By Brian Turner
There are certain things every driver should know how to do themselves, like changing a tire, checking fluid levels, swapping out a key-fob battery, and checking and replacing the engine’s air filter. It’s something every vehicle needs, unless it’s fully electric.
How often should I change the air filter?
If you get your vehicle regularly serviced by professionals, you may be asking why you need to bother in the first place. Well, air filters are a unique maintenance item. Their replacement points aren’t determined by time or distance traveled, but instead by their condition.
This is strictly related to the environment in which you drive. If you drive on paved roads exclusively and seldom come across any construction dust or grit, your engine’s air filter may go years before accumulating enough dirt to warrant its replacement. But if you travel over unpaved gravel roads, regularly pass through construction sites, or through areas affected by pollen, this filter may need replacement even before your next oil change.
Also keep in mind the fact that automakers are stretching engine oil change intervals farther than ever. This has absolutely no bearing on how often the air filter should be inspected.
What does an air filter do?
The filter is responsible for ensuring air coming into the engine’s intake is as clean as possible. Why? Because there is no other filter before that air enters, and grit in the combustion chamber can easily damage cylinder walls and pistons with scratches. When an air filter gets dirty enough to restrict the volume of air coming in, it can affect performance and even fuel economy. By the time this condition is bad enough to set off a check-engine light, you may have already wasted a tank of fuel.
How to replace your car’s air filter
Accessing your engine’s air filter for inspection and replacement – and yes, you have to see the underside to know if it needs replacing – varies depending on your vehicle, but for most vehicles it’s a tool-less chore that only takes a few minutes. See your owner’s manual first, but also check the filter pleats on the underside and use your fingers to spread a few open to get a close look at the bottoms of the folds. If you can see grit or dirt easily, it’s time for a replacement. Also try slapping that underside against your hand to see what comes out. Again, if you’ve got some dirt there, get a new filter.
Blowing the filter out with the help of an air compressor really isn’t a great idea; you’re unlikely to get all the dirt out. You also run the risk of creating a hole in the filter material, and replacements aren’t that expensive.
If your air filter is flexible, it means it doesn’t have a metal mesh screen. If you’ve ever seen evidence of wild critters in your vehicle – no, not your kids – you may want to see if you can get a replacement with a screen, as it can help keep small animals from chewing through it to get into your engine’s intake system. If not, a few drops of peppermint oil on the new filter may do the trick.
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