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4 Different Types of Air Filters for Cars

A mechanic changing a car's air filter.

As many a mechanic would say, an air filter is as critical to a car as lungs are to a human. They allow the car to breathe and filter out unnecessary toxins such as debris, insects, and dust particles. The wrong insect or sand blown into your vehicle can ruin the engine and result in a repair that is worth thousands.

An air filter isn’t, and the right air filter will prevent that.

We live in a world where there is air pollution everywhere. Even without insects and sand, your engine needs to be protected from the multiple toxins that a combustion vehicle creates and drives through. Learn about the different types of air filters here.

Benefits of Air Filters

A dirty and rusty car aircondition filter.

There are many benefits to having the right air filter for your vehicle. The most important reason is for improved performance of your car. You can run better when your lungs are free of smoke, and your car can run better when it is free of smoke as well.

Clean air is environmentally friendly, and it also helps the car run well.

Your car needs both gas and air for power, and this combination creates the combustion that your vehicle needs to move well. Part of the improved performance entails fuel economy. Better combustion means improved fuel economy, and that comes with clean air flowing through the vehicle’s engine.

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You’re going to save money here.

Black smoke is also never a good thing for any car. Clogged air filters will lead to this. The repair here can be as simple as an air filter, or, worse.

If you see black smoke in your vehicle, it could be a sign that the vehicle’s combustion isn’t completing which results in the nasty black smoke that terrifies every car owner.

Another key benefit that wraps all of these together is longevity of the engine. Again, clean air is simply going to give your engine a longer life. An air filter extends that life by protecting it from the dust, sand, and toxins that can impair its functionality and performance.

Finally, better combustion of any vehicle means it will have reduced emissions as well. Clean air is good for the car and the environment. And, when you have a car that is good for the environment, you have a car that is running well, and less expensive to maintain.

There are a few different types of air filters for cars.

Paper Air Filters for Cars

Car air filter, closed up shot.

A paper air filter for a vehicle sounds flimsy, but it isn’t. This is an industrial-grade filter that is pleated like an air filter you would use for your furnace or other combustion application. Paper air filters are factory-used, and most vehicles will come off of the factory floor with paper air filters.

These are your standard-grade air filters and do a standard job. They are not favored by high-performance car owners because their airflow restriction is not the same as other types of air filters. For car owners that want more power from their engines, or expect to keep their cars a long time, paper air filters are often switched out to a higher grade air filter.

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These pleats allow for the trapping of dirt. These are affordable filters and easy to install, but some tests indicate they can reduce engine power and fuel economy. They are still very useful but may need to be replaced more often than other types of air filters.

Oil Bath Air Filters for Cars

An oil bath filter is an old-school filter that isn’t used anymore, but it is a former air filter for a car. These were made from paper and fibers to create a mesh that was fitted over oil pans. The filter would capture toxins in the oil, while the fiber would trap anything lighter.

Foam Air Filters for Cars

Foam air filter, closed up shot.

Foam filters are great for cars that do a lot of dusty driving, such as with road racing or off-roading. These filters are made with foam in a variety of thicknesses and will impeded dirt capacity and any resistance to airflow. Thus, they do impede airflow and could impact performance.

The foam is coated with oil and these filters do not need to be replaced but will need to be maintained. Foam filters are intended to last for as long as you have your car.

Cotton Air Filters for Cars

Cotton air filters are considered to be high-performance air filters and they are the most expensive to get, but the most common for aftermarket air filter buyers. They also are not as easy to purchase as paper air filters and need to be bought from special car dealers. These filters are specifically for people that want more air in their engine as this increased air increases combustion and power.

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The cotton air filters are for high-performance cars.

Other Kinds of Air Filters

The other kinds of air filters include sponge air filters and fiberglass air filters. The least common kind of air filter is the fiberglass air filter or one made of polyester, such as the cloth air filter. These air filters are more expensive and research is needed by the manufacturer if you are considering these types of air filters for your car.

Shape of Air Filter

The shape of an air filter says a lot about its performance, and air filters are typically cone-shaped or panel-shaped. The shape impacts how much air the filter can intake, and how this will impact the performance of the vehicle.

The larger the filter, the more effective it will be. An air filter needs to take in air, and so the more room that it has to do that, the more improved its performance will be. Pleats in panel filters help the filters to accomplish that goal, by allowing the filter to have more surface area through its pleats than just as a flat filter.

Panel-shaped filters will have pleats to improve the surface area for air intake, and cone-shaped filters will as well.

Still, an air filter that is shaped like a cone will have more surface area and will enable a faster flow of air. Some air filters for cars will even have an inverted cone in the filter itself.

Choosing an Air Filter

Air filters are chosen based on their efficiency in filtering air and the performance that would provide for any vehicle. The efficiency of an air filtration system is important when a manufacturer or engineer is choosing the air filter for a vehicle. Every engineer wants the engine life of a car to operate at maximum performance and will want the best possible filter for the car.

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Check your owner’s manual before you purchase an air filter if you are changing or maintaining one yourself. Your manufacturer will have recommendations, and offer any tips you will need for the kind of air filter that you shouldn’t choose. You always want to pick a brand that is known, and the price point shouldn’t always be the decision-maker.

A lower-priced air filter may cost you more in the long run.

Research air filters and their brands and read reviews on their performance. You may find an air filter that looks just like a high-performance filter but doesn’t have the quality that you need. A high-performance filter that is meant to last is a great investment, but you also have to take into consideration that its maintenance is a time or labor expense as well.

When to Replace Your Air Filter

A brand new and a used car air filter.

Some air filters are meant to last the life of your car, and some aren’t. There are ways to know when it needs to be replaced. You can often find the air filter near the carburetor and check it yourself.

Be careful when checking it, as you may find that you release some of the dirt that has trapped and caused a bigger problem. Only check or replace it when you need to.

Your owner’s guide should tell you when the filters need to be replaced. The standard rule of thumb is every 24 thousand miles. However, replacing them at the 15 thousand mile mark is a good standard to go by.

If you live in dustier areas or use the car for a lot of off-roading, you may want to replace the air filter even sooner. For these cars, you want to cut these benchmarks in half. So, for off-roading vehicles, replace the air filter every 8 to 12 thousand miles.

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You never want to clean an air filter that should be replaced, such as paper air filters. This will only move the dust and dirt around and create a bigger problem. An engine wash is a common fix for some vehicles, but this can wash dust and dirt into the engine when you are washing the air filter as well.

Although cloth filters can be effective, they will also have this drawback.

Another common way to tell if your air filter needs to be replaced is by checking the status of your air conditioning. If the air conditioning in the car doesn’t feel like it is working well, you may need a new air filter. You will know this by how the air feels when it is coming into the car.

This is different than the air conditioning just not working. If it feels like little to no air is coming through the vents, your air filter may need a replacement, and your entire air conditioning system may not need to be repaired.

You will notice this if you find yourself turning the fan up in your car when you are trying to cool down the interior. If a lower fan isn’t working as well, your air filter may be dirty and need a replacement. Many car owners will have their air filters replaced annually, right before the spring, to avoid having to worry about this when the warmer temperatures arrive.