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Can You Clean an Air Filter?

A clean air filter and a dirty air filter.

Air filter replacement is a part of recommended maintenance for every car. It’s not something you can simply ignore, as the more dirt that collects in the filter, the less efficiently it will do its job.

But can you clean an air filter, or do you have to replace it when you notice an accumulation of dirt? In short, certain filter types can be cleaned, but it’s not as simple as just knocking the dirt off and putting it back in. And even if you can clean an air filter in your cabin, it may not always be your best option.

How an Air Filter WorksDirty Air Filter

An air filter does exactly what its name implies: It filters air to remove any dirt and small particles in the air. You might not be able to see that the air in your vehicle isn’t clean, but if you look at your cabin air filter, you may be surprised at just how dirty it can get in a short time. The filter traps all that dirt in a pleated, multi-fiber material. If it gets too dirty, then air won’t pass through as well, and more of the dirt in the air will manage to get through the filter.

Checking the Filter

If you don’t know where the air filter in your car is located, then it’s time to break out your owner’s manual. The filter is usually found in a metal or plastic housing that you’ll need to open to access the filter. Sometimes it’s just a few simple clips that hold it down, but you might need to unscrew the cover, especially if your car is older. Once the cover is removed, the filter is easy to pull right out.

If it’s in bad shape — torn, crushed, heavily caked with grime or otherwise damaged — replacement is likely your best bet. Otherwise if you have a reusable cloth air filter, you can clean it. Remember, paper filters are a one-time use item and cannot be washed.

Cleaning an Air Filter

You’ll want to start by removing surface dirt, which is easy if you have a vacuum cleaner. Use the brush attachment to gently remove any dirt and dust on the surface of the filter material. This will also pull out some of the dirt from deeper in your filter. Don’t be too aggressive with the filter or your vacuuming, as it could damage the fibers in your filter.

Once the surface dirt is gone, you can wash the filter with soap and water mixed in a large bucket. To do so, submerge the filter in the bucket, swirl it around, and use your hands to remove any dirt. Rinse it thoroughly and then leave it to dry completely. Make sure the filter is totally dry before you put it back in your car to avoid causing damage. Err on the side of caution here, and plan to clean your air filter only when you have at least 24 hours to let it dry.

How Often Should You Clean or Replace an Air Filter?

Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning or replacing your filter. A good rule is to clean it every 15,000 miles, but doing so more frequently is fine if you drive in especially dirty environments. It’s also important to keep an eye on the overall condition of your air filter. If the material shows wear or is torn or damaged, it’s time for a new one.

As long as you know the make, model and year of your car, it’s easy to look up the exact filter replacement you would need. Chances are good it will be pretty affordable, so you might consider simply replacing a filter altogether instead of the regular cleaning.

Whatever you do, remember to check and maintain your air filters regularly. This ensures that the air you’re breathing is as clean as possible when you’re driving.

Check out all the air filter products available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information about replacing an air filter, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy Flickr.

Nicole Wakelin View All

Nicole Wakelin covers the automotive industry as a freelance journalist for a variety of outlets. Her work includes news pieces, podcasts, radio, written reviews, and video reviews. She can be found in The Boston Globe, CarGurus, BestRide, US News and World Report, and AAA along with lifestyle blogs like Be Car Chic, The Other PTA, and She Buys Cars. She is active on social media with a large following on both Twitter and Instagram and currently serves as Vice President of the New England Motor Press Association.

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