We all try to breathe the cleanest air possible. Our body’s natural air filter located in our breathing system usually does a fine job. Unless, of course, we have a cold or allergy which results in a stuffy nose. When this happens we can’t breathe properly. The condition makes us feel tired and sluggish. We’ve all been there, right?

If your vehicle’s engine or heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) breathing systems can’t breathe correctly, your vehicle gets tired and sluggish, too. This is caused by your vehicle’s air filters not performing properly due to being dirty, or simple wear and tear.

Today, we’re talking about air filters that help your vehicle breathe. Below are a few questions I received about vehicle air filters. So let’s get started.

The first question is, “Are there different types of air filters in a car, and what do they do?”

Yes, each vehicle has different types of air filters. Late model vehicles have at least two different air filters as standard equipment. The first filter is the engine intake air filter and the second is the heating/cooling system intake air filter, or cabin filter. If you have a vehicle equipped with air brakes, normally a heavy duty truck, it will also have an intake air filter for the air compressor, which is the heart of the air brakes.

Now let’s talk about what each one does for your vehicle.

The engine intake air filter is designed to filter the air that the engine uses for combustion in the cylinders. Not only does it filter the air going into an engine, it allows the proper amount of air in to produce optimum combustion. When an engine intake air filter is dirty, the air flow becomes restricted and combustion may not be complete. The restricted air flow causes an engine to run poorly and use more fuel because the cylinders are not getting the correct amount of air. This condition will decrease fuel mileage and may also cause black smoke from the exhaust.

The cabin air filter filters air coming into the passenger compartment/cabin. Modern vehicles have systems constantly circulating air through the cabin using outside air. The filter catches pollutants, debris and allergens that can get into your vehicle. This filter can get clogged and pretty nasty. If you ever see a dirty cabin filter, it will make you wonder about the air we breathe on a regular basis.

The intake air filter inside air brakes filters air taken into the compressor used to operate the air brake system. Needless to say, if this filter blocks up and restricts air flow to the compressor, the results can be devastating because the brakes will not work.

You vehicle’s air filters should be checked often. If the filters are left unchecked, engines may run poorly, cabin air quality and air flow may diminish, or brake systems will not function properly.

“How often do they need to be changed?” is our second question.

Manufacturers suggest service intervals for each of the air filters in your vehicle. These service intervals are for vehicles driven in what manufactures call normal conditions. Driving on dirt or dusty roads, through construction areas — we know there are plenty of those in northeastern Pennsylvania — and poor air quality are contributors to decreasing the lifespan of your air filters. At the very least, you should always follow the service and replacement intervals noted in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. As with any service, it doesn’t hurt to do it more often but I recommend that you don’t extend the time between air filter services.

Our final question is, “Can the filters be changed by owners or must they be changed by technicians?”

If you’re an owner who is comfortable performing some of your own maintenance, you shouldn’t have any challenges replacing the engine intake or cabin filters. Keep in mind some cabin filters are very hard to find because they’re tucked under the dashboard. If you’re not comfortable, by all means, have your repair shop do the service.

You may not see your vehicle’s air filters or even think about them often, but they do need your, or a service technician’s, attention from time to time. They’re vital to keeping your vehicle performing efficiently and making sure you and your passengers breathe the cleanest air possible.

Mark Kozemko is Johnson College’s Automotive Technology program director. He has 40 years of experience in the automotive field as a technician, service manager, trainer and teacher.

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