Time for reading: 8 min.

The Real Cost of Your Car’s Cheap Factory Air Filter

We discuss the benefits of performance air filters which cost more up front, but save you money because they can be washed and re-used instead of being discarded.
The Real Cost of Your Car’s Cheap Factory Air Filter

In today's world, saving money wherever possible has become essential. But it's important not to lose sight of the fact that, sometimes, a product that costs more up front will save you more money over time. In our business, we've seen far too many consumers judge products solely on the basis of their initial cost, completely neglecting any long-term economy and benefits. When it comes to automobiles, "performance" air filters are a perfect example of this.

Stock / Aftermarket Air Filter
In this article, we'll discuss the benefits of upgraded aftermarket air filters designed to offer higher levels of performance.

In this article, we'll discuss the benefits of replacement air filters designed to offer higher levels of performance. We'll start with the basic facts - these performance air filters cost more because they're made from more expensive filtering material that can be washed and re-used instead of being discarded every 15,000 miles. At quick glance, the comparison of a performance air filter at $50 and a traditional paper air filter at $20 would lead consumers that care only about initial cost to choose the paper air filter. As we'll also show with examples, such a choice would be false economy.

According to recent studies by automotive research firms, the average new car is kept for 8.5 years - with buyers of top 10 models holding on to what they purchase for 11.4 years. Considering that most Americans drive 15,000 or more miles per year, the average car will have traveled over 125,000 miles in 8 years and 165,000 miles in 11 years. From a routine maintenance standpoint, changing the paper air filter at the 30,000-mile interval recommended by many automobile manufacturers means 4 new filters in 8 years, and 5 new filters in 11 years.

However, browse the internet and you'll see that most automotive experts recommend that a paper air filter be replaced far more often, closer to every 15,000 miles. Going by that maintenance schedule, you'd purchase 8 to 11 new paper air filters. Do the math again and you realize the extra cost of the paper air filters jumps from $80-$100 to as much as $160-$220. Suddenly, that one-time $50 expense for an aftermarket air filter doesn't look so bad.

Cross-Section Of A Typical Paper Air Filter With Wood Pulp Construction
This cross-section of a typical paper air filter with wood pulp construction shows 1. Airflow, 2. Dirt building up as air passages become plugged, 3. Irregular passages result, 4. Airflow decreasing as fibers swell from moisture or blow-by, and 5. Turbulent filtered air that causes reduced power and fuel economy.

Looking beyond mere initial costs, the technology behind aftermarket filters allows them to save you even more money during driving compared to original equipment paper filters. The reason? Paper air filters are made of wood pulp that's bonded together and formed into pleats. While they generally provide adequate filtration, it comes at the expense of airflow because of the nature of the paper material itself.

More specifically, passages in paper air filters need to be particularly small in order to be effective at trapping dirt. So even in brand-new condition, these small passages are very restrictive. Even worse, as the filter becomes dirty, these passages become clogged - further choking airflow into your engine.

Any time airflow is reduced, the computer controlling the fuel injection system must compensate and adjust the fuel delivery to maintain a combustible air/fuel mixture. The result will be a less-than-ideal mixture, poor combustion, reduced performance and poor fuel economy. Most aftermarket air filters are constructed from multiple layers of cotton gauze, which are sandwiched between wire mesh that's formed into pleats. The layers of cotton fibers are able to trap dirt particles that are even smaller than the holes in the paper filter media.

Furthermore, dirt is trapped in the depths of cotton filters where they don't block airflow so much, unlike paper air filters which mostly gather dirt right on the surface. With cotton air filters, airflow stays consistent between cleanings for optimal combustion - maximizing performance and fuel economy.

Most aftermarket air filter manufacturers do not make fuel mileage claims because it would be impossible to predict all the variables involved: driving characteristics, weather, road conditions, and more. But for the purposes of creating a specific comparison, let's say your car gets approximately 20 miles per gallon and you pay $3.00 per gallon at the pump. At 100,000 miles you'll have spent approximately $15,000 for fuel. At 150,000 miles, typical fuel costs would be $22,500.

Even if you only realize another 1/10 of a mile per gallon using an aftermarket filter, you'll have $75 to $112 more in your pocket. And if you get as much as one additional mile per gallon, your savings go up to $715 in 8 years or $1,071 in 11 years. If you stayed with the paper air filters those savings would have to be added to the "cost" of the filter, so now their real total cost would be anywhere from $235 to as much as $1,291! Suddenly, a $50 aftermarket air filter (even one that lasts 'only' 50,000 miles) is looking very, very good.

Another cost that goes beyond money is the beneficial effect aftermarket air filters have on the environment. Most people, even car buffs, are becoming more conscious of recycling and doing everything possible to preserve the world for younger generations. Using an aftermarket air filter helps the cause by allowing your vehicle to consume less fossil fuel and produce less harmful emissions. Additionally, they prevent used paper air filters from ending up in landfills. And last but not least, when more drivers convert to washable and reusable filters, fewer trees will have to be cut down in order to produce traditional paper ones.

'Oiled' Vs. 'Non-Oiled' Air Filters

Air filters made of cotton gauze or woven cotton are designed to work best when they're sprayed with a special oil that creates a stickiness on the cotton's microscopic fibers. This serves to trap the smallest particles that otherwise might make it through. Cotton filters usually come with a kit that includes one bottle of cleaning solution, and another bottle of oil to spray on the filter by hand when it dries after being washed. In other cases, such kits are listed in Product Options.

If you don't already have cleaner and oil, you'll definitely want to add this to your online shopping cart. Should you choose not to re-oil a cotton filter after washing it, no harm will come to the filter or the system. However, the level of filtration may be reduced if a cotton filter is left "dry". Filters that don't need to be oiled are usually "synthetic", which means they're made from artificial materials such as polyurethane.

Washing A Cotton Air Filter

Washing Cotton Air Filter

Unlike paper air filters, those made of cotton can be washed. This process is relatively easy. Instructions that manufacturers will include may vary slightly, but they'll follow the same basic pattern. Once a filter is detached from the vehicle, first thoroughly spray the cleaning solution on all sides of the filter including the inside area of conical air filters as well.

Wait approximately 15 minutes (don't lose track of time and let the cleaning solution dry), then thoroughly rinse the filter clean under running water. Shake excess wetness out best as possible and allow the filter to sit until it dries completely. At that point, spray the oil on - noting that flat filters should be oil-sprayed on both sides, and conical filters should only be sprayed on the outside surface. Allow it to dry for another hour, then wipe off any excess oil before putting the filter back on your vehicle.


Vehicle Specific vs. Universal Fit

Vehicle Specific Product Options
Universal fit air filters will feature a rectangular blue "Dimensions" button. Click on this to open up a helpful pop-up box which will show sizes available along with corresponding part numbers you'll need to reference.

As you look through our performance air filters, you'll see individual products will be noted as "vehicle-specific" or "universal fit". Vehicle-specific products will prompt you to enter make, model, and year because they're tailor-made to match the needs of your specific car or truck. Universal fit products are designed for any automotive application, and need to be selected by dimensions. Along the left side of the screen, check boxes under the FITMENT heading allow you to narrow your search to either type.

Dimension Measurements

Universal Fit air filters may specify outer diameter, inner diameter, and height measurements if they're round. Or, length, width, and height if they are flat or square in shape. If you see a "Dimensions" indicator button on the screen, click on it. A pop-up box will open with measurements available and, in many cases, corresponding part numbers to make a final selection further down in Product Options.


Flanged / Non-Flanged Air Filter
An example of a flanged (left) and non-flanged (right) air filter.

You'll also notice FILTER STYLE check boxes for "Flanged" and "Non-Flanged" air filters. Flanged simply means the filter assembly has an extended neck piece on one side, while non-flanged filters do not. Similarly, FLANGE TYPE check boxes allow you to narrow your search to flanged filters with single or dual flanges.

OE Style Air Filter Shapes

OE Style Air Filter Shapes
Performance air filters come in a variety of shapes. Use our "Air Filter Shape" checkboxes on the left-hand side of the screen to narrow your search. Note that some air filters may overlap into several categories.

To help narrow down your search, we've arranged check boxes by various air filter shapes you'll come across on our website. While we've made every effort to group them in a helpful way, some air filters will overlap into more than one category. You can also enter the year, make, and model of your car or truck in the "Select Vehicle" drop down boxes at the top of the screen and have our website find all the specific products that would be an exact fit.

Oval Air Filters
By selecting the Oval Air Filter check box, for example, you'll come across filters with many different shapes and sizes.

We've got performance round, flat panel, rectangular, and oval air filters shaped and sized like the original equipment paper filters your vehicle came with off the assembly line. They offer improved airflow and the ability to pop right in to your OEM air box housing without modification. As we mentioned earlier, you'll need to know the diameter and height of your existing filter in order to correctly select any Universal Fit versions. That said, you'll also find a few custom air filters in each of these categories as well.

Conical Aftermarket Air Filters

Conical Aftermarket Air Filters
The Airaid Synthaflow Round Tapered Air Filter. Many conical air filters can be found within the Oval, Rectangular, and Unique check box categories.

We offer a large selection of conical-shaped air filters, most of which are designed as replacement elements for aftermarket cold air, ram air, and short ram styles of aftermarket air intakes (see our related article "What Are The Different Types Of Air Intake Systems?"). Most automakers don't use cone-shaped filters as stock equipment, but for those that do, these can also serve as OEM-style replacement filter elements which also happen to improve on performance.

Custom OE And Non-OE Performance Air Filter Replacements
In our "Unique" air filter section, you'll find a lot of custom OE and non-OE performance replacements.

Our website does not have a check box for conical air filters. However, many of them can be found within the Oval, Rectangular, and Unique check box categories. So if you have a custom car or engine-swapped vehicle that uses this harder-to-find style air cleaner element, look in those categories first - or try searching for it using the check boxes for filter manufacturer names. Before selecting a final choice, you may be prompted for some of the dimensions such as inside diameter of the hose, outside diameter of the base, overall diameter of the top, and overall height.

Some Recommended Products

Edelbrock Pro-Flow Round Air Cleaner Assembly Spectre Performance HPR Unique Air Filter Green Filter Factory Replacement Air Filter aFe Direct Fit Magnum Flow Pro Guard 7 Air Filter
From left to right: The Edelbrock Pro-Flow Round Air Cleaner Assembly, Spectre Performance HPR Unique Air Filter, Green Filter Factory Replacement Air Filter, and aFe Direct Fit Magnum Flow Pro Guard 7 Air Filter.

We've got a great selection of performance air filters from Edelbrock, Ford Performance, K&N, aFe, Injen, Flowmaster, RIPP Superchargers, and more that pop right in and go to work. For Jeep owners, Rugged Ridge performance air filters specializes in a number of Jeep models from various years. For harder-to-find sizes for older vehicles, Green Filter also offers larger diameters with their Factory Replacement Air Filter.

Versions Of Green Filter Factory Replacement Air Filter
Versions of the Green Filter Factory Replacement Air Filter.

If you've got a vehicle equipped with General Motors's 1979-85 5.7-liter V8 diesel engine, Spectre Performance offers the oiled cotton HPR Round Air Filter for these as well as other classic GM muscle cars from the late 1960s and early 1970s. And if you prefer advanced filters that don't require oiling, aFe's Round Air Filter is available in 100% synthetic "ProDry S" form.

aFe's Direct Fit Magnum Flow Pro5R Air Filter
aFe's Direct Fit Magnum Flow Pro5R Air Filter.
Perrin Performance Panel Air Filter
The Perrin Performance Panel Air Filter.

For most production vehicles, you'll find the sizes you need with K&N's 33 Series Panel Air Filter, aFe's Direct Fit Magnum Flow Pro5R Air Filter, or Airaid's Panel Synthaflow Air Filter. All of these are cotton gauze and designed for use with oil. Should you prefer not to use oil, Airaid offers a synthetic polyester/rayon version of their filter which operates dry. There's also the synthetic aFe Direct Fit Magnum Flow Pro Dry S Flat Panel Air Filter. And for select Subaru- and Nissan-powered vehicles, Perrin Performance offers the Panel Air Filter with polyurethane foam construction. For newer Mini models, Alta Performance also offers a flat foam filter as well.

Aftermarket Direct Fit Air Filter

In conclusion, switching to an aftermarket direct replacement air filter is a win, win, win move. The first win is for your wallet, because although the initial cost is higher, an aftermarket filter saves you real dollars over the long haul. The second win is efficiency for you and your car. And finally, the last win is for all of us because the reusable filter makes better use of natural resources and reduces waste.

Shop Now
CARiD FacebookCARiD TwitterCARiD YouTube ChannelCARiD PinterestCARiD Instagram
Inspiration Gallery
All manufacturer names, symbols, and descriptions, used in our images and text are used solely for identification purposes only. It is neither inferred nor implied that any item sold by CARiD.com is a product authorized by or in any way connected with any vehicle manufacturers displayed on this page.