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Dirty Air Filter – What Are The Causes?

How Often Should You Change the Engine Air Filter

The air filter in your car allows your vehicle’s engine to get clean air. Without this part, the contaminants, dust, and debris that the air filter siphons out of the car would hurt the engine, causing a reduced fuel efficiency, unclean air in the cabin, and a lack of performance. The air filter plays a key role in the combustion process – if you have a dirty air filter, you will immediately notice the engine suffering as a result. 

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3 Consequences of Dirty Air Filter


You should also know that regularly changing your vehicle’s air filters improves your car’s air quality for you and your passengers. Replacing the filters can save you money, since letting a dirty air filter circulate contaminated air can harm other parts. 


Skipping your regular maintenance on cleaning air filters and replacing this part might save you a few bucks in the short term, but it costs your health and your wallet in the long run. You might be unintentionally setting yourself up for a higher replacement and repair costs. There are ways that a dirty air filter can harm your check – check them out here:


  • Restrictive airflow


Dirty air filters restrict airflow in your car and prevent proper circulation, causing it to push out more energy to keep the right airflow level. This means that your dirty air filter will have to work harder to produce even close to the same amount of air as normal. When your vehicle’s heating and air conditioning system has to work harder and is under more stress, you are using more energy, draining your battery and your car’s heating system.


When a dirty air filter restricts the airflow, other parts of your vehicle need to work even harder to maintain the same air quality and keep your vehicle running safely and efficiently. Over time, this excess strain and pressure placed on these parts can lead to mechanical failures – especially on certain days when it is hot outside, or the other parts must continue working at a higher rate. 


Changing your filter at regular intervals is possibly the easiest and cheapest way to maintain your vehicle’s equipment so that the air quality in your car stays healthy for you and your passengers. 


  • Respiratory issues


If you let your car consistently drive with a dirty air filter, you could be setting yourself up for more issues than just a costly repair or replacement. When your air filters are constantly dirty and recirculating contaminated air, other particles like dust, pet hair, and debris are being constantly circulated around the car whenever your unit is turned on. If you or your passengers have any respiratory issues that can be exacerbated by a dirty air filter, it is sure to get much worse every time they drive with you.


Due to dirty air filters, poor air quality can lead to excessive coughing, skin and eye irritation, headaches, and raise your risk of any respiratory or lung infections. Changing dirty air filters on a regular maintenance schedule or monthly basis keeps your air quality at a high level and is worth it for keeping you and your passengers healthy.


  • Failure to cool


Lastly, the final consequence of using a dirty air filter for a long period of time is the failure to cool off your car. This problem occurs from your air conditioning not working correctly. Dirty air filters can prevent your central air from working at the optimal level, churning out clean, cold air to you and your passengers during those hot summer days.


When your air filter becomes clogged with contaminants and suffers from a build-up of debris, less cool air will circulate through the cabin. Dust and other debris can restrict the optimal flow of air. If the airflow is restricted over a long period and over certain air conditioning components, like the coils, the airflow will be further restricted.


If you notice that the dirty air filter is causing your car to cool unevenly, like certain air vents are working well and others are not blowing cold air, this can result from a damaged or dirty air filter. 

The Function of The Air Filter 

When trying to prevent the consequences of a dirty air filter, you need to keep an eye and ear out for the most common signs and symptoms of a dirty air filter in your vehicle. A car engine combines air and gas in the combustion chamber to gain the power needed to have your car run. This air reaches the engine through the air filter, working consistently to keep out any unwanted debris, contaminants, and dirt. 


If this air filter becomes damaged, dirty, or worn down over time, the dust and debris will make its way through the filter. The air filter must allow enough air to reach the engine to perform effectively – a dirty air filter will not be able to carry out this function. 


  • When To Replace Air Filter 


Most companies and car manufacturers recommend that car owners change their air filter every 10 to 15k miles to prevent a dirty air filter from affecting your vehicle. This amount of mileage also correlates to around 12 months – so once a year, you should replace your air filter. However, if you frequently drive in high-congested areas, dirty roads, or rural areas that have a lot of dust, you might find yourself replacing dirty air filters more frequently at between 5-6k miles.

Signs Your Dirty Air Filter Needs to be Replaced


  • Reduced fuel economy


Your engine will try to work harder and compensate for a lower amount of oxygen within your system by consuming more fuel. This will cause reduced fuel efficiency and lead to your car earning fewer miles per gallon for the same amount of fuel. If you notice that your gas mileage is lowering and you are visiting the gas station more frequently, this is a sign of a dirty air filter. 


Keep in mind that if you do not have a carbureted car, this might not be the culprit of your issue. Carburetors are in charge of combining air and fuel in the internal combustion in the proper ratio for the spark’s ignition. However, newer cars have fuel-injected engines, so they do not have to worry about the carburetor. Therefore, the dirty air filter shouldn’t be a problem with newer cars.


  • Engine Misfiring


A lack of air supply coming through a dirty air filter can lead to unburnt fuel, causing this wasted gasoline to exit the engine without being used. This unused fuel accumulates and forms soot, which then gathers on the spark plug. If the spark plug becomes contaminated or broken down over time, it can’t deliver the necessary spark at the right time to lead to the ignition in the engine. If you notice that your car is jerking while accelerating, your engine is misfiring, or your engine is running roughly, your dirty air filter may be to blame.


  • Unusual Engine Sounds


Keeping an ear out for sounds under the hood can help you save money in the long run. In normal circumstances, when your car is just idling with the engine on, the smooth rotation ph de engine will result in just minimal shakes and vibrations. However, if your car is vibrating excessively or having a rough idle, this is usually due to a clogged and dirty air filter that is hurting the spark plug. 


  • Check Engine Light 


As we know, the check engine light can illuminate the dashboard for many reasons, some of which are severe and some of which are minor. If there is a lack of air supply by the engine and the air filter, this can lead to a buildup of carbon in the engine, which turns on the check engine light. If this happens, bring your car to a trusted mechanic so they can check the air filter for any contaminants. 


  • Air Filter Appears Dirty


This might seem obvious, but if your air filter appears dirty or a different color, this is a sign of a build-up of debris in the filter and a dirty air filter. A clean filter will be white in color, but a darker air filter is a clear sign that something is wrong. Furthermore, the filter paper’s inner layers in charge of catching trapped particles might have dust build-up, which can look like a darker color when your mechanic inspects your vehicle. 


  • Lack of Horsepower


If your car is having trouble powering up hills, passing people on the highway, or accelerating at a quick rate like usual, this could indicate that your engine is not receiving the right amount of air and a dirty air filter is a culprit. Since the air filter improves the airflow and the amount of air going to the engine to create a spark, replacing your air filter can improve acceleration and fix the issue. 


  • Black Smoke Exiting the Exhaust


A lack of air supply going to the engine can result in unburnt fuel being wasted during the combustion cycle within the engine. As we know, unburnt fuel turns into soot, causing the horsepower to be reduced, the car to jerk while accelerating, and reduced fuel efficiency. This unburnt fuel will not be circulated and used properly, but will just exit the car through the exhaust pipe.


If you frequently notice black smoke coming from your car while driving, you need to have your mechanic check the dirty air filter to see if there is debris build-up on the parts. In addition, you might also hear subtle sounds, like popping, that can be the result of the unburnt fuel coming in contact with the air in the exhaust pipe. 


  • Smell of Gasoline


No driver wants to smell gasoline or fuel while using their car. If you frequently smell gasoline as soon as you start the car, this is a sign that something is wrong, and you need to get your car checked immediately. If there is not enough oxygen that is working its way through the fuel injection system, the unburnt fuel will cause the driver and the passengers to smell gasoline. If you smell this, it is time to check the dirty air filter.

Engine Dirty Air Filter Replacement cost


When looking at replacements and repairs in your vehicle, dirty air filters will be relatively inexpensive compared to other more crucial and extensive parts. However, like other car maintenance services, the price of an air filter replacement will differ depending on what car model you have and the car’s year. 


Replacing your air filter is a very simple task, and it can often be done by car owners that know some car maintenance facts and have knowledge of the inner workings of their vehicle. Most car owners will do this repair themselves to save some money on replacing a dirty air filter.


  • Parts


On average, you should expect to pay between $10 and $25 for the air filter replacement at a standard auto parts store or nearby mechanic. If you decide you want to get the cheapest option available, you can look online at a shop like Amazon to find the cheapest air filter for your car. 


  • Labor


If you do not feel comfortable doing this repair yourself, the labor for this fix is relatively cheap and will run you about $20 to $30 for the mechanic’s time. This does not include the cost of the new air filter, with the total cost of the dirty air filter replacement coming to between $50 and $90 total depending on the type of vehicle you have. 


  • Can you Clean A Dirty Air Filter?


If you want to reuse your air filter to prevent it from being dirty but also save some more money, you might want to look into cleaning or washing your air filter. The option of cleaning your filter depends on the type of air filter you have in your car, with filters coming in three types: disposable, reusable, and foam. 


Just as the names would suggest, you can’t clean a disposable filter, so you have to pay for the replacement. For the reusable, or gauze, air filter, you can clean this type of filter with specific applications. Lastly, foam filters can be cleaned with specific materials and products and must be dried before replacing them.



As you can see, a dirty air filter can wreak havoc in your car. Noticing the signs and symptoms of a  dirty air filter can influence you to look at the dirty air filter replacement cost, which is quite low compared to other common fixes in your vehicle. Spending between $10 to $25 to do this repair yourself can help you keep your money, and your health, in the long run. 

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