Most people know that they need to replace their car air filter at specific intervals (usually every 15,000 miles). The build up in the filter that causes it to clog doesn't happen all at once. It accumulates gradually, choking off more and more air supply to the engine. This results in a loss of performance and fuel economy. Cleaning your filter between changes is both something you can do and something that will help your car run better and more efficiently.
Washing vs. Vacuuming
There are a couple of schools of thought on cleaning your air filter. Some people recommend using a cleaning solution. Others swear by vacuuming. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The soap approach might get the filter cleaner. The problem, though, is that it takes a lot more time (you need to make sure the filter is completely dry before replacing it) and has a higher risk level (putting the filter back in wet can damage your engine). Vacuuming might not get as many contaminants, but it is a fast process and you won't do any harm.
Locate and Remove Your Air Filter
If you have the manual for your vehicle, take a look to locate your filter. If not you can check the Internet or ask your mechanic the next time your car is serviced. The filter will usually be fairly easy to access and is in a little canister. Most open either with a wing nut or a couple of clamps that can be easily removed. The filter usually just sits in there and you can simply pull it out.
Clean the Filter
If you choose to use soap, place the filter in a bucket with a soapy water solution. Swish it around and pull it out. Shake the filter to get as much liquid out as you can. Set it down on a towel to dry. Be sure to allow plenty of time to be sure it is completely dry.
For those who prefer the vacuum cleaner approach, run the vacuum over the filter for a minute or so on each side. Look it over again and remove anything that is left on the outside.
Clean the Canister
Whichever method you use to clean the filter, be sure to clean out the canister as well. A soft cloth or paper towel will do a good job. Just be sure not to leave any pieces behind. If you use any thing wet, make sure the canister is completely dry before putting the filter back in. Once again, moisture left behind can cause engine damage.
Replace Your Filter
Put the filter back in. Reverse the process you used to open it. You are done. Remember that rather than paying to have a new filter put in you can save some money by doing it yourself. It's completely the same process - minus cleaning the filter.