduranceAdvantage and up to $3,500 in regular maintenance coverage. Receive services such as oil and filter changes, engine diagnostic exams, and tire rotation at no additional cost. You can also take advantage of special, one-time services for even more maintenance savings, such as cooling system maintenance, a brake pad replacement, and more. Additionally, each of our auto protection plans comes with up to 1 year of free Endurance Elite Benefits such as 24/7 roadside assistance, key fob replacements, tire repair/replacement, and other perks.

Request a free, no-obligation quote to learn about and customize an Endurance protection plan that works for you. Visit the Learning Center to find more informative articles on various topics, such as expert auto tips and vehicle buyer’s guides.

A Vehicle Service Contract (VSC) is often referred to as an “auto warranty” or an “extended car warranty,” but it is not a warranty. A VSC does, however, provide repair coverage for your vehicle after the manufacturer’s car warranty expires. A VSC is a contract between you and a VSC provider or administrator that states what is a covered repair and what is not. Not all vehicles qualify for coverage; Endurance does not offer VSCs in California.