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When it comes to your car’s air conditioning, you may just think it involves flipping a switch and cold air comes out. But during those hot summer months when the cold air doesn’t blow and you can’t figure out why it may be a very simple fix.
Your cabin air filter does a very simple job, but many people don’t even know it’s there. It’s time to stop minimizing its importance and understand more about what it does and why it’s there.
Table of Contents
What is a Cabin Air Filter?
You already know that it’s important to clean the air that goes into your vehicle’s engine, but I’m sure you can probably imagine now that it’s also important to clean the air that goes into your vehicle’s cabin.
Hint: the cabin is where you sit.
So, you’re taking a leisurely drive down the street one day, and all of a sudden a large, gross-looking bug flies through the air vent and plows into your teeth. Not cool.
If you had a cabin air filter that worked properly, that wouldn’t happen.
This filter is part of your vehicle’s ventilation system. It traps dust, soot, moisture, and sometimes bugs. It prevents these things from entering your car. It can eliminate the smell of dirt, dust, and exhaust fumes.
However, they get clogged over time and you have to replace them.
Benefits of Cabin Air Filters
Your cabin air filter should be changed regularly to ensure that the air in your cabin doesn’t get contaminated with dirt, dust, and other particles. How often you change it depends on how quickly your filter gets dirty.
There are quite a few benefits to having a cabin air filter that works properly:
- Improve HVAC performance – If your cabin air filter is clean and working properly, your HVAC system will be able to supply enough air to your car so you’ll be comfortable. Your air conditioning and your heat will work just fine. It also won’t be noisy. If you don’t keep your cabin air filter clean, it could be clogged, noisy, dirty, and causing wear and tear on all of your other ventilation parts.
- Eliminates odors – Keeping your cabin air filter clean ensures you don’t have musty odors coming through your ventilation system when you turn it on. Replace your cabin air filter with a new one that has activated charcoal or carbon to absorb those bad odors to improve your air quality and alleviate motion sickness.
- Reduce allergic reactions – A clean cabin air filter can alleviate allergies by keeping the air in the cabin free of allergens. It will trap pollen, dust, and other allergens that are affecting your health.
Types of Cabin Air Filters
There are a lot of different types of cabin air filters on the market. They work in different ways to keep your cabin air clean, and depending on what kinds of particles you’re interested in filtering out, you may want one type more than another.
These types of cabin air filters use coal as a special ingredient to filter out small and large particles. They can help to get rid of awful odors, too. The coal can attack cigarette smoke within the vehicle and prevent exhaust fumes from reaching the passengers.
Activated carbon cabin filters
Activated carbon filters work the same way as charcoal filters, but the difference is the active ingredient. They have carbon instead of coal. This ingredient absorbs harmful gases and airborne contaminants like carbon monoxide that can pass through the ventilation system.
Particle cabin filters
A particle cabin filter traps particles as small as 0.3 microns before they even enter the car. They’re really good at filtering out pollen, smoke, dust, mold, bugs, spores, human hair, and other debris.
These filters have layers that are electrostatically charged. They can attract and hold really fine particles. They’re great for cigarette smoke, spores, exhaust fumes, mold, spores, bacteria, mildew, diesel carbon, and fungus. They also do a good job of controlling bad odors.
There are several top brands of cabin air filters. Some are the same as engine air filters and some are different.
Fram also makes engine air filters and has been making filters of all kinds since 1932. They also make oil filters, fuel filters, PVC valves, and other car parts. They make high-quality filters and are some of the most well-known manufacturers on the market.
EPAuto is known for its high-quality cabin air filters, panel air filters, automotive tools, and automotive accessories. They are known for promoting cleaner airflow through their cabin air filters and their products are worth the price you pay.
ACDelco is owned by General Motors and its headquarters is in Michigan. They’ve been around since 1916. They make oil filters, car batteries, alternators, wiper blades, air conditioning units, starters, and air filters. Needless to say, they kind of know what they’re doing.
These guys are at it again, making cold air intake systems, oil filters, and reusable cabin air filters. They make some of the best selling cabin air filters on the market. They’re high-quality and worth the price.
There are several features to look out for when shopping around for the right cabin air filter. They’re not all the same, as you have probably already discovered. Make sure you get the right one for you based on the features you want.
You’re going to need to select the right level of protection and filtration for you. If you have bad allergies and you need to filter out mold, pollen, and other allergens, get a particle filter.
However, if you’re struggling with bad odors coming from your ventilation system, you will need something much stronger to absorb those odors and leave your system smelling fresher.
HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air. These types of filters use microscopic mesh to trap tiny particles like pollen and other allergens that cause asthma, allergies, and other breathing and health conditions.
If you have health conditions like these, you should seriously consider a cabin air filter that meets HEPA standards.
You have to get a cabin filter that fits your vehicle. While some cabin filters are made to fit specific vehicles, others make universal fits. However, different HVAC systems are different sizes and universal fits aren’t always practical.
While a good rule of thumb is to switch out your cabin air filter every 12,000 miles, you can sometimes push them past that limit. If your HVAC system doesn’t have strong odors, you don’t deal with allergies, you don’t drive much, and you don’t live in a particularly dirty area, you may be able to get away with using it for longer.
Other filters have longer lifespans. Some are even durable enough for a thorough washing, even though they’re technically disposable. You can rinse them off and use them again.
The filter you choose will depend on your daily driving conditions. While urban areas or polluted and you might have musty odors and exhaust fumes, rural areas are dusty. However, you’ll have to choose whether you filter odors and fumes or dust and other allergens.
You won’t find a very expensive cabin air filter anywhere. For under $10, you’re going to find good quality air filters that are cheap, but durable. They’re typically activated carbon, charcoal, or electrostatic and will last for 12,000 miles.
If you want to spend more than $10, you’ll rarely spend more than $20, unless you’re getting a 2-pack. These are higher quality filters and may last longer. They’re durable and come in all types, including particle filters.
This Fresh Breeze Filter by Fram is about as good as it gets because it can filter about 98% of dust, pollen, and other contaminants in the air. It can help those with allergies and other respiratory disorders. It also traps small and large particles that could damage the engine.
It will help keep your cabin smelling fresher for longer. You’ll notice an improvement right away and it will continue to improve over the first few weeks. It will begin to feel fresher and you can soon ditch the air fresheners.
It’s a carbon filter that uses the assistance of Arm & Hammer baking soda to absorb any odors that may happen to seep through the system. The filter is easy to install and is sturdier than the factory system. It will also last for up to 30,000 miles.
The only problem with this filter is that it’s not ideal for filtering out exhaust fumes, so it may not be ideal for those living in urban areas. It’s more efficient at trapping particles than gasses. The gray color also makes it hard to clean and it can be pricey.
The EPAuto value cabin air filter traps contaminants that aggravate your allergies. It can prevent your car from smelling musty and stop your sneezing and coughing. It will remove pollen, dust, fur, soot, and moisture.
It makes everything feel fresher with quality material that’s durable and will last for 12 months without compromising your performance. It contains activated carbon and baking soda to absorb odors and promote airflow.
It’s easy to install and prevents wear and tear on your ventilation system. One downside is that it has fewer pleats than other models so it won’t filter quite as much air. It’s also thick, so it can restrict airflow.
EPAuto Cabin Air Filter Provides clean air for drivers and passengers containing soda and carbon to generate fresh breeze air.
This ACDelco aftermarket air filter will trap 100% of large airborne particles. It includes what’s called advanced filter media technology, which features three layers of a non-woven material that filters out dust, pollen, smoke, and pollutants. The outer layer captures large particles while the middle layer captures small particles. The last layer reinforces the filter and makes it stronger and more durable.
Your car will always be protected while smelling fresh. You’ll also have fewer deposits on your fan and the filter can prevent mold and bacteria from growing on your vents. It’s easy to install and the arrow indicates which way it should point. However, it’s not a carbon air filter, so it won’t eliminate odors. It also won’t fit some of the vehicles it says it fits.
ACDelco Gold cabin air filters are a high-quality alternative to GM OE parts. These cabin air filters are manufactured to meet your expectations for fit, form, and function.
This product is extremely durable and designed to offer excellent comfort and performance. It has a three-stage filtration system that filters exhaust fumes, allergens, and debris. You’ll notice a difference right away.
The Spearhead Breathe Cabin all-in-one filter includes three different systems. There’s a dust filter, an absorption filter, and an antimicrobial filter. You won’t have any polluted air, allergens, or odors. It’s made of thick materials that will filter tiny particles and prevent them from entering the cabin.
It’s also durable. It has a honeycomb charcoal weave that will last up to 15,000 miles. The problem with this product is installation. The edges are bulky and the instructions are not very descriptive.
Spearhead Premium Breathe Easy Cabin Filter uses thick, industrial-strength electrostatic media to attract even the tiniest of particles while densely packed activated carbon prevents gases and odors from entering the cabin.
This filter collects microscopic mold, pollen, and other allergens so you can breathe fresh air. It’s designed to fit a wide range of vehicles. The Bosch Automotive Cabin Air Filter is efficient at trapping small particles with its electrostatic layer and it has an extra static cotton layer, too.
The structural ribs make it even more durable. It will prevent dust and dirt from entering your vehicle and meets all HEPA standards. You’ll even get an accurate chart that shows whether it fits your vehicle or not.
Because this filter has enhanced trapping abilities, the downside is that it can reduce airflow. It’s not a high-performance air filter.
Bosch HEPA Premium Cabin Air Filters are designed and tested to meet High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) standards based on test standard ASTM D2986, and provide filtration efficiency of 99.97% at 0.3 microns*.
Signs of a Dirty Cabin Air Filter
It’s usually pretty easy to tell if your cabin air filter needs to be changed, but here are some of the most common signs.
1. Poor airflow
On a hot summer day, you turn on your air conditioning, and it just doesn’t seem to be blowing. Poor airflow is one of the most common signs of a bad cabin air filter. If it’s dirty and clogged, nothing is going to be able to get through.
As it gets contaminated, the AC will have restricted airflow, causing the vents to blow with less force and reducing the overall cooling capacity of your system. This can also put a strain on your AC blower motor, causing it to go bad faster.
2. Bad odor from the vents
If your cabin air filter is incredibly dirty, the air that comes through it isn’t necessarily very clean either. It can cause a musty or dirty smell in the cabin when the air is turned on. It’s a small thing that can make the cabin very uncomfortable.
3. Increased fan noise
If your fan is working overtime to compensate for decreased airflow, you’re going to notice that noise. It’s going to be loud and annoying, and it’s not really going to improve the airflow either.
However, excessive noise can also be caused by large materials entering the air intake that the cabin filter can simply no longer catch because it’s full.
4. Poor defrost operation
Believe it or not, your defrost system is connected to your air conditioning. Turning on your defrost in the winter turns on your AC. Your windows fog up because the air outside is cold and the air inside your car is warm. When those two temperatures meet at your windshield, it causes condensation.
By cooling your windshield down to the temperature outside, your car can remove the condensation more effectively. But if your AC isn’t working properly, neither will your defrost. This could clue you in to your cabin air filter needing a change.
5. Health problems
Whether your allergies have been bothering you a lot more lately or you’ve had some extra trouble breathing and had to dig your inhaler out of storage, you may have noticed you’ve had some health problems you hadn’t dealt with in a couple of months.
It could simply be time to change your cabin air filter. If it’s no longer doing its job of filtering out allergens, you could be suffering from your daily commute to work, especially if you’re using a HEPA certified variety.
6. Reduced horsepower
Experts will argue the validity of this claim, but it’s worth mentioning. Part of the power your engine produces goes to your cooling system and its components. If it has to work harder to power a system that’s not working properly, you may notice a reduction in horsepower.
If the cabin filter is clogged, the HVAC system has to work harder, pulling more power from your engine to do so, stealing that power from other components like the drive train or the alternator.
That means your overall performance suffers when it’s time to change your cabin air filter.
Where to Buy
Cabin air filters are cheap and easy to find. You can get them anywhere you find auto parts. If you’re not scared to replace it yourself, you can get one online at an auto parts store like Auto Zone, Napa, or O’Reilly, or you can order it from Walmart or Amazon.
If you’d rather have someone install it for you, just take your car to the body shop or mechanic, or make an appointment with Walmart, Valvoline, Firestone, or anyone else near you who works on cars and they’ll order one and put it in.
Here are a few extra tips about your cabin’s air filter:
- Cleaning your vents frequently can help keep your ventilation system clean, especially during cold months. When cold air flows through your hot engine, moisture forms in areas where there is little ventilation. This causes mold growth. That’s where the musty smell comes from. If you clean your vents more often, you may be able to alleviate some of that.
- Replace your cabin air filter every 15,000 miles unless yours is rated for longer. If you have trouble remembering, put a reminder in your calendar, a sticky note on your windshield next to your oil change reminder, or wherever else you keep your car’s paperwork.
- If you’re replacing your cabin filter yourself, place a piece of cardboard underneath the filter before you slide it out. When you remove your filter, the dirt that has accumulated on it will fall on the cardboard and you’ll save yourself the work of having to clean it out of your ventilation system.
Question: Can I cut my air filter to fit in my car’s filter cabin?
Answer: Most air filters are designed to handle tons of airflow and they’re made to fit a specific space, although some say they’re a universal fit. Cutting them can weaken the structure and reduce their effectiveness, drastically reducing their life.
It’s best to get an air filter that’s made to fit your car.
Question: How do I wash reusable air filters?
Answer: If you have a reusable filter for your car, remove it and use soap and water to clean it. You can try a degreaser if the soap and water don’t seem to be getting it clean. Don’t be too rough or use abrasive materials because it could damage the filter.
Rub gently, rinse, and clean it again if needed. Shake the water off gently and let it air dry, then put it back in your car.
Question: What do I do if the airflow from my ventilation system is reducing over time?
Answer: When your cabin air filter gets dirty, it needs to be replaced if it’s disposable or cleaned if it’s reusable. It can’t filter air well it’s dirty because the dirt it has collected is blocking the flow of air.
Clean it and reinsert it or replace it with a new one and your ventilation system will work much better.
Question: How often should I change my cabin air filter?
Answer: You should change your cabin air filter every 15,000 miles unless the filter you are using says it lasts longer. Read your owner’s manual, check your manufacturer’s recommendations or ask a trusted mechanic.
Question: Do all cars come with a factory cabin air filter?
Answer: Cars didn’t always come with cabin air filters. Cars made before the year 2000 came with engine air filters, but not cabin air filters. However, European luxury cars built after 1980 had cabin air filters.
Most cars only have one cabin air filter, but luxury cars today may have as many as three cabin air filters.
Your cabin air filter is located under the base of your vehicle’s windshield. It could also be behind your glove box. If you can’t find it, you might not have one. Look at your owner’s manual or ask a mechanic to help you find it.
When it comes to cabin air filters, they’re more important than you think. They filter the air entering your cabin so you can breathe clean air. It’s a thankless job that you take for granted nearly every day.
They eliminate odors, get rid of allergens, and ensure that the ventilation system in your vehicle is working properly. When the cabin air filter in your car isn’t working right, you will know it almost immediately. A brand new one can make a huge difference.