Air Filters 101There’s no question that a vehicle’s engine is the key cog that drives it. A healthy engine runs clean, performs well and ensures a vehicle achieves the best possible fuel economy. An unhealthy engine, on the other hand, is the opposite.

Engines need a few key components to run well. They need spark plugs, which help fire it. They need fuel. And finally, engines need air, which helps it burn the fuel. That’s where your air filter plays such a crucial role- it’s the key component that stands between the air entering your engine and all the air on the outside of it.

The Importance of Air Filters

Like we said in the opening, air filters serve as the interceptor between the air outside of the vehicle and the air that enters the engine. Good air filters block up to 98 percent of dust, pollen, contaminants, and debris from the outside to help keep the engine running clean and efficiently. These contaminants are then trapped in the air filter, which prevents it from getting to the engine. However, when the air filter has become too soiled, then its effectiveness can start to slip, thereby letting more contaminants into the engine itself or not enough air altogether. It’s why it’s important to change the air filter regularly. In fact, most manufacturers recommend changing it at least once every 12,000 miles or once a year – whatever comes first.

An effective air filter is key to a healthy engine. The good news is that replacement air filters are inexpensive to purchase and easy to install. While you can check the condition of the air filter by simply popping the hood of the vehicle’s engine and inspecting it visually, there are a few other signs that you should be watching out for to determine whether it needs to be changed.

Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Air Filter

Though most automakers recommend changing the air filter every 12,000 miles regardless of its condition, certain driving conditions may require it to be changed more often. That’s one thing to be cognizant of when it comes to your vehicle’s engine health. For example, if you regularly drive through construction zones, on dirt roads, or in other environments where air contamination is high, then you’re likely going to need to change your air filter more often than just once every 12,000 miles. Here’s a look at some other signs of a bad air filter:

  • Poor fuel economy: If the engine isn’t getting adequate air, it will consume more fuel to compensate for it to still be able to produce the same amount of power. Hence, if you notice that you’re filling up your tank more often than you used to, pay closer attention to your mileage. Though this issue is more common in cars that were produced before 1980, it’s still something that any driver should watch out for. When fuel economy takes a hit, something with the engine isn’t operating effectively.
  • Rough running engine: Does it seem like your engine is starting up roughly? Is it misfiring? Does it just feel off? The air filter could be the culprit. That’s because soot can accumulate on the engine components, like the spark plugs, that help it tick when the fuel and air mixture is off. When this happens, it leads to a rough running engine.
  • Your check engine light comes on: Nobody ever wants to see the check engine light come on in their vehicle, but when it does, the culprit can be something as simple as the air filter. That’s because a heavily soiled air filter can lead to poor air supply entering the engine. And poor air supply can increase the amount of carbon deposits that are building up inside of it. If this accumulation becomes too great, it could set off the check engine light.
  • Odd engine sounds: If you start to notice your vehicle vibrating intensely or “coughing” after the engine turns on, know that this is not normal. If you pop the hood and give the vehicle a once-over, look at the condition of the air filter. If it’s soiled, you’ve very likely just found the source of the issue.

How to Change an Air Filter

The good news is that air filters are inexpensive and it’s super easy to change them. So, if you’ve hit 12,000 miles (or a year – whatever comes first) or see that your filter is heavily soiled, know that this is an easy DIY task. First, check your owner’s guide and see what type of replacement air filter you need. Once you have it, pop open the hood of your vehicle. Next, follow these steps:

  1. Find the air filter box: Just find the engine and the air filter box should be right next to it. If it’s not to the side, it’s likely on top of it.
  2. Open the air filter box and take out the soiled air filter. You should know immediately if it’s past its prime just based on its level of contamination.
  3. Replace the old air filter with the new air filter, secure the air filter box and place the box back into place. Discard the old air filter.

That’s all there is to it. It’s pretty simple stuff. It only takes a minute or two to complete and can save a half hour or so of labor at the auto repair shop. Plus, you can purchase air filters online or at any auto store at an affordable price.

Best Air Filters to Buy

When it comes to buying a new air filter, look for the brands that have built a good reputation in the industry. Some of the best air filter makers include:

  • K&N: A long-tenured brand, K&N has been making air filters since the 1960s.
  • Fram: Fram arguably produces the largest range of air filters in the auto industry. While they may not be as high of quality as other air filters, they’re affordable and more than adequate.
  • Mann: Mann is perhaps the company with the greatest amount of air filters serving the various automakers across the world. The company’s roots date back to the 1930s. It’s worth noting that Mann air filters are more of a high-value option based on the quality – and price – of their products.
  • Lifetime air filters: These air filters are offered by various companies and can be reused after a good washing. They’re generally more expensive than disposable filters but pay for themselves in time.

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