How to Clean a Car Air Filter

Updated: Feb. 15, 2023

Extend the life of your engine air filter and increase your gas mileage by cleaning your air filter with a vacuum, soap and water.

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Air filters are typically replaced every 15,000 miles, but a cleaning between replacements can enhance your car's performance. If you've noticed a decrease in mileage per gallon or acceleration, try vacuuming and gently cleansing the air filter. It could be just what your car needs.

Air filters are made of cotton, paper or foam, or a mix of those materials. Check your owner's manual or with the air filter manufacturer to be sure it's safe to use soap and water, and if you have an oil-coated filter. Oil-coated filters aren't as common, but if you have one, you'll need a specific cleaning solution. Don't use soap and water on an oil-coated air filter.

Tools Required

  • Bucket
  • Microfiber cloths
  • Screwdriver
  • Vacuum

Materials Required

  • Liquid dish soap
  • Warm water

Project step-by-step (4)

Step 1

Remove the Air Filter

  • Locate the air filter housing under the hood. The air filter housing is typically an easily identifiable box near the top of the engine compartment.
  • Unfasten the air filter housing, using a screwdriver if necessary.
  • Remove the air filter.
  • Wipe the air filter housing with a microfiber cloth to remove dust and debris. Find out how often you should replace the air filter in your car.

Remove the Air FilterVeronica Graham for Family Handyman

Step 2

Vacuum the Air Filter

  • Tap the air filter several times to shake off larger pieces of debris.
  • Vacuum the air filter using the duster/soft brush attachment, pressing firmly to get the dust and dirt between the pleats but not so hard that you rip or warp the filter.

Vacuum the Air FilterVeronica Graham for Family Handyman

Step 3

Wash the Filter

  • Dispense a small amount of liquid dish soap, about the size of a nickel, into a bucket and fill with warm water.
  • Swish the air filter gently in the water.
  • Rinse the air filter thoroughly under running warm water.
    • A kitchen or utility sink faucet is ideal because garden hose water isn’t temperature controlled and the pressure may be too high.
  • Tap the air filter to shake out excess water.

Wash the FilterVeronica Graham for Family Handyman

Step 4

Reinstall the Air Filter

  • Lay the air filter flat in full sun until it is completely dry.
    • The air filter must be completely dry before reinstalling. Allow at least 24 hours for drying.
  • Reinstall the air filter in the filter housing.
  • Secure all clamps, screws or wing nuts.

Reinstall the Air FilterVeronica Graham for Family Handyman