How to Change Your Car’s Air Filter

by Brett on September 23, 2010 · 24 comments

in Cars, Manly Skills

Think back to the last time you had your oil changed at a quick lube. The mechanic brings you out to the car to show you how filthy your air filter is and tells you it’s time to replace it. You’re a busy man with places to go and people to see, so you nod and give him the go ahead. You go back to the lobby and read the six month old Field and Stream that was there at your last oil change while the mechanic does his thing.

“Shouldn’t be more than $10 extra,” you think to yourself.

“And your total today for the oil change and new air filter is $45.77,” chirps the cute young lady with bad highlights at the cash register.

What the wha?

That’s right. Your $20 oil change doubled its price in just a matter of seconds. I’ve seen mechanics charge anywhere from $18 to $25 to change an air filter. About the same price as an oil change.

The air filter itself is only about $10 for most vehicles.  Where the shop gets you is where they always get you- on labor. You’d think with what they charge, replacing an air filter is some complicated task that necessitates special tools only available to licensed mechanics. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.

The reality is that changing your car’s air filter is quite possibly the simplest  maintenance job you can perform. It seriously takes about a minute to complete and requires no special tools. Just some know-how.

If you’re a man who has never done any auto maintenance and would like to get started, but you’re not quite ready to change your oil, start off changing your own air filter. It’s a quick way to save some cash- money that you can use for more important things like paying down your debt or buying a squirrel lamp.

Ready? Let’s get started.

What Does an Air Filter Do?

For your engine to run, it needs air. The air mixes with gas, the spark plug gives a spark, and-presto!-you’ve got internal combustion. For an engine to run efficiently, the air that it takes in needs to be as clean as possible. Problem is that the air outside is full of junk that doesn’t burn cleanly or evenly at all.  Dirt, pollen, salt, and bird feathers are just some the things your engine will suck in to create the controlled explosion that moves your motor.  You don’t want that stuff in your engine.

That’s where the trusty air filter enters the picture.

Air filters are connected to the engine’s intake manifold. Most filters are rectangular (older cars that have carburetors use a donut-shaped air filter) and are made of a porous, paper-like material, folded like an accordion. Here, take a look at one:

Image from Shutterstock

The filter prevents dirt and other particulates from getting into your engine while allowing the clean air through. Simple, yet effective.

Why Do You Need to Change Your Air Filter Regularly?

Increased fuel efficiency. After logging thousands of miles on your car, that filter can get really dirty and clogged. A dirty air filter doesn’t allow air to get through to the engine. Remember, your engine needs air to run efficiently. A reduced amount of air means your engine needs to use more fuel to get the same bang to run your engine.  Save yourself some money at the pump. Change your air filter regularly.

Prolonged engine life. Engines are big and powerful, but they can be surprisingly sensitive to the smallest grain of sand. Over time, dirt and other particles can cause serious damage to your engine’s internal parts. Better to spend $10 now on a new air filter than thousands of dollars later on a new engine.

Reduced Emissions. Reduced air flow can also mess with your car’s emission control systems causing you to spew more bad stuff into the atmosphere. Men need polar bears to wrestle. Save one by changing your air filter.

How Often Should You Change Your Air Filter?

It’s recommended that you change your air filter once every 12 months or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first. If you live in a particularly dusty place, do it more frequently. It’s always a good idea to at least check your air filter at every oil change. If you take your car into a quick lube and the mechanic says you need a new one, just tell him you’re going to wait on it and then go change it yourself. Check your owner’s manual for specifics on when to change your air filter for your make and model.

How to Change Your Air Filter

1. Buy your air filter. Most air filters are pretty cheap. Between $10-$13. Swing by an auto parts store after work or pick an air filter up while you’re grocery shopping at a Super Walmart. Figuring out what air filter to get for your car is easy. First, you can check your owner’s manual, but let’s face it, you’ll probably forget to do that. Lucky for you, places that sell air filters have this tattered  phone book-looking thing hanging off a shelf. It’s literally the phone book for auto parts. You just look up the year, make, and model of your car, and it tells you what parts you need for it. If your auto parts store is really fancy, they’ll have a crappy Speak & Spell-like computer that you can use. But it’s usually busted, so you’ll probably just end up using the book.

2. Open your hood and locate the air filter box. It’s the black plastic box sitting on top of or to the side of your engine. The filter box usually has a giant hose sticking out of its side.

Image from Shutterstock

3. Open the air filter box and remove the dirty air filter. Opening an air filter box is a cinch. Just unclasp the big metal clips that hold the top down and open the box. Remove the dirty filter.

Image from Shutterstock

4. Check the old air filter. Give your old filter a look over to see if it’s past its prime. Look inside the folds. See a lot of dirt and gunk? Time to replace it.

5. Put in the new air filter. Place your filter in the filter box. Make sure it sits snuggly in the box. Close the top of the box and snap the clips.

That’s it. Your engine will no longer be gasping for air like a guppy that jumped its bowl.

Total time: about a minute.

Money savings: $10-$15

Any other tips? Did I miss anything? Drop us a line in the comments below.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mario September 23, 2010 at 1:06 am

Install a K&N filter or similar, and save additional money by not throwing your filter away. just wash and oil, and it’s ready to go again.
Also these filters are less restrictive, and filter more particules, so they tend to improve (slightly) fuel economy and power.

2 Gabriel September 23, 2010 at 1:45 am

If you can open your hood without popping a latch from the inside of the cab, it can also be a great place to hide a spare key!

3 sam_acw September 23, 2010 at 2:11 am

You can also vacuum the old filter to get some of the dust and dirt off it and extends it’s life a bit. I’ve seen some garages do this to keep service costs down.

4 Matthew September 23, 2010 at 3:32 am

I wish all air filters were this easy to change. I work at an oil change shop and trust me, i have spent over 5 minutes just trying to get an air filter out of a car before. A lot of cars do have the nice clips that just release when you push them, but there is an equal amount that have screws/bolts holding them in. Also, some cars, especially newer ones, have plastic engine covers that you have to remove first to get to the air filter.

Also an important tip about this process. Make sure any hoses that are connected to the air filter housing are still connected after you change the filter. Sometimes they will pop off and go unnoticed until the check engine light comes on. This is especially true on Toyota’s

5 Mike September 23, 2010 at 7:23 am

Check out http://meritbadge.org/wiki/index.php/Automotive_Maintenance – it’s the requirements for the BSA’s Automotive Maintenance merit badge. The reqs are at the top of the page, but there are a bunch of links to eHow (and possibly other sites) videos as you scroll down that show a Scout (or you) how to do several different maintenance tasks on a car.

Another excellent resource could be your local library. They often have databases / links to sites like the Haynes car repair manuals that provide excellent directions on more in-depth car repair / maintenance tasks. Next time you’re in the library, ask the librarian about this!

FYI, if you have a Boy Scout in your home, this is not only an easy MB to pick up, but it provides some quality bonding time with your boy doing the manly car maintenance thing, as well as learning some of these time- and money-saving tasks yourself.

6 Maureen September 23, 2010 at 9:26 am

My air filter is pretty easy to change, but the last time I bought one, I think it was around twenty dollars or more.

But I was bilked out of that money by the auto parts store, not the guys changing my oil, who were auto tech students. That’s a good way to save, too–if there’s a high school with a shop nearby, they’ll probably love to change your oil and rotate your tires for you if you bring in your own supplies and pay them a small fee. They don’t try to cheat you, and it’s educational! Also, if you stay and watch, you can learn how to change your own oil, though they will have a lift to make it super easy (which is mainly why I haven’t changed my own oil yet–I have a tiny car and I can’t get under it. I should invest in the right tools, I know.).

7 CoffeeZombie September 23, 2010 at 9:47 am

I’m going to second Matthew on the point that not all air filters are as easy to change. Sadly, many cars these days seem to be intentionally designed to prevent you from doing anything yourself (or, in extreme cases, to prevent non-dealership mechanics from being able to do anything). On my Civic and on the Intrepid I used to have, it was as easy as popping the clasps, throwing the new filter in, and putting everything back together. On the Odyssey, however, the filter cover is held on by four or five screws, at least one of which required a long screwdriver to even get to.

As a side note, IMO, this dealership-service lock-in crap should be deeply concerning. For myself, next time I buy a car, one of the things I plan on looking for is one that I can work on at home.

8 MarcTheEngineer September 23, 2010 at 9:57 am

I’ve got a K&N Filter and I’ve got to say I hate cleaning that sucker

Every time I have to do it I seriously think about junking it and buying a good old disposable filter.

9 Craig September 23, 2010 at 9:58 am

I’d like to see an article about aftermarket air intake systems. As Mario mentioned above, K&N makes some mean aftermarket parts that improve performance and function. I’ve also wondered if a ‘less restrictive air filter’ means more dirt and gunk gets into your engine shortening its life. Think this could be worked into a future article?

10 Albert September 23, 2010 at 10:23 am

I second what CoffeeZombie said. The difference in ease between changing the oil and filter on my 94 Sentra and my wife’s 08 Rabbit is huge.

Craig, from what I’ve read, “less restrictive” air filters do improve engine power from letting more air through, but also let more dirt through which is worse for the engine. There isn’t a magical material that lets more air through while filtering better, at least in production. See here: http://www.bobistheoilguy.com/airfilter/airtest1.htm

11 Gabriel September 23, 2010 at 11:36 am

Yeah, I also need to chime in about how deeply concerning it is that newer vehicles require specialized tools for maintenance. I got very lucky finding my 91 Toyota pickup with 56,000 miles on it. Thing is 19 years old and its practically new. The fuses, the oil, the oil filter, the air filter…they are all very accessible and easy to replace.

My grandfather is a gifted, superbly talented, handy man. Used to work in the maintenance shop at the local junior college and he’s practically a living legend. He can’t do any repairs on my grandparents’ newer Honda Civic, but he’s done all the maintenance on his own 91 Toyota pickup since he bought it in 93.

12 David Davidson September 23, 2010 at 11:42 am

Thanks for this, no more standing by the side of the road looking embarrased as I watch my wife change the air filter. Cars are not my forte, I can drive them fine but thats about it. Not very manly l know but hey, thats why I come to the Art Of Manliness. :)

13 captainmeta4 September 23, 2010 at 11:56 am

i have an infiniti g35. The filter is in a vertical orientation (not horizontal like in the pictures) and once the metal clips are unclipped, half of the casing is still screwed into other stuff and can’t be removed.

14 DR September 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm

To work on your car you need two, maybe three things:

1) Time
2) Perseverance
3) Chiltons / Haynes / Some repair manual

If you’re smart enough to use a computer you’re smart enough to fix a car. Follow the instructions and be prepared for it to take 5 times longer than you think it should. You should have another mode of transportation available to you.

You will have to buy tools, but they arguably “free” in that usually what you spend on a tool and parts is less than what you’d pay a shop to do the work for you. The real question to ask yourself is: Do I have the time and energy to devote to fixing my own car?

If the answer is yes, replacing the air filter is a great way to get started. It’s easy on most cars, requires very basic to no tools and can be done in less than 30 minutes.

After doing my own work for the past 4-5 years I am loathe to let a repair shop touch any of our vehicles. Trust me on this. Ever been to your great-aunt’s, neighbor’s house to “fix” their virus-laden Windows 98 box? That’s how most mechanics feel about your car. They don’t care about it and it shows in the work they do on it.

The one *partial* exception is the oil change places. If you change your oil on the manufacturer’s schedule, using the cheap oil and filters doesn’t really hurt anything and it’s hard to say $15-$20 oil change is expensive. Considering the retail price of oil and oil filters, plus your time purchasing the supplies, doing the work and then *properly* recycling the oil, you are better off getting oil changes at shops. However, there is something to be said about a sunny weekend afternoon spent working on the car that you don’t get from taking it to a shop…

15 Brian Driggs September 23, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I always enjoy seeing automotive content on AoM. Turning your own wrenches is about as manly as you can get.

I am fortunate that all my vehicles feature clip-on air filter boxes, however those have been replaced for years by aftermarket induction systems. K&N generally offers a drop-in replacement for the stock airbox, but it is the open filter element systems which provide the greatest improvements in efficiency and power (bonus: they sound better too).

As Marc the Engineer suggested, cleaning the K&N can be a messy affair (ironic), but to make things easy on myself, I’ve just purchased three filters and always have a clean one ready to go on a moment’s notice. That red oil can be such a PITA, but ever since I started keeping a box of blue, nitrile gloves in the garage, my life’s been much cleaner. :)

16 Eric Granata September 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm

I had to buy a new (used) car recently and after a national chain quoted me $40 to replace the filter, I cracked the stinking car manual (lots of great stuff in there) and did it myself for about $10. I could not believe how easy it was!

I remember changing the air filter on my old car when I was a kid and don’t know why I ever started letting someone charge me a premium for it!

Thanks for the tip and reminder, Brett. I’d love to see more posts like this!

17 Tarcas September 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm

I would contend that this is the second-easiest car maintenance job. The very easiest would be checking the air in your tires, however that can take a good deal longer to do.
Either of these would be an excellent first step toward DIY auto maintenance. Following on the list would be changing the oil and changing the spark plugs. The most complex job I’ve done myself was replacing the thermostat (which also entails a coolant flush.) It took a while, but wasn’t terribly difficult. The hardest part was finding a way to get the bolts out when you can hardly get a wrench on them. (the shop wanted $40 for the thermostat alone. I paid $40 for ALL the parts I needed, and now I have half a gallon of antifreeze left over for later.)

Gabriel: You’re right about that. My grandpa used to jerry-rig a hood release wire so you could pop the hood from under the car, and taped a spare key to the hood strut. When I accidentally locked the keys in the car while playing around when I was little, he wasn’t even mad. Just popped the hood, untaped the key, and opened the door.

18 Shawn September 23, 2010 at 9:31 pm

It’s quite amazing at how much mileage will drop with a dirty, paper air filter. It’s well worth the $10 and five minutes it takes to change it.

19 Matt "Wiggy" Wiggins September 24, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I second the idea posted above to go w/a K&N. Might be a little more spendy up front, but when you realize you’ll NEVER buy another one, it’s a sound investment. Just don’t think that b/c you don’t have to replace it doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean it, though.

20 James September 25, 2010 at 2:24 am

As a ASE Master Technician I can say that “most” air filters are easy to change however some are a pain in the %$@#. Read your owners manual and get a shop manual (Shop = Official repair manual from the manufacturer).

21 Erik October 1, 2010 at 9:01 am

I’ve gotta say to those touting their fancy two-initial named filters, K&N’s just aren’t worth the price. Everyone I know has used one at some point in their car-owning/maintaining life, and they’ve all said the same thing. No more horsepower than normal, fuel efficiency is the same, and its a pain in the ass to clean.
The only thing it maybe does is get some smaller particulates from getting into the intake, and even then you should clean your intake at least every 40,000 miles. You’re only adding work to yourself.
Also, just a bit of advice, open-air filters only increase performance on some cars. And they can actually decrease performance on others. The problem is that they can pull heat from the engine bay into to the intake. Hot air is less-dense than cold air, causing poorer compression. Poor compression causes less torque, and so on and so forth. Just something to keep in mind.

Also, I’d like to know where you’re getting your $20 oil change. Here, in North VA, oil changes run about $40-$60. Which is precisely why I do mine myself.

22 PRM October 3, 2010 at 10:51 am

K&N filters that use oil – do not over-oil them after cleaning. Modern engines have an air mass/temperature sensor downstream from the filter that can be severely affected by an oil film caused by excess oil on the filter.

23 jack July 29, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Try finding an air filter for $10-$13 now. I have found that due to not adjusting their prices, the shop is actually cheaper than the parts store. Not to mention the time and gas involved. Just like changing your oil, I can have it done for $20, or spend $25 and my time doing it.

24 WILLIAM Clark February 25, 2014 at 6:30 pm

When changing the air filter, please tell me that I dont have to clean the air filter housing, i am too much of a perfectionist.

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