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Air Filters: Car need CPR? How to Assess, Replace and Upgrade Your Filter

Vehicles don’t possess lungs, but they still need to breathe. Just as your survival depends on nostrils, mouth and lungs to regulate correct oxygen intake, your engine’s air filter system is vital to its performance.

An air filter truly is an engine’s first line of defense. Its job is simple, but vital: catch potentially clogging contaminants (dust, insects, pebbles, leaf fragments, etc.) and refuse them entry to your engine.

How do I know when I need a new air filter?

A brand-new air filter often looks as pure as the driven snow: Its pleats sport a crisp, white appearance worthy of a finely pressed tuxedo shirt. (Note: Other colors are popular as well.)

Drive several thousand miles, however, and that GQ vibe might have deteriorated into a dingy gray better suited for a work rag. Dirty air filters not only don’t work as well, they can also reduce fuel economy by about 2 miles per gallon.

Lots of auto experts say drivers should swap their air filters for new ones annually or every 15,000 to 20,000 miles (provided you’re not commuting daily through Death Valley or the Mojave). Others recommend replacing filters more often using a visual inspection—not odometer readings—as the deciding factor.

What parts do I need to replace an air filter?

  • New air filter
  • Screwdriver (possibly) or pliers (maybe)

Key DIY tips

First, locate the air filter housing, sometimes called the “cold air collector box” or the air box. On most newer, fuel-injected vehicles, this rectangular unit is positioned under the hood near a fender or the radiator. It probably will be secured via several easily removable clips or, in some cases, wing nuts. Older cars (fuel-injected or carbureted) typically house a larger, round filter within the air cleaner, which is situated on top of the engine. These normally require removing a wing-nut to access. If in doubt, your owner’s manual should show the precise location. The filter will consist of either pleated paper or plastic surrounded by a rubber rim.

Open the housing and lift out the air filter. A less-than-pristine appearance doesn’t necessarily indicate a malfunctioning unit, so follow these steps to ensure a correct assessment:

  • Hold the filter up to sunlight or other powerful light source. If a lot of light is visible through the filter, it’s A-OK. Simply put back into the housing.
  • If the light is obscured, try dropping the filter top-side up onto a hard surface, which might loosen some soil. Several tries might be needed. If a lot of light is visible after this procedure, the filter still is functional. If not, it’s time to pop for a new one. Simply place the old filter back in the car and head to Glenbrook Auto Parts in Glenview for a replacement.

Two major warnings:

  • Don’t blow through the filter when trying to dislodge contaminants. This will destroy it.
  • Never (as in never, ever) drive or even run a vehicle with the air filter removed.

For more nitty-gritty on grime and your air filter, check our detailed directions from our NAPA Know How Blog.

Want more horsepower?

For you enthusiasts, replacing your stock-spec air filter with a performance version can boost horsepower and enhance acceleration. Though higher-priced, these filters don’t require replacement nearly as often: Some can make it to 50,000 miles before servicing, which consists of re-oiling, not replacing.

Not sure if a performance air filter is right for you? Consult your parts expert at Glenbrook Auto Parts, your NAPA Auto Parts store in Glenview.

And remember, with Glenbrook Auto Parts, you can save time by ordering your parts online and picking them up in the store. We’ll have them ready and waiting for you.

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