Updated on 02.19.07

Five Minute Finances #1: Clean Your Car’s Air Filter

Trent Hamm

Five Minute FinancesFive Minute Finances is a series of tips on how you can save significant money or reorganize your financial life in just five minutes. These tips appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on The Simple Dollar.

Tip #1: Clean your car’s air filter
In general, most cars should have their air filter replaced every 15,000 miles. What most people don’t realize, though, is that their car’s air filter begins to get clogged with dust after just a few thousand miles – and when it begins to get clogged with dust, the air flow under your hood slows down and your automobile quickly becomes less fuel efficient. How much less efficient? A dirty air filter, even after just 5,000 miles after a change, can cost you up to 7% of your gas mileage. If you are driving a car that normally gets 20 miles per gallon, your car is now getting 18.6 MPG. Over the next 10,000 miles, that’s an extra 37.6 gallons of gas, which with gas at $2.10 per gallon, costs you $79.03!

Cleaning off your air filter is easy (can you turn a wing nut with your hand? If you can, you can handle this) and it only takes about five minutes. All you need is your car, your owner’s manual, and a vacuum cleaner. I usually do it when vacuuming out my car normally, so I usually don’t even have to worry about pulling out my vacuum, making it a two minute task.

Here’s what you do:

1. Open your car’s hood.

2. Take a peek in your car’s owner’s manual to see exactly where the air filter is. It’s usually right on top under the hood and easy to reach. On my truck, it happens to be in a round metal container that’s right in front of my face; on other cars, it can be square or rectangular, but still right in front of you. Locate it under the hood.

3. Take off the top of the metal container that the filter is in. It’s either held in place by some clamps that you can flip up with your finger or a wing-nut that you can unscrew with your hand.

4. Pull out the filter. It’s just sitting in there, so you should be able to pick it right up.

5. Use a vacuum cleaner to clean off the filter. I usually tap it a few times on my car’s bumper, then vacuum it for a minute or so.

6. Vacuum out the inside of the chamber where the air filter sits. There’s usually a bit of dust in there. Vacuum it for fifteen seconds or so to get any dust you see.

7. Wipe off the inside of the chamber with a rag or a paper towel. You should be able to get a bit more grime with this. Don’t scrub it or anything, just get any grime that’s easily accessible.

8. Put the air filter back in place, put the cover back on the air filter chamber (don’t forget to put the clamp or screw back in place!), and close your hood. You’re done!

I recommend doing this every 5,000 miles or so. If you ordinarily have a mechanic do this, you can do it yourself 5,000 miles after an air filter change. Once you do it a couple of times, you’ll probably be fine with just changing your air filter yourself, which will save some additional money if you have your mechanic do it.

Time spent: Five minutes
Money saved: At least $79

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  1. Clever Dude says:

    Most new cars have a plastic cover. One side of the cover has some bolts or screws holding it down while the other side, most likely connected to a large hose, is hinged (i.e. plastic tabs from the “lid” inserted into plastic loops in the bottom part).

    Be careful with the lid as it’s easy to break these plastic tabs or loops. Once you do that, air can get into the intake below the filter or the vacuum that’s created won’t be as efficient.

    Also, I recommend just buying a new filter. You can get them at Autozone or Advanced Auto for $10-20. You can also get reusable K&N filters, but you also have to buy the oil spray and they’re controversial.

  2. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I recommend buying a new one every 15,000 miles, but I clean mine every 3,000 or so (just part of the routine when cleaning up my truck).

  3. formul8 says:

    I second the K&N filter idea. I have used these for years and since they are oil saturated cotton gauze, they flow more air, trap more dirt and last for hundreds of thousands of miles for the roughly the price price of two normal air filters. A few more horsepower never hurts and the cleaning in is easy and takes minutes to do. It just takes a little while in the sun to dry, but is still easy. The only downside is the oil. Applying too much has been known to cause a sensor in the intake tract to go a little nuts when it gets coated with the oil. Applying lightly makes all the difference.

  4. Nick says:

    While it takes longer then 5 min. Learning how to change your car’s oil is a big money and time saver. I use the 15,000 mile Mobil 1 and change it every 12k miles or 1 year. While it and a good filter costs $30 it lasts for 12,000 miles and takes me about 20min to change my oil.

  5. Mike says:

    Two things:

    K&N filters are appropriate for some cars, very problematic for others. Some cars use Mass Airflow Sensors in the air intake (right after the air filter), and oiled air filters can mess these up. These cars need to stick with the OEM filter.

    Many paper air filters for modern cars are constructed so that their rubber edge forms a good seal with the air-filter box *ONCE.* This means that opening the box means breaking the seal (to clean it as suggested in the article) and disallowing it to ever make a 100% seal again.

  6. Joe says:

    I needed some pictures. lol This site has a couple if you need them to. http://www.2carpros.com/how_to/change_air_filter.htm hope this helps.

  7. I reccomend the amsoil air filters. they are the best ones on the market and you dont have to make a mess with the filteroil like K&N or some of the other ones. Plus Amsoil flows more air and filters out more dirt. AMSOIL Ea Air Filters have a service life of 100,000 miles or four years, whichever comes first. EaA Filters remain effective for 25,000 miles or one year before requiring cleaning. If you have any questions you can eamil me at pete@serviceteamar.com and I would be happy to explain it further. or vist the web site for amsoil @

    Pete Lauritsen

  8. oops! typo on the phone #



  9. Pedro Prado says:

    Know the article is old, but I thought I should note that there are several recommendations not to vacuum the air filter because you are usually “pulling” the element in a way the manufacturer didn’t thought of, and sometimes it can rupture or make the filter work worse (not retaining particles, which would increase engine wear).

    Personally I think that cleaning with a brush, cleaning the filter housing is great.

  10. Pete says:

    complete BS. penny-wise but dollar-stupid!!

    Anyone who is worried about the few dollars that an air filter might cost… is not bright enough to clean an filter himself.
    Today’s cars control combustion using MAF [mass air flow] sensors. These sensors are completly capable of compensating for a partially plugged air filter. A filter has to be HORRIBLY plugged to hurt fuel economy. An ameteur should never touch the media inside an air filter element because the likelihood of DAMAGE is HUGE.

  11. Chris says:

    In some ways, this might be a decent cleaning method, but one idea that might work is just flip the filter. I haven’t tried this, but in theory, it might work. The dirty comes from the air your car is taking in. I drive a ’93 Honda that has the intake opening under the car. One side of the current filter is filthy, and the other side is rather clean. In theory, flipping the filter over to the clean side might help. I also washed off the inside with a wet rag and cleaned off quite a bit of filth and grime.

  12. Orange Line says:

    @Chris “Flip the filter”

    I believe the proper English term is “OMG!”

    All the tiny particulates collected by the filter will be thrust into your engine; literally undoing what the filter had previously accomplished. Even after trying to clean the ‘dirty side’ this remains exactly the opposite of a good idea.

  13. Rotfl says:

    @Chris ” Flip the filter”

    Holy jesus that is “THE STUPIDEST” idea ive ever heard. lol @ “the other side is rather clean”, thats the whole idea you numb nuts…get a brain then start giving advice. DO NOT FLIP THE FILTER PEOPLE

  14. NICK says:

    Its probably a good idea to vacuum the filter from the outside side aswell, so youre not pulling the crap through and further into the filter.

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