Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What Does an Air Filter Do?

Most people are familiar with being told that they need to change their car’s air filter regularly, but many of these folks may be unaware of why this is important. Keeping the air filter clean keeps the engine clean and free of debris so that the engine can function optimally. A clean air filter also equates to better gas mileage, which means more money in one’s pocket. The amount of money laid out to purchase a new air filter is well worth it and pays for itself several times over in gas savings. To understand more specifically what an air filter does, one needs to know that the air filter is a crucial part of one of many automotive systems. Then, one can learn about the specific role of the air filter and how to maintain it properly for maximum benefits.

Automotive Systems
Like the human body, an automobile is comprised of many different systems that work together to make a car function. Examples of automotive systems include

 - Braking
 - Cooling
 - Exhaust
 - Transmission
 - Suspension

The air filter is considered part of the fuel supply system. Fuel (either gasoline or diesel) is what a vehicle’s engine runs on, and getting the fuel from the tank to the engine is a complex process. The fuel system consists of the gas tank, carburetor or fuel injector, intake manifold, throttle body, as well as various pumps, filters (not just the air filter but also the fuel filter), gaskets, and other parts. The intake of air to the engine is mixed with the gasoline in a specific ratio to burn most efficiently.

The Air Filter’s Role
A good way to explain the function of an automotive intake air filter is to compare it to an allergy mask. People wear these masks over their nose and mouth so that when they inhale, pollen and other particles are unable to enter the respiratory system. Because of this, only clean air enters the nose, trachea, and lungs. The filtered air is far less likely to cause allergic reactions or asthma. Similarly, people wear dust masks when working in certain environments where dust, dirt, and other particulate matter is in the air.

Although the human respiratory tract has some ability to clean itself out (via sneezing, coughing, and other physiological processes), chronic exposure to heavy loads of foreign matter in the air can eventually cause an overload from which the respiratory system is unable to recover. In a car engine, there is no self-cleaning system whatsoever. Without an air filter, the fuel system would quickly become riddled with insects, leaves, and other debris, in addition to the same fine particles that can obstruct human lungs. The clogged system would be unable to function, and cleaning it out would be quite costly and messy, not to mention just plain inefficient.

Cabin Air Filters
Buyers should make sure when making an air filter purchase not to confuse the intake filter or combustion air filter with the cabin filter. The cabin air filter is designed to clean the air that moves to the inside of the car (the passenger cabin), not the engine.

Types of Air Filters
All air filters are made of a thin material, just like dust masks. These are typically paper or cloth, although foam filters exist as well. Older cars that have carburetors typically take a circular air filter, whereas fuel-injected vehicles generally use flat rectangular air filters.

Paper Filters
The paper air filter is the most common air filter in regular personal and family vehicles. While the shape varies, the filter essentially consists of a rubber or plastic frame in which an accordion-pleated paper filter is held. Most of these filters are inexpensive and easy to install.

Oil Bath Filters
The oil bath air filter is no longer used today, except perhaps on antique or classic cars. This type of filter existed before paper filters were developed. The design of the filter was such that it restricted air flow caused contaminants and particles to settle into a pool of oil or an oil-soaked medium, such as foam or mesh.

Foam Filters
A foam air filter is made of oil-impregnated polyurethane. The foam filter is better than paper at filtering dust. Paper filters are less expensive and usually quite adequate, but foam filters are useful for vehicles that drive in very dirty, dusty conditions on a regular basis, such as farm vehicles and off-road trucks and SUVs.

Cotton Filters
A cotton gauze or cotton air filter is another type of reusable air filter. These can be washed and used over and over.

Air Filter Maintenance
In order to achieve maximum performance and gas mileage from a vehicle, the air filter should be changed (or cleaned) at least once a year. This suggested time interval varies depending on how many miles are driven yearly and the type of environment one typically drives and parks in. Cars that are driven on dusty dirt roads and in rural wooded areas need to have the filter changed more frequently. One should get in the habit of inspecting the air filter every few months to get an idea of how quickly it becomes dirty. It is common to at least check, if not replace, the air filter every time the oil is changed.

Checking an Air Filter
The air filter is usually quite easy to access on most cars. The cover is held in place with snaps or clips, which are easily unfastened by hand. A few vehicles require a screwdriver to access the air filter compartment. One can consult the owner’s manual to determine the location of the air filter.

Once the cover has been removed, the air filter should be lifted out and held up to a bright light source, such as the sun or a lightbulb. A completely opaque filter is a sign that the filter is full and can no longer effectively strain particulate from the airflow. An air filter that allows some light to shine through still has life left in it. Do not be overzealous with changing the air filter, as this costs money and is not good for the environment if disposable paper filters are used. No air filter looks completely clean and white if it has been doing its job.

Changing an Air Filter
The air filter changing process varies depending on the car, so one should consult the car owner’s manual or a Haynes manual or Chilton manual specific to the car’s year, make, and model. The process basically entails unsnapping the cover in the air duct where the filter is located, removing the old filter and disposing of it in the trash, replacing the new air filter, and securing the cover.

Cleaning an Air Filter
Lifetime air filters are removed in the same way as above, only the air filter is cleaned instead of replaced with a new one. Again, the process varies depending on the type of vehicle and the brand and type of air filter. In most cases, cleaning the filter involves

 - Vacuuming the filter
 - Applying a cleaning solution
 - Rinsing the filter
 - Allowing the filter to air dry, and then
 - Oiling the filter before reinstalling it.
Cleaning instructions should be provided with the air filter when it is purchased.

Where to Find Air Filters
Auto parts such as air filters may be available at some larger discount stores, but auto parts stores or your personal mechanic are the best bets. If you know the specific part number needed for your vehicle, you can also check out online auction sites and Internet retailers.

How to Buy Air Filters on eBay
eBay makes it easy to find the right air filter for your car. You can do a simple keyword search for “air filter” from the homepage, but you will see that this brings up air filters for all types of machines and systems in the home and elsewhere. You can narrow down the search results by selecting eBay Motors and then continuing to click on subsequent category filters. A better way to use the keyword search function is to type in as much information as you have at the outset, such as “air filter 1994 Chevy Cavalier” or “2006 Prius air filter.” Instead of using the keyword search, you can simply navigate through categories from eBay’s homepage, starting with eBay Motors and continuing through auto parts to the air filter section.

Just as dirty lungs make it difficult for humans to breathe correctly and get enough oxygen, a dirty air filter makes a car have to work harder to function. Air filters are simple to replace, and this task does not require the expertise of an auto mechanic. An air filter can be purchased at an auto parts store or online and replaced by the car owner very quickly and easily. Most standard filters are made of paper. Even better, a reusable or washable foam or cotton gauze air filter can be installed, and then it only needs occasional cleaning instead of replacing. The air filter is a relatively inexpensive component, and replacing it often is an excellent way to maximize a car’s gas mileage and save money in the long run.

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