Cleaning the Air Filter: When and How Can I Do It?

Updated Feb 23, 2021 | Same topic: Handy Maintenance Tips

Read to know the signs and steps on how to clean your car’s air filter.

Every single part of our vehicle needs attention. Besides the outside appearance, we also need to look into the car parts that are not always seen. In fact, most of the important parts of the car, which are responsible for it running, are not in plain sight.

You should treat your car special. If you treat your vehicle just like a human, you will build a special relationship with it and you’d get the pulse to know if there’s something wrong going on. That way, you’d be able to easily address the problems and impose early repairs and preventive measures to preserve your car and its parts. One of the more important parts of a vehicle is the engine, and one of its subparts is the car air filter.

Car air filter

Air filter stops dust and dirt from going into the car

Air filter functions like the respiratory system of your car – it prevents dust, dirt and other debris from entering your vehicle. So you can imagine how it would be like if your air filter is already full of those dust and dirt. Of course, it will not function properly, hence it cannot filter the stuff that your car inhales from the outside. Therefore, it is important to always keep it clean, or replace it when needed. 

1. Symptoms of a Dirty Air Filter recommends you that to know that it’s time to clean our car air filter, we should know the signs that our car is giving us. Let’s take look at the list below:

1.1. You’re losing more fuel than the usual

The first thing that will signal the need for car air filter cleaning is your car is becoming fuel inefficient. You’ll notice that you are consuming more gas than usual. You’ll notice that you’ll need to fill up more frequently. This is due to the fact that your engine needs oxygen to move along, and since your air filter is clogged, not too much air can enter the engine, hence it needs to burn more fuel to power up your vehicle. On the other hand, when your air filter is clean, more air enters the engine and it won’t have a hard time gliding – less effort on the engine, so lesser fuel is needed.

car fuel gauge

Fuel tank goes empty more frequently when the air filter is clogged

1.2. Your car is having issues starting up 

You’re about to go to work, and you know you’re just in the nick of time. You start up your car and you were surprised that it didn’t start up as smoothly and as quick as it used to. You know you have enough gas, spark plugs are fairly new. So what could be the reason for this and why today of all days? Yes, it could be due to a clogged air filter. Since your engine doesn’t get the amount of oxygen it needs for it to start up, it’ll consume more fuel and fuel-air blend impacts your spark plugs negatively. Problem with spark plugs results in ignition problems.

A woman towing a car

Your car may have trouble starting up if it has clogged the air filter

1.3. Your car is having a hard time speeding up

Stepping on the accelerator but the car is not up to speed? Or do you feel your car jerk when you try to speed up a bit? Well, it could be a result of a dirty air filter. Again, since there’s not enough air entering the engine, it’s having difficulty to get the power it needs to keep up with the accelerator.

1.4. Your service engine light comes on

This may be quite alarming, cos you may think there’s suddenly a serious problem with the engine. Not at all times, though. It’s possible that your engine just gets unwanted deposits due to insufficient air going through it. This can trigger your ‘service engine’ light to turn on. You don’t need to overthink and panic right away, you just need to check first if your air filter is already dirty. Cleaning it should resolve this problem.

>>> Related: Cabin vs Engine air filter: What are their functions and differences?

Engine signs

Panic? No, don't panic JUST YET. Try checking your air filter first!

1.5. Humming, Vibrating or Coughing Engine

When you start up your car, it should sound smooth and quiet. However, if you start up your car and hear a humming or coughing sound, or feel it vibrating, something that never happened before, then it’s time to check your air filter and have it cleaned or replaced. Your spark plugs may have been damaged because of a dirty air filter.

1.6. You can see that your air filter is already dirty

Of course, you can check the air filter yourself regularly. Normally, it should look ranging from white or off-white (brand new), then goes darker as you use it due to dust and dirt. If you see your air filter gray, dark gray or black, that is an obvious manifestation of a dirty air filter. Either clean it or replace it, whichever is applicable.

2 car air filters

Physical inspection will tell you if you need to clean or change your air filter

>>> Click here to get more helpful tips and advice for your car maintenance

2. DIY: How to Clean Your Air Filter

Now that we know the symptoms, let’s look into ways on how we can clean our car’s air filter by ourselves.

2.1. Look for the air filter and remove it safely from its housing

Pop the hood and locate for your air filter. It should not be difficult to see, but if this is your first time and you are keen to learn how to do it yourself, grab your car’s manual or search online for a little help. Once located, remove it carefully from its housing, which usually looks like a round or circular box located on top of the engine.

2.2. Clean the air filter

Once removed, decide which method will work best for you for car air filter cleaning. You can either literally clean it using soap and water or a hose, or you can use a vacuum cleaner. If you choose wet cleaning, just run a hose through it, gently, until you can see that all the dirt has been removed. You can also place it in a container with soap and water and hand wash it before placing it on a towel to dry. Make sure that you let it dry completely before putting it back.

If you’re using a vacuum, run the vacuum cleaner all across the air filter until its clean. Inspect it again for leftover dirt or debris before placing it back.

Cleaning air filter


You can clean the air filter yourself

Of course, it seems logical to have the container of the car air filter cleaned as well since you’ve already cleaned what’s being put inside it. You can simply wipe it with a soft towel. Should you decide to wash it too, dry it up first before assembling everything back together.

Once you know how to read the signs of a dirty air filter, you will be able to know if it already needs cleaning or replacing. By doing it regularly, you will avoid damaging other parts of your engine and your car will continue to run smoothly.

>>> Check out more maintenance tips for car air conditioning system: 

Ivy Kristia Padura

Ivy Kristia Padura


Ivy is one of the first Philkotse's content writers. She finds joy in sharing her driving tips, particular for dealing with heavy traffic in Metro Manila, with other fellow drivers.

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