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6 Symptoms of a Dirty Air Filter (and Replacement Cost)

Among the many car maintenance tasks you should follow, changing the engine air filter is a priority. A dirty air filter can cause a lot of problems and make your daily driving less enjoyable. It can also lead to paying more for vehicle fuel due to excessive consumption.

Fortunately, changing the air filter in most cars is not difficult or expensive. We go over the main symptoms of a dirty air filter and look at how much you can expect to pay for a replacement. Let’s start by looking at the signs:

The most common symptom of a dirty air filter is poor engine performance, along with a check engine light on the dashboard. Sometimes you may also hear creaking or popping noises coming from the engine when the air filter is dirty.

Here is a more detailed list of the possible symptoms of a dirty or clogged engine air filter.

Symptoms of dirty engine air filter

1. Loss of power

Slow car acceleration

When the filter is dirty, it no longer allows enough air to reach the engine. Without the correct balance of airflow, the engine cannot perform as intended. What you are left with is a reduction in power and acceleration.

You may notice this more often when you demand more from your vehicle, such as when towing or driving on steep grades. However, whenever the vehicle feels sluggish, it is advisable to visually inspect the air filter.

Check noise under the hood E1609791600132

When the engine is running as it should, you should hear a familiar humming noise coming from the engine. However, when the filter becomes clogged, the lack of airflow can cause strange sounds.

In some cases, you may hear a crackling or popping sound. You may also hear hissing due to obstructed airflow. The more it builds up in the filter, the louder the noise can become.

3. Check engine light

check engine light

When the filter is clogged, airflow to the engine is restricted. This insufficient supply means that too much fuel is being mixed.

With more fuel burned, carbon deposits begin to build up, causing the Check Engine Light to illuminate. When these warning lights come on, you can use a code scanner to find the root of the problem.

RELATED: Check Engine Light On – Meaning, Causes, and How to Fix It

4. Reduced fuel economy

Bad fuel consumption

To produce power and thrust, the car engine mixes air with gasoline. However, when airflow is restricted, too much fuel is pumped into the engine. When the engine runs rich, it uses more fuel.

Any time the car consumes more fuel, it is a sign that there is an imbalance with the engine. Pay attention to how often you refuel, so you can correct problems before they become serious.

5. Engine fails

car misfires

Without the correct amount of air entering the combustion chamber, the engine generates more unburned fuel. This extra soot builds up on the tips of the spark plugs.

When the spark plugs can no longer provide the correct level of spark for ignition, the car will misfire and run poorly. As a result, you may also notice rough idling or stalling.

6. Black exhaust smoke

Black exhaust smoke

In extreme cases, you will see a change in the exhaust smoke coming out of the tailpipes. With incomplete fuel combustion in the combustion chamber, you will notice black or dark gray smoke coming from the rear of the vehicle.

The color is due to the mixture of unburned fuel and hot exhaust. However, it is also a symptom of a faulty fuel injection system or a faulty O2 sensor.

Air filter location

car air filter box

Modern vehicles contain an engine air filter under the hood. You can find it in a rectangular-shaped cold air box, often at the front of the engine compartment where it is easily accessible.

If you have an older vehicle with a carburetor, the location of the air filter may be different. These cars use large round metal air filters that are almost impossible to ignore.

The engine air filter should never be confused with the cabin air filter. The cabin filter keeps the interior air clean and free of contaminants. It is usually found in the glove compartment or behind the dashboard.

RELATED: 10 Best Engine Air Filters for Cars

The function of an engine air filter

New engine air filter

The engine air filter is responsible for preventing contaminants, debris, and dirt from entering the engine through the air. It must remain free of obstructions to ensure that the engine receives the correct level of air for combustion.

Replacing the air filter is part of regular car maintenance, as it can become clogged over time. When clogged, the air-fuel ratio in the combustion chamber becomes unbalanced, causing many performance problems.

Air filter replacement cost

The average air filter replacement cost is only $10 to $30 for one made with paper. In most cars, changing the air filter is a simple process that requires no special skills or tools.

If you prefer to install a reusable air filter, you can expect to pay between $30 and $100, depending on your vehicle. These reusable filters can be cleaned for longer use.

The engine air filter often needs to be replaced every 12,000 miles or 12 months, whichever comes first. You can find the recommended replacement schedule in your car’s owner’s manual. However, if you notice any of the above symptoms, you will want to replace the filter sooner. Considering the low cost, this is one of the first starting points for any engine performance problem.


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